May 16, 2018 – January 30, 2019
In the lobby of 125 Maiden Lane, Jebila Okongwu: Manhattan Office, includes a presentation of selections from three bodies of work from 2015 - 2018. Principally known for his prodigious use of cardboard banana boxes (whose global trade retraces historic slave trade routes), Okongwu seeks to destabilize the exoticization of 'the other' and undermine Western narratives. Okongwu's work often balances seemingly opposite dualities: high and low brow references, materials like disposable cardboard and cast bronze, sculptural and functional objects. It also synthesizes his heritage with his academic training, fusing Igbo tribal sculpture with Anglo-European traditions of an art education in Melbourne, Australia and the materials and techniques of Rome, where he lives. The centerpiece of the exhibition, Banana Box Cocktail Table, on view here for the first time, mimics ubiquitous corporate-modernist office lobby furniture and presents banana boxes encased in a slick glass and bronze cocktail table cast from stitched together pieces of cardboard. This work highlights the gulf between the wealth of the corporate world and the struggle of laborers who keep it running as a reflection of the broader exploitation of the developing world. Two works from Okongwu's Divination series, installed flanking the cocktail table, are composed of intricately collaged banana boxes. The artist employs a chance-based system to make the works, relinquishing control over the pattern of the collage and recalling the processes of the shaman and traditional African ritual. Also on view, Banana Sculpture No. 17 is a monumental presentation of two mirrored bananas sculpted from cardboard. Their scale recalls heroic statues, while the material is ephemeral, fragile, and more commonly seen on the street than in a gallery. The wedding of these disparate points of view offers a tidy summary of Okongwu's work in general, using dark humor and accessible materials to offer a subversive take on institutions built on disempowerment and assumptions about black masculinity.