Nnena Kalu creates organic forms for ‘elsewhere’ on show at Studio Voltaire, London

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Following a series of successful exhibitions in Glasgow and Hull, artist Nnena Kalu, as part of Studio Voltaire’s elsewhere series, exhibits four sculptures that both mark a pivotal moment in her career, and point to a major breakthrough for artists with autism. Nnena is supported by Action Space, a leading arts organisation supporting artists with learning disabilities. Review by James Zatka-Haas.

photo of sculpture installation

Nnena Kalu 2020. Commissioned by Studio Voltaire in partnership with ActionSpace. Credit Francis Ware

Four large sculptures occupy the ground floor gallery, concrete walled, with large rectangular windows looking out into Old Burlington Street, a stone throw from The Royal Academy. The sculptures, or islands, are built out of an array of multi-colored materials of Nnena’s choosing. Solid shapes emerge entangled, some bursting out of their particular timber armatures, others sitting firmly in their structures. The colours and threads of the constituent parts – a mix of black vhs tape, yellow cellophane and coloured tape – explode outwards, overlapping one another, growing like some sort of organism, seemingly forever.

Each of these islands is comprised of small boulders, individual ‘cocoons’, each made up of layers of tape, cellophane, paper and pipe – forming both the sculpture’s dominant form and its connective tissue. The overall shapes don’t appear to be intricately worked out, nor do they appear, as it were, thrown together, instead they exist as a series of organic forms, oscillating somewhere between the making and the made.

photo of sculpture installation

Nnena Kalu 2020. Commissioned by Studio Voltaire in partnership with ActionSpace. Credit Francis Ware

That distinction is central to Nnena’s practice, because on Thursdays and Saturdays throughout the exhibition, she makes her additions, effectively distorting the space as she chooses. She may add to these sculptures, take bits away, mould, warp or twist them to her own intuitive understanding.

Seeing her at play, watching her physically interact with the sculptures, exemplifies the extraordinary artistic labour prevalent throughout the work. When I visited her recently, she was, with great intensity, wrapping a long snake-like length of black tube in multiple layers of yellow cellophane that had only a few days previously remained untouched. The transformational process is remarkable, and this astute grasp of the materials; their particular properties, how they interact and govern certain spaces and shapes, points to a defined and well nurtured creative authority, a self-confidence in a particular mode of working that she can call her own.

It was fascinating as well to note the speed at which she works. Charlotte Hollinshead, Nnena’s Artist facilitator, told me that the materials are set up in a way which is easy for Nnena to access, allowing her to make quick intuitive decisions on what to do next. For the setup, a series of wooden pegs house multiple rolls of masking tape, cardboard boxes brim with Nnena’s pre-made cocoons and shapes and an industrial size tube of cellophane sits on a roller from which she can take from at will.  It’s important to note that all creative decisions have been made by Nnena, and Charlotte, who has refined a relationship with her over a 20 year period, assists with both Nnena’s verbal communication and the gathering of her chosen materials.

Her work is not about creating a narrative and should not – as best we can achieve – be thought of in an interpretive manner. She builds visual sculptures.This lack of conceptual order provides the basis for appreciation because attaching any kind of narrative to her work loses weight once you experience the liveliness in her approach. The meaning of her work is that it seems forever in situ, always changing, developing, moulding to her moods and impressions, and within this approach lies a unique and vital form of creativity.

In the accompanying text for the exhibition, at the top, Nnena is described simply as an artist, not an artist….who has a learning disability nor an artist….with autism, but an artist – one who makes work that is both contemporary and challenging, skillful enough to sit in the same exhibition series as Dawn Mellor and Phyllida Barlow, the two other internationally renowned artists exhibiting for elsewhere. Her learning disability is mentioned later on in the text, in context with Action Space, because they have been supporting her and other artists for many years now, and it’s vital that larger organisations recognise that. But for Studio Voltaire to offer this kind of Mayfair gallery to an artist who may have otherwise been placed on the margins, or labelled as Outsider, seems like a monumental step in a new direction.


Nnena Kalu will be exhibiting at the Studio Voltaire gallery, located at 30 Old Burlington Street, until the 28th March 2020. She will be present, on Thursday and Saturday each week throughout.