The first ever US survey show of the artist’s works reveals the complexities within our present and the legacies of colonialism.
Art Radar takes a look at the ongoing Otobong Nkanga’s exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.
Nigerian-born artist Otobong Nkanga uses the town of Tsumeb, Namibia, as the starting point for her first museum survey exhibition in the USA. The former mining town is about a hundred years old, founded in 1905 by German colonialists. Tsumeb’s greatest prize was its bountiful copper and mineral deposits; colonial powers wasted no time in building railways, machinery, and infrastructure that supported the extraction of these plentiful resources from the Namibian soil.
Nkanga visited Tsumeb some years ago, and was struck by the numerous cavities that dotted the landscape. The excavation and extraction of the resources from African land had left an indelible mark that cannot be easily washed away. This flow of resources, goods, and trade is more than the result of mere economic transactions: for Nkanga, it provides a window into how we create our societies, identities and beliefs. Her latest exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, “To Dig a Hole that Collapses Again” is a careful look at the ties that have bound — and still bind — Africa to the Western-centric powers of the world. She charts the steady progress between the materials found in African ground, mapping their transformation into flashy consumer products that stock shelves all over the world.
Nkanga’s practice picks up these post-colonial discourses with a determined focus; over the course of her nearly two-decade career, she has developed a multi-disciplinary practice that encompasses drawing, painting, sculpture, installation and performance. One of her more extensive projects, Contained Measures of a Kolanut (2012), saw the artist delving into the library of the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development, Paris, researching the trails and travails of the kolanut, a fruit native to the tropical rainforests of Africa. In her performance, Nkanga invites participants to eat the kolanut with her, whilst she tells stories about the process of her research and her relationship with Africa. Nkanga graduated from the Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria, and the École Superieure des Beaux-Arts in France, and has since shown in venues such as dOCUMENTA 14, Tate, and Stedelijk Museum.
In “To Dig a Hole that Collapses Again”, Nkanga’s work traces the dispersion of natural resources such as mica — a mineral used in cosmetics, industrial building materials, and other substances. Glittery, shiny and highly reflective, this pigment acts almost as a metaphor for the thesis of her exhibition. Once hard to come by in Europe, supply of mica increased rapidly once stores of mica were found and developed in Africa; the shiny material is found in ubiquity in almost every corner of the globe today. Nkanga uses the passage of mica from Africa to other geographies as a means of revealing how easy it is to be distracted from the underpinnings of supply-chain logistics that dog the production of every single consumer product. In the installation In Pursuit of Bling, she charts out the path of mica from the ground into cosmetic products — consumers are too enamoured with the final appearance of mica: colourful, scintillating and enchanting, the exploitation of both natural and human resources are masked behind these properties, allowing us to ignore the means that it took for it to come into being.
Visualising the real efforts of production is a constant theme in Nkanga’s first survey in the United States. Perhaps it is no less than appropriate, and timely, that her exhibition is on show: the country has constantly been accused of buy-and-throw-away consumerism, blatant disregard for environmental issues, and rampant capitalism. Movements such as zero-waste and minimalism lifestyles are preoccupied with mindfully living on less. In Delta Stories (2005-2006), Nkanga brings a new perspective to these issues. Nkanga presents images of the Nigerian delta, known for their oil deposits, alongside images of ghostly, bloodied hands. Her work reminds us of the narratives that are hugely underrepresented, coaxing us into seeing the violence and bloodshed that these systems have inflicted on communities in Africa.
These reminders of how interconnected our lives are with the resources extracted from Africa are scattered throughout the show. One of the most significant works, Anamnesis (2018), is a stream of spices, such as cardamom, cumin, pepper and cloves. The smell of these spices are overpowering: collectively, these common spices make their way around the world from their original place of harvest. The work winds its way around the gallery of the exhibition, mimicking the journey that these everyday ingredients take.
Yet, rather than merely reconstructing the path of the products that fuel capitalist consumerism, Nkanga’s works provide tantalising clues as to what she wants us to gain out of our understanding of the origins of our goods. In Social Consequences (2009), Nkanga devotes large canvases to depicting human figures with a twist: Social Consequences I: Crisis shows two human figures, tied to floating islands that are suspended in between them. Nkanga’s work is ambiguous: it remains to be seen if the figures are playing tug-of-war with the islands, or if they are purposefully working together to hold up the two floating islands. Either way, the work seems to hint at how interconnected land and communities are. In Social Consequences IV: Avaritia, a girl stands in the centre of the portrait, holding up a wheel with different geographical topologies depicted across them.
Nkanga’s work provides a deep insight into an often not-talked-about aspect of the global trade flows. Her work is provocative, and asks us to inspect our own role in these larger systems. Unfolding, unpacking, and making sense of these anthropologies, Nkanga’s varied visual vocabulary pierces the sheen and gloss of the goods that continue to captivate us, whilst infusing the exhibition with her own powerful, personal background and experiences. In lifting the shine on these seductive objects, Nkanga’s own work comes to light, bringing with it new perspectives on our world today.
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