The Elemental Pull of Otobong Nkanga

The artist’s debut solo exhibition at Lisson Gallery in London features a compelling mix of objects, tapestries and installations, creating ritualistic compositions from an array of material

BY Vaishna Surjid in Exhibition Reviews | 17 JUN 24

What does it mean to smoulder, crack open and emerge from the ashes? Such elemental and existential questions preoccupy Nigerian artist Otobong Nkanga, whose inaugural solo show at Lisson Gallery contains objects, tapestries and sound installations that unite disparate materials into ritualistic compositions. 

Otobong Nkanga
Otobong Nkanga, We Come from Fire and Return to Fire, 2024, hand tufted carpet, glazed and smoked raku ceramic, obsidian, shungite, tourmaline, labradorite, handmade rope, metal connectors, Murano glass with black palm kernel oil and palm oil, 7.2 × 2.7 × 3.4 m. Courtesy: the artist and Lisson Gallery

In the show’s titular work, We Come from Fire and Return to Fire (2024), a heavy hand-braided rope clamped with iridescent, smoked-raku ceramic beads snakes around precious stones on a hand-tufted carpet, reaching up to the skylight. The careful arrangement is at once imposing and enticing: I have to resist the urge to lie on the rug and absorb the energy of the obsidian, tourmaline and labradorite. The carpet’s design was inspired by the constituent minerals of pyrargyrite: pyr and argyros being Ancient Greek for, respectively, fire and silver. The amorphous rug contains psychedelic colours and patterns; black lines slice through layered shades of purple peppered with spores of red and cobalt.

Towers of ceramic punctuate the gallery space, emerging from the floor like the burnt trunks of palm trees. One, Beacon – Resilience (2024), stands 1.6 metres tall – an ambitious height for cast-ceramic. Circular pots containing medicinal herbs like nettle, thyme and ‘herb-of-grace’ appear around the bases of these scorched trees as reminders of the former healing qualities of this ceramic forest, and of its vitality and regenerative potential. 

Otobong Nkanga
Otobong Nkanga, Between Embers and Ashes, 2024, woven textile with hand stitching, 1.6 × 3.4 m. Courtesy: the artist and Lisson Gallery 

Hanging on an adjacent wall is Sunburst (2024), one of two larger woven textile works. Historically, tapestries often documented significant religious or political events; in contrast, Nkanga eschews narrative and scatters abstract clues across the works. Take the fiery copper Between Embers and Ashes (2024), which extends more than 3.5 metres in length. Tree branches reach out across the surface; fungal shapes bloom at the bottom while small orbs of colour are dotted across like little celestial bodies. These motifs are rich and chaotic. Both wall hangings consist of four layers – or floats – which the artist weaves between to illuminate some elements and carefully conceal others. These works feel sacred, pulsating with mystical energy.

Scattered between these larger sculptural and woven pieces is a selection of delicate small-scale acrylic, drypoint and aquatint works on paper, such as Afflicted (2024), and sculptural threads comprised of more hand-braided ropes, bespoke glass vessels and precious stones, including Silent Anchor III (2024). Seeing such a varied and accomplished practice spanning so many scales, surfaces and mediums is remarkable. Yet, while these peripheral sculptures pick up the motifs found in compositions like We Come from Fire and Return to Fire, they don’t quite match their impact in the space.

Otobong Nkanga
Otobong Nkanga, Confluence - Afterglow (detail), 2024, metal pole with base, ceramic pieces, ceramic bases, pipe insulation and metal ballast, 1.5 × 2 × 2 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Lisson Gallery 

The most striking moment, however, is found deep in the belly of the show: the audio installation Wetin You Go Do? Oya Na (2020), in which a voice asks, in Nigerian pidgin English: ‘What are you going to do?’ In this room, the walls are the red of a blaring siren, bright and alarming. The sound slaps you from every direction, blasting from six speakers. The first iteration of this piece was created in 2015, when climate protests and media noise around the UK’s impending Brexit vote prompted the artist to ask herself the titular question. Here, multiple characters – including a politician, a drunkard and Mother Earth, all voiced by Nkanga – chant and sing in a spectacle where there is nothing to see but red. As the voices overlap and harmonise, building to a crescendo, the effect is one of ritual. Nkanga’s voice is overwhelming and empowering: a fitting conclusion to a fiery show.

Otobong Nkanga’s ‘We Come from Fire and Return to Fire’ is at Lisson Gallery, London, until 3 August 

Main image: Otobong Nkanga, Wetin You Go Do? Oya Na, 2020, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Lisson Gallery 

Vaishna Surjid is a writer and curator based in London.