Otobong Nkanga: To Dig a Hole That Collapses Again

Ahead of a survey opening at MCA Chicago, the Nigerian artist mines and represents narratives of place, from Antwerp to Lagos

BY Anna Martine Whitehead in Profiles | 26 MAR 18

Despite hundreds of years of the transatlantic slave trade, in 1870 just 10% of Africa was under European control; by 1914, only Ethiopia, Liberia and parts of modern-day Somalia remained independent. The near total colonization of the continent by Europe involved, to a great extent, the aggressive mapping and penetration of the land south of the Sahara – a history that continues to complicate contemporary questions around belonging, migration and citizenship. Nigerian-born, Antwerp-based artist Otobong Nkanga, whose exhibition ‘To Dig a Hole That Collapses Again’ opens this Saturday at the MCA Chicago, asks audiences to further consider how one’s connection to land informs a broader, though still personal cosmology. In her tapestries, paintings, installation and sculpture, Nkanga uses her body and other organic material – plants, grasses and fruit – as catalysts to reveal the shifting nature of objects, imagery, narratives. Her work frames ‘landscape’ as a flexible, discursive field; also, as an operative force in the construction of identity as well as a negotiable entity, affected by time and trauma.

Otobong Nkanga, Baggage 1972; 2007-2008: Meeting Point, Eleko Beach, Lagos, 2007-08, from ‘Baggage 1972; 2007-2008, a happening by Allan Kaprow re-invented by Otobong Nkanga’, 2007-08, photograph on postcard, 13 x 16 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Allan Kaprow Studio 

In 2007, Nkanga reworked Alan Krapow’s Baggage (1972), a performance piece in which Krapow transported bags of sand from Rice University in Houston, Texas, to a beach in Galveston, where he replaced the bags with sand from the Gulf Coast before returning them to the university. In Nkanga’s reimagining of Krapow’s piece, Baggage (2007–08), she extends the geopolitical and racialized implications of the work to address the relationship between her two homes, Belgium and Nigeria. For her own version, Nkanga shipped bags of sand from Antwerp down to Lagos, where bags of Nigerian sand were then sent back to Belgium. While the work emphasizes the fraught historical ties between Northern Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa, it also probes recent – and ongoing – experiences of displacement, indigeneity and human trafficking that persist on both continents.

Otobong Nkanga, Diaoptasia, 2015, film still. Courtesy: the artist  

Like Kaprow or land artist Robert Smithson, Nkanga is interested in humanity’s fluctuating relationship to land and place, which is, at turns, violent and restorative. In the painting Social Consequences II (2010), a disembodied arm stabs a tree shedding green leaves into the open palm of another unattached arm. In another painting from the ‘Social Consequences’ series, a figure adorned with polygons is poked with wooden sticks or metal spears, as if bodies were at once formed by and put at risk by inhuman elements. These shapes resemble cut stones and precious minerals, and their presence transforms the body into something elemental. In the performance Diaoptasia (2015), first presented at the Tate Modern in London, Nkanga, wearing an assemblage of paper polygons, skewers her own costume at random while singing, ‘As I tanda so, my eye dey torchlight una for North.’ (In Nigerian pidgin, ‘From I stand, my eye will send a light to you in the North.’ In other words, I am a geographical place – which is South – and which is looking at you.) In Diaoptasia, language is skewered by pidgin English, from the artist’s lyrics to the work’s title, which becomes a hacked and jerry-rigged instrument that reforms and reinforces its meaning. Nkanga steps into such violence, the violence of words, dresses herself in it, operates it as a kind of prosthetic, and lets it take shape inside her mouth in the form of song.

Like Smithson, Kaprow, Carl Andre and other artists similarly engaged with nature, Nkanga addresses the ways the artist can change earth into something else. While, for Andre, sculpting wood and stone into minimalist lines is a continuation of a long-held positivist tradition of the human power to change material, critic Philippe Pirotte notes that Nkanga evades the drive to ‘make a new product out of [resources].’ Instead, she is much more interested in the way natural resources transform us.

Otobong Nkanga, A Taste of Stone I - II (detail), 2010, installation view, Nottingham Contemporary. Courtesy: the artist 

For example, in A Taste of Stone I – II (2010), the artist filled one of Nottingham Contemporary’s galleries with images of stones printed onto limestone and set atop table legs, accompanied by two placards, which together form a fragmented narrative. One uses images – a body, a map, a landscape – while the other uses text to tell a piece of a story addressing recurring themes in Nkanga’s work (land demarcation, fear, memento, etc.). The installation refers to didactic spaces such as the MINES ParisTech’s Museum of Minerology in France, with a key difference: there, actual stones and minerals are placed inside vitrines as a way to make clear ‘the beauty and diversity of these mineral treasures’ that compose the school’s field of study. Nkanga’s limestone prints of rocks, on the other hand, flatten stone’s visual imprint while refusing scientific understanding through the use of placards: Instead of objective description of resources, the installation makes use of the stones as part of a phenomenological narrative. In an adjacent gallery, heaps of gravel spread across the gallery, with large stones placed throughout, form an immersive, overwhelming landscape. In it, one feels the sound, feel, and story of rock.

Otobong Nkanga, The Contained Measures of the Kola Nut (detail), 2010–ongoing, performance documentation, UC Botanical Garden, Berkeley, 2016. Courtesy: the artist

Nkanga’s practice can be viewed in dialogue with Ana Mendieta, whose work likewise acknowledged the earth’s impact on her body even as she transformed the earth around her, particularly in her ‘Silueta Series’ (1973–80). In The Contained Measures of the Kola Nut (2010–ongoing), Nkanga sits next to a table lined with images of folk and corporate uses of the nut, its cultivation and historical significance. During the performance, visitors are encouraged to individually approach a small table of kola nuts, where they may choose an image card and a nut, which Nkanga slices in the traditional way in order for it to be shared. As both visitor and Nkanga nibble at the nut, she tells a story related to the chosen image. In this way, the work weaves together modalities of experience, including oral, ritual, intellectual understandings of space and place, as well as shared experiences between Nkanga and the participant. For Nkanga, it is a work of endurance. The work is impossible without her participation in it, but it is equally impossible without the kola nut, which becomes, as Pirotte notes, a vehicle for delivering an intimate and integrated experience between artist and viewer.

Otobong Nkanga, Taste of a Stone III, 2010, installation view, Nottingham Contemporary. Courtesy: the artist

In her book Braiding Sweetgrass (2013), environmentalist and writer Robin Wall Kimmerer describes her experience as both a biologist and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation in terms of a pilgrimage: ‘Beneath the richness of [scientific] vocabulary and its descriptive power, something is missing, the same something that swells around you and in you when you listen to the world.’ Like Kimmerer, Nkanga grabs that swelling something, and attempts to describe it – in the pidgin song next to the colonizer’s map, in objects, in performance – and thereby allows it to unfold around her – and us.

Otobong Nkanga, ‘To Dig a Hole That Collapses Again’ runs at the MCA Chicago from 31 March – 2 Spetember.

Anna Martine Whitehead is an artist and writer based in Chicago, USA.