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Solid states

Updated: Jul 21, 2020

Otobong Nkanga explores the contested social and political histories of colonialism through performance, drawing, photography, and installation. Sophie McKinnon reports back from Chicago.

Otobong Nkanga: To Dig a Hole that Collapses Again

Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

31 March - 2 September 2, 2018

From headphones slung low around a small barrier, a woman’s voice speaks in a calm, even rhythm. ‘I am like you, but not quite like you. We look similar, we are almost the same. I crown you.’ The sound accompanies images on a screen angled at ankle height, in which Nkanga stands − her face obscured by shadow and wearing a conical copper headpiece − on what look to be European street corners and intersections, gilded-roofed buildings and copper parapets just behind her as cars flash past.

Nkanga, Nigerian born but now living and working in Belgium, performs the piece. Her words are connected to a first-person experience of materials and precious metals mined from the soil of one nation only to be ripped from any association with it, and used to enhance colonial victories. They also evoke the curious sadness of being other, being something else, and being forgotten. Her vocal register is so warm, open, self-assured, and soothing that you feel you are being spoken to by a mother or aunt, someone deeply familiar to you, but not you. It is disarming in this way, and the rest of Otobong Nkanga’s solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, To Dig a Hole that Collapses Again, maintains this tone.

Domestic-sized carpets threaded in teal, orange, grey, silver, and black depict floating sections of maps, spheres, cones, and diamonds, and cross-sections of diagrammatic figure renderings − stylised blueprints of division and conquest. Rounded discs stack and intersect like tectonic plates, while connecting lines create arbitrary borders. Maps and mapping, which in art often yield heavy-handed references to place and region are here much more corporeal. The earth is mapped in fine lines that cut through bodies − slicing, bisecting, and dislocating. Indeed, one small work on paper shows arms with scythes and blades for hands − one part human and laborious, another mechanical and devastating.

The cleanness of the exhibition is particularly striking, with its sharp lines, sculptural interventions with highly finished surfaces, hard edges, and neat configuration. Nkanga has made frequent mention of her predisposition towards natural materials such as mica, used in commercial makeup to give shimmer and shine while disguising its mineral origin.

One tapestry, In a Place Yet Unknown (2017), hangs vertical over a metal trough of ink, bearing a woven and clearly legible poem with cross-outs, misspellings, and edits included, read downward until the letters muddy – ‘Visible traces melt away, that which was solid, flaking aching, so many raging’ – as the ink is absorbed from the tray, a gradual process of osmosis and erasure. The murky areas of territorial dispute, the legacy of colonial actions, and the violence of ignorance, complacency, and counterfactual histories that are still perpetrated are deeply complicated and ragged at the edges. Like the dulcet tones of a dissonant voice drifting through headphones, these issues are not tidy nor can they be squared away or demarcated. Nkanga has achieved with her work a resting space of quietude − not of silence, but of thoughtful, critical statements that are subtle but searing. Her materials, the very basis of her critique of material economies, are still raw, but made to feel close, consumable, and accessible.

The marbled squares of black soap, introduced by the artist in a short video before entering the gallery, fill the room with the scent of olive oil and shea butter. The soap is cut through with ribbons of charcoal, and has a silky, oily scent that hangs heavy in the air. These elements she explains, are nourishing, but they are taken − literally − from areas that do not benefit from their richness, in order to ‘feed’ those who need it less. Performers explain the soap, its construction and provenance. In a further twist, the bars are for sale during the timeframe of the performance only, for US$25, so that gallery goers can take home an expensive luxury item steeped in colonial exploitation. The profits go to a foundation created by the artist to benefit and educate the communities where the products are derived, which aims to challenge the ‘take, make, dispose’ pattern.

Environmental justice art is not new, and neither is work that serves as an indictment on the truths and mistruths of economic power, systematic exploitation, and dominant historical narratives. Perhaps intentionally, her full-wall piece Anamnesis (2018), a site-specific installation compounded of coffee, tobacco, cacao and spices (some of Chicago’s highest-volume imports) packed into a rising/falling recess in the wall, bears a striking resemblance to the Occupy Museums installation at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, which critiqued the art economy by mimicking the stock exchange. The title itself refers to a state of remembering, of recalling an origin or a previous existence. Nkanga manages to occupy multiple territories masterfully. She is both present and removed, a participant and a voyeur. 'To Dig a Hole that Collapses Again' (taken from the name of a Namibian village) is a collective act of both implication and invitation.

First published ArtZone #75


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