The Significance of ‘Land’ - The Art of Otobong Nkanga

July 3, 2020

The liaison between the environment and politics has never been more obvious as it is in recent times. Almost every scholarly or journalistic text concerning the climate crisis points out the pervasive nature of capitalism and hunger for profit that causes more pollution across the globe. All the resources are equally endangered, however, it seems that soil unlike air and water still attracts most of the attention of the political elites not only for agricultural and architectural expansion but for symbolical maintenance of the (national) identity.

At the center of the artistic practice of the renowned Nigerian-born Belgian artist Otobong Nkanga lays this complex question that requires multidisciplinary dissection which this artist devotedly tends to achieve. She is best known for the citation and translation of the famous performance piece Baggage (1972) by Allan Kaprow, for which she shipped bags of sand from Antwerp to Lagos and vice versa, to expose the geopolitical and colonial aspects of the relationship between her two homes, Belgium and Nigeria. Nkanga perceives soil/land as a site of economic, social and ecological, contestation and conflict, and her multimedia works are a result of intensive research rooted in performativity, especially poetry and storytelling.

Furthermore, the artist proposes a new paradigm of the term land as a discursive and geological formation that goes beyond the physicality of soil, mapped territories, and earth.

The upcoming exhibition titled There’s No Such Thing as Solid Ground at Gropius Bau will articulate global systems of extraction and exploitation of flora, fauna, humans and natural resources (in this particular case minerals) with a series of durational installations, performance works, a new wall drawing and multi-channel sound piece.

Otobong Nkanga - Solid Maneuvers, 2015. Installation view Crumbling Through Powdery Air, Portikus, 2015. Photo: Helena Schlichting, courtesy: Portikus

Otobong Nkanga Responds To The Gropius Bau Program

Otobong Nkanga’s authentic approach responded perfectly to the themes concerning land, the Anthropocene, interspecies communication, global resources, conflict that are explored through the Gropius Bau exhibition program. In 2019 the artist was part of the museum’s artist residency when the idea about the exhibition was generated and further navigated by the curators Clara Meister and Stephanie Rosenthal, Director of the Gropius Bau, who stated the following:

Many of the artists we will work with over the coming years are deeply concerned with themes of care and repair, reflecting our time of ecological crisis and social turbulence. The Gropius Bau has its own troubled history. During the building’s renovation after the war, the marks of damage were not covered over but deliberately left visible, a reminder of the need to acknowledge trauma and find ways to look to the future. 

Left: Otobong Nkanga - Diaspore, 2014. Site-specific installation and performance 14 Rooms, Basel. Inkjet-printed topographical map laminated to the floor, Cestrum nocturnum, plant pots © Otobong Nkanga, photo: Wim van Dongen / Right: Otobong Nkanga, 2017. Belgian Art Prize Portrait with artwork In a Place Yet Unknown, 2017 © Otobong Nkanga, photo: Yannik Sas

The Works

The exhibition will start with the evolving installation called Taste of a Stone (2010-2020), an indoor garden crafted specifically for this historical gallery. Consisting of gravel and boulders appears serene, this artificial landscape tends to evoke the legacies of forced labor, geological finds, and crumbled earthly material where a series of lectures, workshops, and social encounters will take place.

The visitors will also be able to experience a performance-installation Diaspore (2014/2020) consisting of women of African heritage carrying potted Cestrum nocturnum (night-blooming jasmine); this piece will be focused on generating narratives concerning oral memory, ancestry, rootedness, abandonment, and black female presence.

On display will be the recomposed version of a multi-channel sound work Wetin You Go Do? Oya Na (2020) that critically examines power structures and fragility during difficult times; consisting of echoes, chants, polyphonic tones, and utterances in English and Nigerian, it functions as an homage to the acts of resilience, submission, and rebellion.

Nkanga’s installation Manifest of Strains (2018) that deals with environmental justice, collective rage, and technology will be featured as well. The same considers the western everyday luxuries in regards to the minerals they’re made from to reflects upon materialism, industrial exploitation, and the environmental impact mass industry has on African communities.

The final project to be presented will be the one called Carved to Flow, launched at documenta 14 (2017), that deals with the production of knowledge, communal production, and participation. Inspired by the African architecture, it will be located on the ground floor in the form of a workshop that results in the making and distribution of O8 Black Stone soap. This particular product consisting of nourishing oils and butter from Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean basin (all sites of current migrations) and charcoal (the remnant of organic matter that is carbonized in the absence of oxygen) will function as an amalgam of crisis, destruction, extraction, and mismanagement.

Otobong Nkanga - The Breath From Fertile Grounds, 2017. Wall drawing, acrylic, vinyl, wood, glass, peat, plants, acid water © Otobong Nkanga, photo: Kasia Kaminska

Otobong Nkanga at the Gropius Bau

The upcoming exhibition will also take into consideration the historical context of the location of Gropius Bau to pose questions concerning our relationship to the land in the time of global crisis, the notion of belonging, and borders. The visitors will have a unique chance to plunge into Nkanga’s projects and learn more about the urgency of caring and sharing practices that should move from merely anthropomorphic view to a more universal and all-encompassing agency of environmental and other species preservation.

Otobong Nkanga: There’s No Such Thing as Solid Ground will be on display at Gropius Bau in Berlin from 10 July until 13 December 2020

Studio Visit with Otobong Nkanga, Gropius Bau Artist in Residence

Featured image: Otobong Nkanga - The Breath From Fertile Grounds, 2017. Wall drawing, acrylic, vinyl, wood, glass, peat, plants, acid water © Otobong Nkanga, photo: Kasia Kaminska; Carved to Flow, 2017. Public program sessions, The Workstation, 2017 (collaboration with Evi Lachana and Maya Tounta), documenta 14, Athens © Otobong Nkanga, photo: Wim van Dongen. All images courtesy Gropius Bau.