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If Black Panther’s Wakanda would have an artist residency program, Otobong Nkanga would be its ideal resident artist. Her solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, titled To Dig a Hole that Collapses Again, was worth the weekend trip alone.

It is difficult where to start, so versatile is Nkanga’s use of different media: tapestries, sculptural installation, watercolours, paintings and prints; often several media in the same work.

A strong exotic scent lingers. This turns out to come from the largest work of the exhibition, Anamnesis, an intervention in the architectural structure of the room. A white dividing wall is hollowed out through the middle in a curved shape, filled with products commonly imported to Chicago, such as coffee, tobacco, tea, and spices. We are transported straight to Africa, with its strong earthy scents, its associations of natural riches and the feel of moist, fragrant soil.

Stylistically, the work is minimalist, with its emphasis on shape and line and use of a limited colour palette. But this is minimalism with soul, the warmth and richness of Africa bursting through the seams, the shape of the earth mimicking the shape of rivers (and, cleverly, the graphs of economic markets).

Anamnesis, c offee, tea, peat, tobacco, cacao, spices; dimensions variable. Installation view, MCA Chicago, photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

Anamnesis, coffee, tea, peat, tobacco, cacao, spices; dimensions variable. Installation view, MCA Chicago, photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

What is contained cannot always be tamed. This is a spiritual shrine to Africa if there ever was one. But there are darker themes in Nkanga’s work. Why don’t you grow where we come from? is a woven textile- hanging on which are stitched and glued photographs, ink-jet print, viscose, cashmere, wool, mohair and bio cotton: an incredible and original selection of materials.

Why don’t you grow where we come from?  Woven textile, photographs, ink-jet print, viscose, cashmere, wool, mohair, bio cotton, and laser-cut Forex plate.

Why don’t you grow where we come from? Woven textile, photographs, ink-jet print, viscose, cashmere, wool, mohair, bio cotton, and laser-cut Forex plate.

Two women hold Baobab trees, their faces connected to a vegetated landscape. The branches of the trees are artificially extended and carried somewhere else; the title suggests that the girls do not recognize their native species. The pose of their bodies suggests this too: puzzled, startled, full of wonder. On closer look their limbs also have artificial extensions. This is an image that Nkanga constantly comes back to, as if to say that not only the resources of Africa are contested, but its (black) bodies too.

Nkanga’s people are always interacting with the earth and with their surrounding territories. Yet they make us uneasy. The title Why don’t you grow where we come from? hints at a desire for ‘the other’ but at the same time, for the possession of others.

In a wall-sized tapestry, The Weight of Scars, two male figures, their upper torsos replaced by a selection of limbs in muted colours, hold on to a network linking photographs of sites in Namibia. Nkanga often uses photography to document landscapes that have been irrevocably altered, linking them together as a way of mapping. It is as if she wants to illustrate the play of forces raging on the world’s stage.

The Weight of Scars,  woven textile, photographs, yarns (viscose, bast, mohair, polyester, bio cotton, linen, and acrylic), and ink-jet prints on ten laser-cut Forex plates. 

The Weight of Scars, woven textile, photographs, yarns (viscose, bast, mohair, polyester, bio cotton, linen, and acrylic), and ink-jet prints on ten laser-cut Forex plates. 

This is much more than nostalgia for Africa. Nkanga's work suggests the broader impact and metaphoric scars caused by the capitalist exploitation of the land. Her art is like an abstracted model of our economic relations, to which the artist adds humanity and pathos. The indigenous objects from Namibia are mapped out almost scientifically, but the structures also look like molecules, something altogether more human.

The Apprentice  and  The Embrace , acrylic and stickers on paper

The Apprentice and The Embrace, acrylic and stickers on paper

The ambiguity in Nkanga's bodies and in her use of contrasting visual clues is also apparent in The Apprentice. A woman tentatively moves forward, followed closely by another woman. Is she the apprentice? Are they navigating a network, the economic channels of production? The two women enter the ring, but something tells us there is no winner in this fight.

Other works are hopeful. In The Embrace, love sprouts from the barren land, and rich and vibrant colours merge from the brown earth (curiously re-appearing in the left corner). Like her artworks, the world is complex, and Nkanga does not offer a solution. But alerting and awakening is where recovery starts. 

The plundering of Africa’s resources is not a new theme, yet to see it explored artistically, and in such poetic works, is a true eye-opener. By focusing on the treasures rather than on the culprits, Nkanga succeeds in linking her message to a deeper consciousness, appealing to a universal desire for the beauty of nature.

Reading the countless rave reviews of the Black Panther movie, I remember one that was especially powerful. A New York Times reviewer (his name has unfortunately escaped me) related how, feeling completely energized after watching the film, a black moviegoer called out: “Wow! This is how white people must feel all the time!” Nkanga’s work poignantly reminds us of that white privilege, of what it feels like to be in charge of resources. But more so, it calls to people of all colour. It reminds us what the world as a whole stands to lose if we do not care for it.

Both the beauty of Wakanda and the poetry in Otobong Nkanga's work celebrate the natural riches that humanity has been entrusted with. It encourages us to keep striving, so future generations will not look back and regret, but look forward and embrace. So we can all smell, see, hear, taste and touch the soft earth of Africa, revived by the wet rain, warmed by the sun.

Otobong Nkanga, To Dig A Hole That Collapses Again, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, until 2nd September 2018. Otobong Nkanga was born in Nigeria and is now based in Antwerp.

'Digital Natives': Vivien Zhang and Santiago Pinyol

Whilst Frieze dominates the London art world this week, it is important not to forget the art that is happening in London’s smaller galleries. Two interesting shows, one in London and one in Houston, deal with the questions we face in a digital age. In a time where people spend up to 10 hours per day looking at screens, it is not surprising that the screen is becoming a focus for artists’ formal and conceptual exploration.

London’s The Ryder, the exciting art project space run by Pati Lara, is showing two young artists, Thomas van Linge and Vivien Zhang, in a show called Digital Natives. Whereas the work by Van Linge is sleek, uplifting and playful, Zhang is the artist who really delves into the digital. Zhang has only just graduated from London’s Royal College of Art, but already her paintings are showing great depth and intelligence.

As a starting point for her paintings in oil and spray paint, Zhang uses a single motif that she repeats. She has a special affinity for the mathematical shape gömböc, African furniture from her childhood and crumpled aluminum. But interestingly, she does not use these symbols to convey meaning; she uses them instead as contemporary characters, alive in a digital fairytaleworld.

Vivien Zhang,  Contra Prunus,  2017. Oil and spray paint on canvas, 140 x 160 cm. Courtesy The Ryder

Vivien Zhang, Contra Prunus, 2017. Oil and spray paint on canvas, 140 x 160 cm. Courtesy The Ryder

In Contra Prunus the symbol is the prune, inspired by the paintings of Italian artist Carlo Crivelli (Zhang just finished a residency at the British School in Rome). Various golden prunes are dispersed over a coloured, geometric background that resembles Persian carpets (Zhang's gömböc symbols). The image defies all painterly logic. There is no foreground or background, no perspective and a myriad of painting styles. The prunes are perfectly formed as if taken from a 17th century still life bowl. They float over, behind and inside the pattern, which itself seems superimposed on another background, light-grey with swirls of paint floating on it. And to add further confusion to our perceptive sense, there are three hand symbols, taken from the Photoshop program.

This really should not work. But the strength of Zhang is that her paintings are strangely compelling. You feel drawn into her world, as if you are sucked into a computer and allowed to take a fantasy ride through its algorithms and digi-bytes. Zhang’s world is refreshingly free of ambiguity; narration and representation make way for a new language. In her own words: “(t)he juxtaposition and layering of motifs in my work often follow algorithms found in digital imaging tools – a process by-product of our ways of reading and engagement with visual material today”.

Importantly for Zhang, her painting language corresponds to new hierarchies and relationships that exist in our trans-border society. Having grown up in China, Kenya and Thailand, Zhang can see beyond our current polarities and fixations on borders. She finds the equivalent to a better society in the realms of the digital.

In Houston, another ‘digital native’ caught my attention. Guerrero Projects – a brand new Houston art space opened in 2016 and showing mainly Latin American artists – is showing work by Columbian artist Santiago Pyniol in a show titled Screaming at the Screen. Pinyol’s works are all literally screens: instead of a canvas Pinyol uses shop-bought A4 sized frames, which he installs in grid-like formations. The transparent backgrounds are marked with clear geometric shapes executed in black and white, or in bright-coloured enamel.

Santiago Pinyol,  Mood Board

Santiago Pinyol, Mood Board

Mood board is a three-by-three panel grid of plexiglass screens; each screen displays a symbol derived from computer programs such as InDesign. There is the loading icon, the symbol for a virus, a backslash, and, in a playful touch, the mouse is represented as a mouse hole. In themselves, these symbols are simple, plain even. But put together and delineated by the panels’ gold frames, the work takes on a more monumental quality. There is a reference to stained glass, with the total arrangement of panels in Mood Board roughly equivalent to the size of a church window.

Santiago Pinyol.  H  istory of the Screen 1 and 2

Santiago Pinyol. History of the Screen 1 and 2

But the iconography of Mood Board is all but traditional: it is the religion of our computers. To see something that is usually glanced over quickly on a screen hung in this way on a gallery wall really plays with our preconceived ideas about the distinction that exists between ‘computer symbols’ and ‘art’. It is almost difficult to look slowly at this work, to leave the associations we have with these symbols and consider them in a new light, as artistic shapes in a larger composition.

The connection between screens and windows is even stronger in History of the Screen 1 and 2, where two panels are displayed in a corner composition. Pinyol deliberately plays around with his screen compositions, to emphasize their interchangeability and allow the viewer of the work the same freedom that exists when maneuvering a computer screen. Pinyol does make a distinction between ‘art’ and ‘design’ – to him they are both valid as art forms.

Like Zhang, Pyniol is an artist who makes imaginative use of our contemporary digital language as a material for art and as a means to explore our world. But where Zhang’s works are two-dimensional, Pinyol treats his frames as objects, thus forming a type of semi-sculptures out of the flatness of the screen. In History of the Screen 1 and 2, light is beautifully reflected giving the work a serene feel. These screens are, like digital screens, a window to an infinite world of information, connectivity and knowledge.

Santiago Pinyol’s large, window-sized work in the back room of the gallery consists of twelve transparent panels, each consisting of a blue cross. It is called F.O.M.O.: fear of missing out. This may well be the malaise of our times, where everyone else’s life appears like a shiny compilation of beautiful beaches, crazy parties, high-flying careers and photogenic children. But it also captures our digital world, where to be connected, is to be alive. We need to look to young artists, our ‘digital natives’, to rejuvenate the language of art, and at the same time offer a meta-commentary on our existence in the digital age

Santiago Pinyol,  F.O.M.O.

Santiago Pinyol, F.O.M.O.