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).
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.
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.
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 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.