• Review

  • May 9th, 2018 05.09.2018

    Glimmer and Shine: Otobong Nkanga


    We are a carbon-based life form, as the scientists say, but how a human body could turn to diamond I do not know, unless through some spiritual factor, perhaps the result of genuinely endless suffering. —Ursala K. Le Guin, The Island of Immortals

    Diamonds—like most precious minerals—are brought to the surface of the Earth quietly, yet (their process of extraction and sale) are boomingly loud. In the communities affected by global mineral excavation and trade, ruins of the land and aftershocks of colonial rule remain. Amongst those wearing the diamonds, walking through the gates of the lustered buildings, the sounds of afar are unheard. These invisible connections, and topographic mappings, of the shiny material economy are the foundation of the Nigerian artist Otobong Nkanga’s first exhibition in the United States, entitled To Dig A Hole That Collapses Again, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

    “Shine and luster tend to block the view of things, while at the same time inviting fetishistic adherence,” writes the editorial team at e—flux.1 This notion of shine and its ability to distract, while simultaneously embodying the unseen labor that produces this quality, is flipped within Nkanga’s show; the labor is exposed, but the glimmer still gleams. In Pursuit of Bling (2014) centers itself, conceptually tying the show and physically being the first piece to encounter as one walks through the exhibition doors.

    Otobong Nkanga In Pursuit of Bling, 2014 Joint purchase of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam and the Musem Arnhem, with the generous support of the Vereniging Rembrandt, thanks to its Titus Fonds, and he Mondriaan Fund Photo: Eva Broekema

    Small tables that act as pedestals carry images and minerals—specifically the mineral mica—surrounding a tapestry. Mica, etymologically closely related to the Latin micare, meaning to glitter, is a closely related group of minerals found in a plethora of consumer products. When ground and wet, mica gleams: it is added to the paint used on cars, the dye in latex balloons, and the blush applied on cheeks. In Pursuit of Bling places mica in a holy position: floating in its pure elemental form, or otherwise embedded in commercial resting places (cement, makeup). Two large tapestries hang back-to-back in the middle of the tables: The Discovery (2014) and The Transformation (2014). In The Discovery, what is presumably a diamond situates itself in the middle of the canvas, surrounded by topographic-esque lines; element signals float through the layers of lines. In The Transformation, the legs of two figures are seen, but their torsos have been chopped off by molecular structures. In both works, the diamond simultaneously pierces the body, and becomes it.

    “[In] different shows I have done…I was finding ways within exhibition structures to expand deeper and farther in that notion of shine. There, we see that notion that comes with shine, but also with material, with landscape. Here, I think about colonial spaces—which I think all spaces are anyways—and the relationship we have with material and our body.”2 Glimmer, throughout Nkanga’s practices, physically reflects the traces left on bodies—both of the land and the human inhabitants. Within In Pursuit of Bling (2014) lies a film, Reflections of the Raw Green Crown, (2014) embedded within one of the small tables. Nkanga wears a malachite crown, speaking for the materials stolen from other parts of the world, and placed upon rooftops of Berlin. By embodying the raw malachite, Nkanga traces the connections of global trade and the goods economy, giving the element—if only for a second—autonomy.

    “Indeed, it is the particular materiality of declarative shininess that we now recognize as a clear sign of paradox, as it is so often used to mediate decay and divert attention away from oncoming collapse,” continues the e—flux editorial.3 Again, this notion of shine leads us through a slow collapse, made visible in Solid Maneuvers (2015). The sculpture presents a monument to the holes made in the earth through material and mineral excavation, presenting the question: why are architectural feats measured on how tall they can be, and the holes they create are not given the opposite attention? Are these tall buildings not symbols of the present anthropic crisis? The ever-present topographic lines appear again in the sculpture, yet this time, they are made three-dimensional: not quite resembling actual earth or open-pits, as they are much too rigid, too manmade. Composed of various metals and tar, the crevices hold makeup and salt that selectively shine the metal’s surface depending on where you—the viewer—situate yourself.

    Otobong Nkanga, Social Consequences II—Choices we make, 2009 Courtesy of the artist Photo: courtesy of Lumen Travo Gallery, Amsterdam and Galerie In Situ – Fabienne Leclerc, Paris.

    Manilow Senior Curator and Director of Global Initiatives Omar Kholeif writes of Nkanga’s work, “Earth serves as a form of skin constantly open to rupture…”4 This is seen profoundly in the exhibition’s landmark piece, Anamnesis (2018), which occupies the center of the room; a wall of common imports that the viewer can smell. Resembling the shape of a mapped and drawn river, the line of changing and melding imports circles its way around the double-sided installation wall—creating a slow and shifting dance that an exhibition viewer must partake in, if they want to smell the tobacco and coffee. The wall has literally ruptured in order to bring us (the viewers, the humans, the colonizers, etc.) the sweet pleasure of various products commonly brought to the Chicago-area. This line, a visual mapping, brings to the walled sections of Nkanga’s show: the various paintings and drawings that serve to map and connect human bodies, non-human bodies, and the various relationships we enact upon one another.

    As the artist outlines, “in some of the drawings, like Social Consequences II—Choices we make (2009),  you have the lines that become mechanical structures, but at the same time connect all these ideas of projects that then connect to the body—which creates a pressure. And then the other body creates another pressure, and another. These kinds of lines can also be seen within the work, The Apparatus (2015), where you have lines that connect all these hands together and are thus connecting them to the landscape. They could work as a kind of psychological connection, affection. Or they could work as ways of looking at economies that intersect into other places. They could work as subterranean lines that do not make sense, yet do make sense. They could work as molecular structures, so there are many ways to use and think through these lines.”5 Thinking through these lines as various ways to connect bodies to the economy and back again wraps this show. Without these ever-present lines, the connections could be made conceptually but would lack the materiality and use of goods—may they be minerals, acrylic paint, or imported tobacco—that Nkanga has mastered.

    Though, one must add that the space of an institutional museum somewhat contradicts the critique being made within the work. As we all well know, contemporary art is a powerful economic institution, upholding the very destructive tendencies being illuminated within the work. The commodity object is not only the coffee being imported to Chicago, or the minerals being extracted that ravage towns far away, it is also the contemporary art “piece” being purchased by museums. The exhibition space recycles the critique that is being made of itself. Perhaps Hito Steyerl said it best when she said, “If contemporary art is the answer, the question is, how can capitalism be made more beautiful?”6

    Using the visual quality of shine to discuss contemporary commodity-culture and the global connection of goods is fundamental in this exhibition—making capitalism a bit more beautiful. Drawing connections and presenting histories of both the earth’s and people’s similar destructions presents a conversation on the global body—one that must deal with the wreckage of the past, while simultaneously fueling these autocracies and benefiting from the trade of goods. So, as Le Guin so well suggested, the body—may it be our human bodies, or the crevices of the Earth—can shimmer like a diamond, or more often than not, like mica; they just must be built upon the quiet collapses elsewhere.

    To Dig A Hole That Collapses Again runs at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago until September 9, 2018.

    Thank you to Otobong for sitting down with me to chat about the show. 

    1. Tom Holert, Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood, Anton Vidokle Editorial: Politics of Shine (e-flux), Online, 1.
    2. Taken from an interview conducted by the author with Nkanaga at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago on March 30, 2018.
    3. Tom Holert, Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood, Anton Vidokle, Editorial: Politics of Shine, (e-flux) 1.
    4. Omar Kholeif, Otobong Nkanga: To Dig a Hole That Collapses Again, (Munich, Prestel, 2018) 76.
    5. Previously mentioned interview.
    6. Hito Steyerl, “Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy” The Wretched of the Screen. (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012).