– Autumn/Winter 2014

Otobong Nkanga: Nothing Is Like It Seems, Everything Is Evidence

Yvette Mutumba

Otobong Nkanga, Filtered Memories, 1990—92: Survival, 1990—91, F.G.C. Shagamu, 2010, acrylic on paper, 42 × 29cm. All images courtesy the artist; Lumen Travo Gallery, Amsterdam; and In Situ Fabienne Leclerc Gallery, Paris

The authentic artist cannot turn [her] back on the contradictions that inhabit our landscapes.1

— Robert Smithson

Otobong Nkanga operates like a scientist. With a forensic gaze, she looks at objects and environments that trigger memories, thoughts or emotions. These are the entry points for her in-depth research into broad historical contexts and engagement with a wide spectrum of disciplines, from political theory to philosophy, sociology and the natural sciences. She submerges herself in archives, examines raw materials and consults experts on their respective fields. Pivotal to her work is examining and altering ideas of land, home and displacement, and how they are connected with memory. ‘Memory is not only an autobiographical state,’ she argues, ‘but also an important notion in relation to objects that leave traces’; however, she also concedes that ‘nothing is like it seems and everything is evidence’.2 For her, intangible elements such as smell are as important as objects in the narration of who we are. While Nkanga scientifically researches broader contexts, it is, in the end, non-written evidence she is most interested in.

In the dreamlike sequences of Nkanga’s

  1. Robert Smithson, ‘Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape’ (1973), Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings (ed. Jack Flam), Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996, p.164.

  2. Conversation with the artist, 5 April 2014.

  3. The series of drawings Social Consequences I, Social Consequences II, Filtered Memories 1977—81 and Filtered Memories 1987—96 were published together in the artist’s book No Be Today Story, O! (Amsterdam: Lumen Travo Gallery, 2010).

  4. ‘Object Atlas — Fieldwork in the Museum’, curated by Clémentine Deliss, Weltkulturen Museum, Frankfurt am Main, 26 January—16 September 2012.

  5. At the Berlin Conference of 1884—85, also known as Congo Conference, diplomats of European governments, the Ottoman Empire and the United States met in Berlin to unscrupulously divide up the African continent amongst each other, marking what is commonly known as the Scramble for Africa.

  6. For an overview of artists’ engagement with land since the turn of the millennium, see Kelly Baum, ‘Nobody’s Property’, in Nobody’s Property: Art, Land, Space 2000—10 (exh. cat.), Princeton: Princeton University Art Museum, pp.11—43.

  7. The importance of land for practices from African perspectives was recently acknowledged in the extensive exhibition ‘Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa’, National Museum of African Art, Washington DC, 22 April 2013—23 February 2014 and Fowler Museum at UCLA, Los Angeles, 23 April—14 September 2014.

  8. For different views on this debate, see Rasheed Araeen, ‘Modernity, Modernism and Africa’s Authentic Voice’, Third Text, vol.24, issue 2, 2010, pp.277—86; Jean Pigozzi and André Magnin, ‘Two Conversations’, in A. Magnin et al. (ed.), African Art Now: Masterpieces from the Jean Pigozzi Collection, London: Merrell, 2005, pp.10—33; John Picton, ‘Made in Africa’, in Simon Njami et al. (ed.), Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent, Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2005, pp.53—63; Suzanne Preston Blier, ‘Nine Contradictions in the New Golden Age of Contemporary African Art’, in African Arts, vol.35, no.3, Autumn 2002, pp.1—6; Okwui Enwezor and Olu Oguibe, ‘Introduction’, in O. Enwezor and O. Oguibe (ed.), Reading the Contemporary: African Art from Theory to the Marketplace, London and Cambridge, MA: Iniva and the MIT Press, 1999, pp.9—14; Salah M. Hassan, ‘The Modernist Experience in African Art: Toward a Critical Understanding’, in Philip G. Altbach and S.M. Hassan (ed.), The Muse of Modernity: Essays on Culture as Development in Africa, Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1996, pp.37—61; and Sidney Littlefield Kasfir, ‘African Art and Authenticity: A Text with a Shadow’, African Arts, vol.25, no.2, April 1992, pp.41—97.

  9. Edward Said, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001, p.186.

  10. Otobong Nkanga, ‘Artist Statement’, in Charlotte Bagger Brand and Koyo Kouoh (ed.), Make Yourself at Home (exh. cat.), Copenhagen: Kunsthal Charlottenborg, 2010, pp.57—58.

  11. Site-specific work for the exhibition ‘Make Yourself at Home’, curated by C.B. Brand and K. Kouoh, Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen, 4 September—21 November 2010.

  12. ‘Itiat Esa Ufok’ is Ibibio language for ‘The Stones of a Courtyard’. The work was commissioned for the Sharjah Biennial 11, curated by Yuko Hasegawa, 13 March—13 May 2013.

  13. Perfect Measures was an installation and performance commissioned for the exhibition ‘Transferts’, curated by Toma Muteba Luntumbue, Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels, 2003.

  14. Contained Measures of a Kolanut was an installation and ten-hour performance commissioned for the exhibition ‘Tropicomania: The Social Life of Plants’, curated by Mélanie Bouteloup and Anna Colin, Bétonsalon, Paris, 20 April—21 July 2012; Contained Measures of Shifting States was commissioned for ‘Across the Board: Politics of Representation’, curated by Elvira Dyangani Ose, The Tanks, Tate Modern, London, 24 November 2012.

  15. Diaspore was a performance commissioned for the exhibition ‘14 Rooms’, curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Klaus Biesenbach, Art Basel, 14—22 June 2014.

  16. In Pursuit of Bling was commissioned for the 8th Berlin Biennale, curated by Juan A. Gaitán, 29 May—5 August 2014.