– Autumn/Winter 2014

Exchange and Some Change: The Imaginative Economies of Otobong Nkanga

Monika Szewczyk

Social Consequences IV: The Takeover, 2013, round stickers and acrylic on paper, two parts, 29 × 42cm each. All images courtesy the artist; Lumen Travo Gallery, Amsterdam; and In Situ Fabienne Leclerc Gallery, Paris

Woe to those who, to the very end, insist on regulating the movement that exceeds them...

— Georges Bataille1

The last time I spoke with Otobong Nkanga, she told me that she does not like to write. She prefers the spoken word — the traditions of the griot, the storyteller, the advisor, the poet, the orator, but also the open-ended evolution of conversation and all forms of ephemeral verbalised exchange. In the space of one such recent dialogue (with one of the most prolific interviewers in our midst, Hans Ulrich Obrist), she elaborated: ‘I like talking but I don’t like writing. I think my brain goes a bit too fast and my hands are too slow.’2 I like how this points to a desire to consider hand activity and brain activity together. Sitting down, slowing down to write something of substance about this protean

  1. Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share, Volume 1: Consumption (1949, trans. Robert Hurley), New York: Zone Books, 1991, p.6.

  2. Hans Ulrich Obrist in conversation with Otobong Nkanga at Forum, a collateral event of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, Somerset House, London, 17 October 2013, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=asqL6iwLHXw (last accessed on 14 August 2014).

  3. Conversation with the artist, 26 November 2013.

  4. See Philippe Pirotte, ‘Participation: A Legacy of Allan Kaprow’, in P. Pirotte (ed.), An Invention of Allan Kaprow for the Present Moment (exh. cat.), Bern: Kunsthalle Bern, 2009, pp.9—17. Pirotte’s text was written for a programme of new commissions that the Belgian curator developed at the Kunsthalle Bern in conjunction with the exhibition ‘Allan Kaprow: Art as Life’ (2 June—26 August 2007), for which he asked contemporary artists to reinterpret some of Kaprow’s scores. Nkanga chose to revisit Baggage (1972), a happening that originally involved twenty students from Rice University in Houston (where Kaprow was teaching) exchanging bags of sand from a campus construction site with bags of sand from a beach on the nearby island of Galveston. The work now resides in the annals of Conceptual art, performance and Land art — all relevant sources for Nkanga’s practice. And yet, for her reinvention of the happening, Nkanga exchanged land from the beaches of the Netherlands (where she was living) and the beaches of Nigeria (where she was born), folding into Kaprow’s gesture questions regarding displacement and exchange between Europe and Africa (e.g. one immediately thinks of the oil-drenched soil of the Niger Delta and the enterprise of Royal Dutch Shell).

  5. In a conversation with the author in May 2014, the artist expressed a determination to continue the development of her projects, including their stages of completion, outside the strictures of exhibition calendars. We might consider all the works discussed in this text as pursuing a different temporal measure, one determined less by clockwork than by something we might describe as the workings of presence.

  6. Others have convincingly written on Nkanga’s art as earthworks, bereft of the colonial tinge and macho bravado of certain practitioners of the 1970s. See, for example, Dieter Roelstraete, ‘Future Greats: Otobong Nkanga’, ArtReview, vol.66, no.2, p.88; Clémentine Deliss and Yvette Mutumba (ed.), Foreign Exchange/Ware & Wissen (or the stories you wouldn’t tell a stranger) (exh. cat.), Zurich and Frankfurt: Diaphanes and Weltkulturen Museum, 2014; and Karen E. Milbourne, ‘Strategies of the Surface’, in K. Milbourne (ed.), Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa (exh. cat.), New York and Washington DC: Monacelli and National Museum of African Art, 2014. I am trying to cover somewhat different ground (pardon the pun).

  7. See Andie Diane Palmer, Maps of Experience: The Anchoring of Land to Story in Secwepemc Discourse, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.

  8. This is true of Contained Measures of a Kolanut, but also of works that extend the logic of this project, wherein Nkanga will trade stories for objects even more directly. Currently in development is a work, which will premiere at the 31st Bienal de São Paulo in the autumn of 2014, cogently titled Landversations. To realise this experiment in dialogue with and through materials, Nkanga will engage different persons who each have a strong connection to the land (a geographer, a botanist, a farmer, a miner or archaeologist, an eco-psychologist). Out of their accounts she will forge objects — always central to the seemingly elusive and ephemeral oral tradition, she has told me — that will form part of an installation centred around a circular table structure. Here the artist’s ability to give form to processes of dialogue, translation, knowledge exchange and tradition, wherein oral histories turned into objects help to imagine alternate relations to the world, is reaching for a new level of refinement. Conversation with the artist, 4 July 2014.

  9. The anthropologist Michael Taussig, the art historian Christina Kiaer, the philosopher Quentin Meillassoux, the curator Anselm Franke and the artists Liam Gillick and Theaster Gates — in very different ways — are contributing to this critical mass.

  10. Karl Marx, Capital, vol.I, Capitalist Production (trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling), London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1959, p.76. Note that ‘table-turning’ was the colloquial term for a seance in Marx’s time.

  11. The effect was achieved with magnets.

  12. The Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche is a Protestant memorial church that was partly destroyed in the air raids of World War II.

  13. This recalls the notion of objects less as tools than as friends or comrades that Boris Arvatov put forward in the mid-1920s, the period of the most adventurous post-revolutionary socioeconomic experimentation before Stalinism set in. See B. Arvatov, ‘Everyday Life and the Culture of the Thing (Toward the Formulation of the Question)’ (1925, trans. Christina Kiaer), October, vol.81, Summer 1997, pp.119—28. Nkanga, however, moves beyond theory into practice, relying less on the Russian linguist’s ideas than on age-old traditions passed down through the necessarily performative oral culture that she grew up with in her native Nigeria.

  14. Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah (1987), New York: Anchor Books, 1988, p.114.