CHICAGO—It was impossible now, sitting in the Commons of the Museum of Contemporary Art, to not see the bloody threads everywhere. From the made up cheek bones to the viscera of smart phones, one looked out the large glass wall at the city of Chicago towering above and beyond it, and realized that what has risen along the lake was only made possible by the hollowing out of someplace else.
Nigerian-born artist Otobong Nkanga picked up the small plastic plate in front of her—laid out for breakfast pastries during the press preview for her new exhibition, To Dig a Hole That Collapses Again—and outlined the inspiration for her art, one of the great social disassociations of the world: the relationship of the Western/developed world and the Global North to Africa and the Global South. Specifically, Nkanga examines the siphoning away of resources—mineral, material, human, intellectual—from the latter by the former. It has created irreparable damage, impossible wealth, and stratified the nations.
“I think that people understand, ‘Oh, this oil. This is a petroleum product,’” Nkanga says. “But the missing link is that, because it’s so processed, it might have come partly from Venezuela; it might have come partly from the Emirates; it might have come partly from Nigeria—we do not know the roots, and the traces of where things are coming from.”
She sits the plate back down. Its lustrous black surface gleams like oil—or an avaricious eye.
Nkanga is uniquely positioned to explore such a complex and important concept through her art.
“I live in both worlds,” Nkanga says. “I understand both worlds … I can navigate both worlds with ease. I can understand it, and each one is given a different way of working.”
Nkanga’s life and career intertwines Europe and Africa. She was born in Kano, Nigeria, and lived in Lagos as a child. When she was 11, she moved to Paris, where her mother, a UNESCO diplomat, was stationed; she returned to Nigeria to study art at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife. After two years at OAU, she took an invitation from her former teacher in France to return to Paris, and was accepted at the renowned École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts. Nkanga has lived in Europe ever since, currently living and working in Antwerp, one of the major Western ports of call for the most famous conflict mineral: diamonds.
To Dig a Hole That Collapses Again is Nkanga’s first major North American museum survey. In it, Nkanga uses a wide variety of media and methods—including tapestry, acrylic paints and the minerals and natural resources at the heart of her practice—to make manifest the interconnections between Africa and the West, and make explicit the imbalanced nature of the two. Among the most dramatic works is “Anamnesis,” an earthen river of scent snaking along a floating wall comprised of the most common imports to Chicago, among them cocoa, coffee, spices, peat and tobacco.
The installation “In Pursuit of Bling” cuts to the heart of Nkanga’s work, the examination of what she deems “shine,” which she uses to refer to both the physical and economic qualities of the minerals and their siren call. In it, two tapestries hung back to back are surrounded by metal tables bearing various works relating to minerals. Most entrancing are the chunks of mica, commonly used in makeup, literally levitating in an electromagnetic thrall, a perfectly uncanny analog to the way the mineral is understood in our everyday lives: completely disconnected from the earth, from its origins and the ugly methods by which it comes to beautify faces.
“For me, it’s a kind of magical constellation of works,” Omar Kholeif, the MCA’s senior curator and director of global initiatives, told the journalists before they toured the show. Minerals aside, the connections Nkanga’s work draws between place and people are its most important elements.
The show’s title is the literal translation of the name of Tsumeb, a town in Namibia decimated by German extraction of its copper ores.
“Just starting from the process of thinking minerals and material, Namibia was a way that allowed me to understand a landscape and the desire, and power of desire, of a certain group of people that want something, and how far they will go to get it,” Nkanga says. Journeying through Namibia, Nkanga saw what was left behind by the desire for natural resources—the ruined environment and thousands of kilometers of railway tracks.
The long, brutal exploitation of Africa and the Global South extends beyond minerals and materials.
“I think the resources have been detrimental for centuries,” Nkanga says. “First of all, you take our resources of human beings. The people that understand the land first of all, understood farming, understood how to work with metal, and that’s why the plantations here worked really well … they took the knowledge. And when you take out a mass of people that have the knowledge, who remains to be able to transmit that knowledge to the next generation? Hardly anybody.”
The first world is more interconnected than ever, and yet the machinations by which those tools of community building are themselves built is still largely a mystery, conducted in the blank corners of Western culture, bound in the broken threads of the global web. Someone’s gain is another’s loss, a simple fact true on a complicated and cosmopolitan scale.
“Coming from a place that has been linked with colonials, linked with slavery, linked with all kinds of things, we then understand it as that place where we can take out what we want, because it doesn’t really matter,” Nkanga says. “We can take this out of the space, we can dig up the holes, we can excavate as much as we want because it matters for a certain kind of people, or a certain kind of geography, to have maybe new cars, to have this, to have that.”
The West then blames the poor condition they have left behind on the exploited: why can’t they get their acts together?
“It’s not about that,” Nkanga says. “It’s about how much has been taken out of a place to make another place stand erect.”
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