Otobong Nkanga’s ‘Acts at the Crossroads’ at Zeitz MOCAA is a survey exhibition of works drawn from the artist’s output over the last twenty years. Nkanga is a multi-disciplinary artist born in Nigeria, who focuses on the connections and relationships that shape the world. In placard form her artist statement might read: Interdependence not independence!
She goes about demonstrating this thesis statement in literal ways, producing works like Social Consequences II, a landscape composition divided into six panels. Each panel details a step in a process of what might be gas or mineral extraction. One shows a scattering of buildings, sharp points protrude from the buildings, pricking the backs of a gathering of black women in the next panel. These women turn a crank that powers a set of levers, pulleys and human arms that transport rock from within the earth into grey canisters in the next panel. The final panel shows liquid seeping out of the canisters into a delta of tiny streams.
Social Consequences II uses the visual register of educational schematics. The colour swatch ‘legends’ found in her margins and the cool flat tones used in her drawings prime the viewer to search for information. In this case it is a metonymic flowchart showing the migration of mine workers, the social, familial impact and the environmental toll of mining on earth and bodies. Interestingly, for a static image, adverbs are as important as the figures and the objects. Pains are taken to guide the focus of the viewer along the chain of causal relationships; from the fact that the tableau happens from left to right like the written word, to the use of diagrammatic arrows and pointers.
It is in this sparing, collected manner that she references Nigeria’s militarized and polluted Niger Delta, into which an average of 240,000 barrels of crude oil are spilled every year. Writing about Nkanga’s work, curator and critic Philippe Pirotte notes that: ‘Competition for oil wealth, which forms part of an ongoing “scramble for Africa”, has fuelled most of the violence, but the conflict is also symptomatic of a clash of opposing world-views…[a] level of abstraction brings to mind the legacy of colonial mapping.’ Resource extraction has environmental and human costs that are externalized from the cost of the oil itself – Nkanga’s work asks us to consider this.
Nkanga’s drawings ideologically align with Actor-Network Theory (ANT), a tool for conceptualizing systems that was developed in the 1980s and associated with sociologists such as Bruno Latour. In ANT, human and non-human entities are considered ‘actors’ and are situated within complex webs of relational ties. What makes his conceptualization contentious, but also useful in understanding Nkanga’s oeuvre, is the idea that all actors are understood to have agency; the ability to exert influence. This is not necessarily attributing intentionality or higher order functioning to animals, inanimate objects or technologies, but rather to say that they are not passive. It is a mode of thinking that contradicts Modernism in that it asserts that human analytical rationality is not an outside force parsing the world; but integrated with and subject to the world. For example, the way oil behaves in the world or how some minerals garner awe and evade ownership.
It is useful as a standard for non-anthropocentric thinking as it marks a departure from our exclusive concern with human subjectivity and rejects the dualism of human/non-human categories. The reason for ANT’s symmetrical approach to human and non-human actors is that the differences (in value and agency) between actors are generated and perceived within a particular system and should not be presupposed.
As well as touching on the exploitative impact humans have on nature, Nkanga reflects on the central role ‘natural’ spaces and products play in influencing human culture. In Taste of a Stone, a large installation of rocks, pebbles and small succulents, she ostensibly provides a place for meditation, a kind of zen garden. On one side of this installation, a tapestry is erected showing a botanical illustration of the kola nut plant – in Igbo culture in Nigeria sharing and chewing the kola nuts is a gesture of goodwill. As an incarnation of ‘nature’, it feels stultifyingly fake but the work nonetheless attempts to remind us of our place within natural parameters.
In Actor-Network Theory, and Nkanga’s artworks, we are confronted with a form of redress, that asks us to think about the world as a network rather than a hierarchy. The last stanza of the poem in her work We Could Be Allies mirrors this sentiment, it reads:
If I connect to you
If I am consumed by you
If I crumble with you
Then what do we call us?
What can we become?
The figures in Nkanga’s drawings, and in tapestries such as Double Plot, are mutilated either to become anonymous decapitated ambassadors for humanity, or severed limbs working in concert with machines. In Double Plot, arms form part of a mechanical apparatus that pulls a suturing needle across the fabric. The form of the needle looms large among the implements depicted in Nkanga’s work, indicating both creative and destructive potential. Freud wrote that ‘With every tool (man) is perfecting his own organs, […] or is removing the limits to their functioning.’
In these artworks, an alternative viewpoint is presented, in which the tool acts upon the body or the body is a part of the tool. The combination of body and prosthesis forms a larger functioning whole. Are the muscles conveying strength and intent into an axe or is the axe using the body as a source of fuel?
Emptied Remains, a photograph that verges on life-size and dominates a full wall of the gallery shows the back of an informally-constructed home. The mismatched colours and haphazard add-ons indicate times when perhaps there was a marriage or a baby, or a windfall that made building-on a possibility. The abode – which (especially in the expensively constructed gallery space) looks at first to be scruffy and unaspirational, is in fact a catalogue of successes.
Things Have Fallen III, II & I are more ambivalent, showing respectively: “virgin” landscape, landscape with building and landscape with ruin. The subject matter is viewed through the long lens of the photographer as though in the distance and they have the sensibility of journalism or documentary. These works question the place of humans in the natural world. If humans are part of nature, is a landscape with humans in it still “pristine”? By presenting this leading question, Nkanga seems to think that it is, or at least that exploitation of nature is not essential to the existence of culture. Latour sees the relationship between nature and culture as crucially paradoxical, saying in Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime, ‘The difficulty lies in the expression “relation to the world,” which presupposes two sorts of domains, that of nature and that of culture, domains that are at once distinct and impossible to separate completely.’
Otobang Nkanga’s contemplative and instructional works hang in peaceful stasis, the subject matter is serious but there is no emotional fallout. Couched in the visual language of scientific observation; maps, botanical drawings, flow charts, documentary photography etc, she reframes the world as networks and nodes. And when we begin to see the world as a truly connected network, we can begin to find answers to questions about the economic and psychic hangovers of Colonialism, the far-felt effects of ecological devastation and how to relate spiritually to the world when we have so changed our physical relationship to it.
With special thanks to Dr James Wink