Explore Otobong Nkanga’s exhibition There’s No Such Thing as Solid Ground at the Gropius Bau online.
Otobong Nkanga (*1974, Kano, Nigeria) was the Gropius Bau’s In House: Artist in Residence for one year in 2019. Interested in the relationship between repair and care, she deals with complex relationships between people and land as evinced through global mining and other systems of exploitation, the movement of natural resources and people, and history’s violent legacy.
Land can be understood as earth, soil and landscape, as well as the terrain on which ecological, economic, political and social issues are navigated. Interweaving media such as installation, textile, performance, painting, drawing, texts and stories to create multi-sensory encounters, Nkanga’s work is often based on a period of intensive research, teasing out the many-layered intersections between objects and actions.
Oxygen, voice and the act of breathing are elements that connect the artworks in this exhibition, from Nkanga’s reshaped sound work Wetin You Go Do? Oya Na (2020), a new aural arrangement that reconfigures her existing voice recordings, to her drawings and the three-phase project Carved to Flow (2017–2020), begun at documenta 14. These works resonate with the past and present to reveal hidden secrets, altered histories and forgotten stories.
Taste of a Stone
Kolanut Tales – Dismembered
As a meditative oasis, the site-specific installation opens with an indoor garden of rocks and marble pebbles. It is a landscape full of historical and geological traces, and simultaneously a space for interpersonal encounters. Nkanga probes the cultural value and stories of the stones. She asks what they can reveal about land and soil, and what roles they can take on, for instance when delineating territory or taken as a souvenir from their original location, narrating their own diasporic dislocation.
The surfaces of the limestone slabs show subtle signs of change that testify to contact with insects, plants or people, thus pointing to the interconnectivity of all systems. The freestanding textile work depicts a botanical image of dismembered plants disjoined and dislocated in pieces. Within the installation, rootless plants grow that feel at home almost anywhere. They thrive by absorbing water and nutrients through the air and their leaves, pointing to the idea of displacement: if it is not possible to take root, then adaptability is crucial for survival. The questions that plants and stones ask can also be extended to us: Where are our roots? Where do we come from?
The work is a walk-in invitation for visitors to engage with the stones, listen to how their own footsteps sound on the pebbles and find their own narrative within this context. It offers space for so-called movements and various engagements, which further activate the work during the exhibition as an open platform.
Contained Measures of Shifting States – Evaporate
The evaporation process can be observed on the round table. Liquid slowly but steadily drips from the glass container onto a hot plate, which instantly turns into hissing steam. By observing the transformation from fluid to vapour, we witness the change in the state of things.
The installation is part of a series that makes the changing states of different elements perceptible – aiming to make the non-tangible conditions visible. In the reading of Nkanga’s work, these conditions should not only be seen as physical manifestations; they also need to be translated into the larger context of the state of the world and politics. Everything is evolving and connected, and even if – at a certain point in its process – it is not yet visible, it will still find its manifestation.
Performers in Diaspore narrate, sing and focus their stare as they navigate through a topographical map whilst carrying pots of the plant Queen of the Night (Cestrum Nocturnum) on their heads. The women, who are in constant dialogue with the plants, carefully direct their movement over the floor of a cartographic map that does not delineate which territory is being traversed.
Nkanga further explores the language of diaspore and the journey of leaving home looking for a new future. The native West Indian plant was subsequently naturalized in South Asia. It illustrates Nkanga’s interest in the complex network of social and political tensions manifesting when bodies and resources are displaced and uprooted from their origins.
The title refers to the botanical term „diaspore”, which describes all of the fruits and spores that are used to propagate plants, creating new identities. The work is a metaphor for displacement, focusing on the migrations of people and plants that have had to relocate over the course of history. It asks how people who have been displaced under harsh conditions are able to reconstruct and be resourceful. At the same time, this work fosters dialogue about the relationship between care and resistance. How can a space of care be created so that bodies are able to rest and recuperate?
In a Place Yet Unknown
Manifest of Strains
The circular sculpture deals with the interconnectedness of actions, with a view to opening up an overall picture of social and political states. It examines how non-visible emotional spaces and social strains can be translated and rendered tangible. In Manifest of Strains, physical and emotional states – such as anger, melancholy or numbness – are manifested in seven material-based parts related to the natural elements of water, air and fire.
As such, one section presents a glaring red neon tube; followed by the expulsion of air represented by air compression; a thermochromic change from black to silver addressing the shifting of states, be it political or emotional; another section refers to the moment of suffocation, depicted by air trapped in the glass sculpture; one section creates heat until it glows blazing red, referring to growing tension and warfare; there is a stone hovering in seeming defiance of gravity, standing for transcending a situation; one segment rusts, addressing decay and also the changeability of the elements and their states.
In this material expression, relating to the very substance of earth, Nkanga considers the state of the world: metaphorical temperatures that heat, cool and resist. It stands for the parallel timelines of violence, resistance and relative peace. The material actions are inseparable in the circle; what happens in one area cannot be disassociated from another. In this way, global events and human emotions are linked to one another in intricate and complex networks.
The tapestry incorporates different perspectives and talks about acts that have affected land and the lives of people. The background depicts the structure of the solar system and star formations. From a bird’s-eye view, a network of lines is reminiscent of land measurements and borders, of structural divisions that create tensions. The frontal perspective shows a man without a head and hands, next to a tree holding a chord to the network of discs on the next layer. This plane zooms into photographic images of explosions and riots – moments of manifestation of power and moments where people are manipulated and controlled by power structures – such as the uprising at Tahrir Square, which is documented here and aligns with the star constellation in the background from that very day. As such, the man invites you to look up, down and forward in order to discover the double narratives and connections.
The textile work also opens up a temporality, like the light of the stars shot into the universe long before their twinkling reaches our eyes, or the politically oppressive situations playing out in parallel globally. Situations and appearances that happened at a certain time and are rendered visible at another. The depicted elements of bodies, land, and plants are literally woven together and connected and remind us that political decisions have human, geological and social repercussions. Similar to the installation Manifest of Strains, this work also thematises the notion of care and explores moments of political strain, where bodies have been pushed to a limit of tension which accumulates in uprisings and manifestations of resistance. Her works of art probe the political space of care, from where stability can be reinstated.
This topographical, layered sculpture is like an equation of a negative volume becoming a positive volume: the remaining negative emptiness of one place left behind after the excavation of resources is often not visible in the end product of the erected structure.
The sculpture references the abandoned excavation, which leaves the landscape, and our relationship with it, wounded. The structures consolidate elements from underground, such as petroleum, copper, sheet metal, steel, acrylic and aluminium. Brought together and stacked, it makes us think about human-made processed materials and about how they are artificially interrelated.
The work is inspired by Nkanga’s field trip to Namibia, seeing how mountains are reduced during the process of the exploitation of natural resources. In addition to the layers of material, the sculpture references the places that have been stripped, creating holes in the layered structure. The holes stand for the empty absence of the now disfigured land, contradicting the image of the intact hill and telling of human greed.
We Could Be Allies
The installation We Could Be Allies is composed of visual, textual and sculptural elements, a constellation that delves into the struggles and tensions of human affective relationships, be these psychological, physical or emotional.
“Drawing can be the first approach to think about a work or an exhibition, starting with quick sketches or drawing directly into space in order to think things through; or it can be an intimate moment in my studio that never results in an actual piece”, says Otobong Nkanga.
The artist’s works on paper from 1997-present depict bodies, landscapes and matter that connect as one entity. Such threads reinforce her approach to drawing, using it as a space that loops into her wider material practice and thinking through making. As with the inhale and exhale of breath, where we exchange invisible lines, the rhythm of drawing is a life force for Nkanga that is fundamental in forming relationships. Further information about the works is delineated on the labels in Room 6.
Wetin You Go Do? Oya Na
Recorded in 2015 and transformed into a spatial composition for the Gropius Bau, the piece is a reaction to the feeling of powerlessness in the current world – facing a wave of political tension and uprising against political systems, which have often collapsed and stayed unanswered. The broken English Wetin You Go Do? asks the question What are you going to do?, which is as urgent today as it was five years ago.
Nkanga’s own voice takes different styles when lending a voice to characters and materials, especially the material of concrete, which is taken for granted, stepped on, used and extracted. Her voice splits into different characters and states when whispering, screaming, flirting, chirping and complaining. These characters all have different approaches to life, the angry one resisting a situation, the drunken voice not even being aware of the situation, or the excited one just voicing enthusiasm without action. The voices are accompanied by snapping and singing and guttural tones, carrying the poetry of the work further.
Carved to Flow
The project Carved to Flow is a support structure that is embedded within art and the social sphere. Consisting of three phases, the first was the Laboratory in 2017, a workshop installation in Athens during documenta 14. Ten soap prototypes were created including O8 Blackstone Soap – a coldproduction process soap comprising water, coal, lye and seven butters and oils from the Mediterranean, the Middle East, North and West Africa. The production process and the combination of these raw materials in one object reflects on the circulation of goods, bodies, geographies, traditions and stories. It contrasts the fecundity of these regions with the charred aftermath of crisis, destruction, extraction or mismanagement: states that leave peoples and environments physically gasping for air.
The second phase, Warehouse and Distribution, took place later that year during documenta 14 in Kassel as a 100-day performance involving the selling of the O8 Blackstone Soap through conversations with the public. The sale of the soaps finances the Carved to Flow Foundation, creating circularity with the previous phases.
Currently the third phase, Germination, focuses on local ecologies through research and knowledge sharing, structured around exhibitions, workshops and events. The transmission of knowledge through conversation, horizontal learning, poiesis and bodies in flow is a key aspect of this platform for research, communal production and connection. Carved to Flow is conceived as fluid and developing, replacing economies of extraction and displacement with a system of transference, where what is removed is replaced or repaid in some form. The ground-floor work space, inspired by African architecture and managed by Nuno Vasconcelos during the course of the exhibition, is a continuation of Otobong Nkanga’s residency at the Gropius Bau in 2019. It will be activated by workshop formats and conversations and the constant evolving presence of materials.