To Not Be a Single Being: Otobong Nkanga and Theaster Gates

By Robert Maharajh

Politics proposes to make us better, but we were good already in the mutual debt that can never be made good. We owe it to each other to falsify the institution, to make politics incorrect, to give the lie to our own determination. We owe each other the indeterminate. We owe each other everything.(1)
Stefano Harney & Fred Moten

Speaking about his decision to acquire the archives of the Johnson Publishing Company, Theaster Gates is clear that he doesn’t think of himself as an archivist in the conventional sense: “My collections are still active raw material, I’m still messing with them…. The set isn’t finite, it’s not retrievable always – it’s a bunch of stuff.”(2) What interests him is “the power of organising everyday things so that people understand the preciousness isn’t always in the thing – the preciousness is that a society, a nation, a people or a person cares enough to organise it.”(3)

What gets placed in an archive or institution and why? What has value and futurity and what ends up devalued, displaced, submerged in the basement? These questions are deeply bound up with power, authority and a lineage of command, as Derrida showed when tracing the word’s etymology to the Greek word arkheion: “initially a house, a domicile, an address, the residence of the superior magistrates, the archons, those who commanded.”(4)

For Otobong Nkanga, the notion of a place where something is cared for is not unitary: “When you put something in an exhibition space you force that work to be taken care of”,(5) she says. Her vision of care is a relational and fluctuating field. It has shaped her artistic practice as an expansive formulation that uses both art institutions and networks of independent organisation as spaces of propagation. One example is Carved to Flow (2017-present), which extends into multiple spaces of sociality and study. It has become a mode of on-going speculative practice unfolding through time, crisis and improvised futures under the rubric of care for, and making-with, the entities and forms involved.

The Black Image Corporation. Theaster Gates

Installation view, The Black Image Corporation. Theaster Gates, 25.4.–28.7.2019 © Gropius Bau, photo: Luis Kürschner

The structures that Gates and Nkanga generate stem from their concern with situated modes of knowledge and social existence that have been, or face being, placed under strain, devalued or pushed to the margin. Their practices are deeply engaged with and emerge out of forms of life that have an element of what American writer and academic Saidiya Hartman might call “waywardness”: a trajectory in apposition to the line of authority and centrality. Originally mounted in Athens in 2017 during a time of economic meltdown for the Greek state, as well as migrant crises encompassing the Middle East, North Africa and Europe, Carved to Flow embodies thinking through and working with “what is happening within a society that’s forcing people, bodies, plants and animals – everything – to shift”.(6) Similarly, much of Gates’ practice is embedded in the life of Chicago’s South Side, a largely black area that has suffered decades of economic flight and civic neglect, as well as the legacy of redlining.

Concepts of waywardness and fugitivity abound in the work of Fred Moten. In resonance with Derrida’s inquiry, Moten traces a lineage of cultural authority stemming from the Enlightenment – perhaps most clearly defined by Kant’s Critique of Judgment and other publications of the 1790s – which forms the very idea of the modern subject. According to Moten, Kant’s formulation is a disastrous event in world history because of what it excludes: “The paralegal disturbs Kant, is anoriginal disturbance in Kant”,(7) he writes in Knowledge of Freedom. That which is outside the enclosure of Kantian principles – unregulated differentiation or generativity – is outside the realm of institutions, devalued or coded as disturbance, threat. Crucially for Moten, one of the key “disturbances” is race – Kant’s deployment of race, Moten says, is in fact “the exemplary regulative and/or teleological principle”.(8)

The vast field that sits “outside” of regulated institutional thinking – and in particular its identification with blackness and black or “wayward” forms of life – is what Moten and collaborator Stefano Harney explore and engage in via the concept of “study”. It’s terrain outside the political, academic or institutional sphere, stemming from communal process, social activity – or perhaps just being: what emerges, to quote Edouard Glissant, out of the “consent not to be a single being”.(9)

This is consent not as an act of subjectivity, but as a social field. “We are committed to the idea that study is what you do with other people,”(10) Moten and Harney write in The Undercommons. “It’s talking and walking around with other people, working, dancing, suffering, some irreducible convergence of all three, held under the name of speculative practice…. The point of calling it study is to mark that the incessant and irreversible intellectuality of these activities is already present….To do these things is to be involved in a kind of common intellectual practice. What’s important is to recognise that that has been the case – because that recognition allows you to access a whole, varied, alternative history of thought.”(11)

Through a process of care and study, both Gates and Nkanga are embedded in social fields, forms of life, engaging with histories of thought that sit in apposition to the heavily racialised line of Kantian regulation and institutional parameters. While interacting with institutions, both artists also set up counter-spaces as means of cultural preservation and propagation, expressing a tangible mode of care for the communities of which they form a part, while at the same time re-thinking the relational nature of the artwork itself.

Gates’ interest in the archive of the Johnson Publishing Company, which was founded by the African-American businessman John H. Johnson in 1942, stemmed partly from people mentioning that they had old copies of Ebony or Jet. “It’s the moment that you decide they deserve something other than your basement that you start to preserve culture,”(12) he says. The archive now forms a core part of the Stony Island Arts Bank, previously a crumbling disused bank on Chicago’s South Side in a neighbourhood populated largely by Black and Jewish communities. The purchase and restoration of the building – financed by Gates’ issuance of bank bonds as artworks at Art Basel in 2013 – effectively created a counter-institution within an area that had previously suffered from economic under-investment and civic neglect. Moten writes of Gates in ‘Nowhere, Everywhere’ that: “His place-making, thingly arrangements of things in unlikely gardens, all under the general atmosphere of having been taken for nothing in the ongoing, general (mis)calculation of nothing, moves to recognise and amplify unacknowledged wealth.”(13)

Nkanga explores “unacknowledged wealth”, in a practice that spans continents – while also remaining intensely local – enfolding multiple social spaces and lived human existences. The soap produced as part of Carved to Flow becomes an archive or index of regional knowledges and psychic states. The inclusion of charcoal as a material invokes the notion of fugitivity: created by heating organic materials in the absence of oxygen, it symbolises the degradations – physical or psychic – that leave people, plants or lands gasping for breath, forced into flight or waywardness. At the same time, however, the soap-making process is generative: knowledges of oil cultivation and extraction, manufacture and storage are used (continuing the ancient traditions of Aleppo). The performative environment of soap making creates a space of sociality and study, uniting makers, vendors and spectators – the purchase of soap must begin with conversation. The work too extends into the economic sphere, helping to support makers, vendors and others engaged in the process.

Soap has particular qualities. If it’s archive and commodity, it’s also material – one of peculiar intimacy. It touches skin, leaves trace molecules behind, ghost of Greek olive trees and charred woods – and the multiple hands that tended them – lingering in the pores. “A feel for feeling others feeling you”,(14) Moten and Harney write in the The Undercommons, referring to the haptic communality they see as the privilege of the African diaspora, legacy of the horror of middle passage: “This is modernity’s insurgent feel, its inherited caress, its skin talk, tongue touch, breath speech, hand laugh.” (Images of hands, conjoined in nurture or communal striving, abound in Nkanga’s tapestries, drawings and workshops…)

Early phases of Carved to Flow involved understanding materials by combining disparate elements and placing them in relation. However, the third phase of the work presented at the Gropius Bau – Germination – moves beyond cultivation, manufacture and value extraction. As a means of restoration, paying back the knowledge debt that went into the soap’s production, the transient object becomes a vehicle for evolution into the realm of knowledge preservation, transmission and exchange. Proceeds from the sale of soap go towards the running of multiple spaces. Akwa Ibom Athens, curated by Maya Tounta, opened in 2019 with interactive talks about circular economies and soap production workshops with migrant women. Akwa Ibom, Eastern Nigeria, situated on Nkanga’s family land, begins with the aim of preserving local material knowledge – for example traditions of working with raffia, palm and petroleum oils. These traditions have become increasingly endangered by corporate extraction. At the same time it provides a support structure for all those involved: the initial phase involving the sale of products that create a micro-economy for local workers.

As an evolving process, Carved to Flow is not predicated on individual subjectivity (or “authorial/artistic sovereignty”); it maps a wayward line in space and time. Its fundamental field is not one of artistic form, or intentionality, but rather one of mutual relation and care: “It’s no longer about making an artwork – when you’re in it, you become deeply responsible for others within it”, (15) Nkanga says. Within the space of the work, the economics of survival are inextricably bound up with psychic topographies, as part of a meditation on relation within nation states, terrains and ecological traumas: “What does it mean to consider the absence of a structure that supports another being?”(16) However, this vital question is also considered on a microcosmic level: in order to support those implicated, the work’s form is subsumed into “metamorphosis, multiple ways of being – it follows another line.”(17)

The Black Image Corporation. Theaster Gates

Mac Folkes at the press conference of the exhibition The Black Image Corporation. Theaster Gates, 25.4.–28.7.2019 © Gropius Bau, photo: Mathias Völzke

Otobong Nkanga, Carved to Flow, 2017

Otobong Nkanga, Carved to Flow, 2017, Public program sessions, The Workstation (collaboration with Evi Lachana and Maya Tounta), documenta 14, Athens © Otobong Nkanga, Photo: Wim van Dongen

Improvisation forms a core part of both artists’ practices. Gates’ evolution from potter to urban regenerator came via a set of incremental steps, in which the nature and poetics of one discipline informed the other. He relates this to biography and historical circumstance: his father was fired by a refrigerator company just before he was due to receive his pension for refusing to train a younger white man to take charge of more experienced black employees. He started a series of ventures to provide for his family: a carwash, roofing, property restoration, candy vending: “My dad and mom… were from a generation that asked, how do you convert your skill into a thing that helps you survive? It was never ‘do one thing and do it well’ – we didn’t have the luxury of that philosophy.”(18)

Nkanga’s methods of working can also be connected to her biography. During her teenage years in Nigeria she would help her mother, a government employee, to dye fabrics that could be sold to designers as a way of supplementing income during a period when government wages were not being paid. The importance of communal support structures was deeply ingrained during her childhood in Africa: “When you cannot rely on the state, it becomes essential for people to create their own forms of communal resilience.” This approach underlies the foundations of Carved to Flow: “It’s not a question of whether something is an artwork or not, it’s about how you install care – a support structure. If the form of the work has to shift completely in order to do that, then that’s okay.”(19)

Improvisation is a vital capacity for Moten. He traces the word’s roots to the latin visare – to see; thus, pro visare is to look ahead or look forward. “So improvisation is to proceed without looking ahead, without foresight”.(20) It’s a mode of proceeding that is degraded, he notes, because “the Western philosophical tradition produces an idealized subject whose rationality manifests itself, at least in one way, as planning, as foresight. And so the work that emerges in the absence of that planning and foresight is generally seen as having a lesser relation to normative rationality.”(21) However, as he elaborates on the theme through his writing, he uncovers an improvisatory capacity to reshape that surpasses the bounds of rational subjectivity and scrambles the codes of rationality itself, moving into a territory of the visionary: “That which is without foresight is nothing other than foresight,”(22) he writes. And this capacity to improvise opens possibilities of deconstructing – perhaps reformulating – the Enlightenment, along with its oppressive socio-political and cultural manifestations.(23)

If improvisation is not simply action or speech without provision, he writes, “you need to look ahead with a kind of torque that shapes what’s being looked at. You need to do so without constraints of association, by way of a twisted epoché, or redoubled turn, in the prescription and extemporaneous formation and reformation of rules, rather than the following of them.”(24)

Nkanga and Gates reformulate rules, creating spaces not of normative expression but of exploration, study and improvisation in this visionary sense; places that look outward and shape entangled futures, incorporating ruptures of the past and present. This is what Moten might call lingering in the break, or, in Donna Haraway’s words, staying with the trouble.

Robert Maharajh is Editor at Large of the Gropius Bau. A writer and curator who grew up between London and the Caribbean, he studied literature and philosophy in the UK. He was co-founder and curator of the artist-run east London-based gallery T12, where he worked with numerous artists and thinkers including Gustav Metzger, Otto Muehl, Simon Critchley and Hans Ulrich Obrist. He was commissioning editor for "Not Evenly Distributed", an online project reflecting on the themes of the 20th Biennale of Sydney. London is the place for him, except insofar as it isn’t. He once met Curtis Mayfield, on a rainy day, in Brixton.

1. Stefano Harney & Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Wivenhoe, New York, Port Watson: Minor Compositions, 2013), 20.
2. Dance of Malaga: A Conversation with Theaster Gates, Theaster Gates interviewed by Andrew Perchuk, The Getty Center, Los Angeles, May 8, 2019: (accessed October 12, 2020). The Johnson Publishing Company archives were shown in the exhibition The Black Image Corporation. Theaster Gates from 25 April to 28 July 2019.
3. Ibid.
4. Jacques Derrida and Eric Prenowitz, “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression”, Diacritics, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Summer, 1995), 9.
5. Otobong Nkanga interviewed by Gropius Bau Associate Curator, Clara Meister, 2019. Otobong Nkanga was In House: Artist in Residence 2019. Her solo exhibition There's No Such Thing as Solid Ground can be seen at Gropius Bau from 10 July to 13 December 2020.
6. Ibid.
7. Fred Moten, Stolen Life (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018), 1. 'anoriginal' is the exact word quoted verbatim in the text.
8. Ibid.
9. “Édouard Glissant: One World In Relation”, twn, The World Newsreel, (accessed October 10, 2020).
10. Stefano Harney & Fred Moten, op. cit., 110.
11. Ibid.
12. Dance of Malaga, op. cit.
13. Fred Moten ‘Black and Blur’, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), 165-166.
14. Stefano Harney & Fred Moten, op. cit. 98.
15. Meister interview, op. cit.
16. Ibid.
17. Ibid.
18. Conversations with Artists: Theaster Gates, Theaster Gates interviewed by Sarah Newman, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., April 2017: (accessed October 12, 2020).
19. Meister interview, op. cit.
20. Fred Moten in conversation with Wu Tsang, Gropius Bau, 2019.
21. Ibid.
22. Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 63.
23. Stolen Life, op. cit., 40-45.
24. In the Break, op. cit.