Otobong Nkanga

Everything exists in a state of constant transformation. Minerals. Plants. Soil. People.

Otobong Nkanga describes the ideas that form the basis of her work as she installs Otobong Nkanga: To Dig a Hole That Collapses Again at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

When we look at cities or enter into different places, there are all the smells that trigger memories that are linked to experiences, that are linked to family histories, that are linked also to colonial histories, that are linked to very specific local histories.

And so I’m interested in making a piece that will bring in materials that we’re so familiar with—not far from things that we’re consuming today—but they’re very close to histories that are related to other lands.

We can think of the Ivory Coast that produces cacao, peat maybe from Ireland, or teas coming from China, from South Asia.

This installation becomes a melting pot of worlds coming together.

In that way, even if we think of everything that we use, or everything that we have, or that we make,

the body is also connected to it, because in a way, it has to deconstruct it.

It has to break it down.

So it’s this interdependency between the materials that we have and the body that has to survive and has to be sustained through those materials that we have.

And that interdependency is being expanded through the kinds of works that I make.

So I’m interested in that connection of the body as ways of looking at landscapes, materials, and to play with those materials.

If we think in this way, as we would treat our own bodies, would we treat our landscape the same way?

What does it do to you when the soil is now acidic, and the trees are not as green? Or, what does it do when you have a place that is a mining zone, that is slowly shifting into grayness?

So the works that you see, like Weight of Scars, or Solid Maneuvers, In Pursuit of Bling, are coming from this body of thinking through the landscape as a body; the landscape as a scarred space; the landscape as a place of beauty; the landscape as a place of resistance— so all those different ways of putting that.

And that is very close to thinking of also political systems that transform a space, that transform the way we are dealing with the local or the landscape or the ecology of a place. And that is constantly shifting, as at the same time, those minerals and materials are shifting.

Everything is having this kind of constant transformation, and these are the multiple bodies that I’m interested in working in– not only as we human beings, but how a mineral, how a plant, how the soil is also going through that slow transformation and mutation.

What does it mean to be in a landscape that is going through let’s say war or ecological changes, or extreme heat?

I was thinking of bringing this constellation of the Middle East, North Africa, West Africa, and then Greece, and these are places which have produced oils for the world.

I made a soap called 08 Blackstone. So it looks like a marble.

It’s made with charcoal and with seven oils and butter. And the oils come from–especially the olive oil, comes from Kalamata.

It’s got shea butter, which comes from West Africa.

And then I decided to also use charcoal.

So if we think of the idea of charcoal, it’s organic matter being burned in the absence of oxygen.

So that soap is a condensation of two: One that is extremely nourishing, which these places feed the world with their oils, and raw material, raw resources.

And at the same time, these are the same places that are going through that burning, and the charring.

It’s a sculptural piece that condenses both contradictory structures within them.

It’s activated by the body itself.

The performers wear a sculptural object with the soap on it, and they’re able to talk to people.

It’s a way of relating and exchanging narratives or exchanging stories.

So you start understanding that that material itself has that power to narrate.