Video credit: Zeitz MOCAA
ZEITZ MOCAA PRESENTS FIRST MUSEUM SOLO EXHIBITION IN AFRICA BY ACCLAIMED NIGERIAN-BORN ARTIST OTOBONG NKAANGA
Thursday 21 November 2019, Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA) opens an exhibition titled Act at the Crossroads by internationally acclaimed, Nigerian-born artist, Otobong Nkanga.
Nkanga has been the recipient of numerous awards, most recently the inaugural Lise Wilhelmsen Art Award (2019) from the Norwegian Henie Onstad Art Centre, and the Sharjah Art Foundation Prize (2019) in the United Arab Emirates.
Acts at the Crossroads is a significant survey exhibition, and the first museum exhibition on the African continent of the artist’s work. It includes works from the last two decades - a multidisciplinary practice that considers humanity’s connection to the environment in complex ways.
Rather than present us with an instructive method of documentation and observation, Nkanga grounds her work in a familiarity of encounter between viewer, artist, and object and asks us to consider the earth as an extension of the physical human body, to understand that it too is undeniably alive.
“Exploring environmental damage and the politics of land, her practice becomes a conduit, a voice for these raw, organic materials. Acts of labour, mining, commodification and trade have an impact on the earth that is also mirrored in the ways we treat the body,” says Curatorial Assistant, Precious Mhone.
Acts at the Crossroads explores a host of potential outcomes that present themselves at points of convergence. An agreement or understanding between two parties, a merger of ideas, thoughts, belief systems, cultures, histories and narratives. Connections become created, bonds are formed and solidified or broken. Differing ideologies are confronted, things are torn apart or brought together.
The exhibition invites viewers to connect with themselves and each other at these points of awareness and reflexivity, through a range of media including drawing, painting, photography and video works, geological matter and decayed minerals.
“I thought it was interesting to be able to think about these ideas, especially in South Africa, which for me has been a kind of crossroads. Or the acts or pacts that have been very much related to land and landscape,” explains Nkanga. “So, when I was really thinking about the title, I wanted to allude to entering into the realm of matter and material and its effect on different groups of people.”
“I am thrilled – and honoured – to host Otobang at our museum. I have known and worked closely with her for many years and celebrated her success each step of the way, says Zeitz MOCAA Executive Director and Chief Curator Koyo Kouoh.
“Her far-reaching practice echoes a globalisation that suggests we bear a true and honest connection with each other that transcends the notion of borders and emphasises the shared human condition. She gives voice to a need to reconnect and rethink our relationship to the earth, both personally and globally – a message that is never more pertinent than right now.”
Nkanga’s most recent solo exhibitions include From Where I Stand at Tate St. Ives (2019), A Lapse, a Stain, a Fall at ar/ge kunst, Bolzano (2018), and To Dig a Hole that Collapses Again at MCA Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (2018).
Exhibition name: Acts at the Crossroads
Exhibiting artist: Otobong Nkanga
Venue: Level 2, Zeitz MOCAA, Silo District, V&A Waterfront
Run dates: 21 November 2019 – 23 February 2020
Exhibition curator: Koyo Kouoh, Precious Mhone
A conversation betwwen Otobong Nkanga and Precious Mhone
Precious Mhone – Curatorial Assistant, Zeitz MOCAA (PM): I’d like to start by talking about the title of the exhibition, Acts at a Crossroads. A crossroads, an intersection of two or more roads. A lot of connotations come to mind as well when thinking of crossroads. I think of gestures of action, being active physically, mentally or verbally.
Otobong Nkanga – Artist (ON): I thought it was interesting to be able to think about these ideas, especially in South Africa, which for me has been a kind of crossroads. Thinking of the pacts and acts that have happened here, with or without a certain group of people. Or the acts or pacts that have been very much related to land and landscape.
So, when I was really thinking about the title, I wanted to allude to entering into the realm of matter and material and its effect on different groups of people.
PM: Then you also think of the mythology of crossroads and this idea of meeting a spirit, a figure, something or someone ancestral. Being part of something other than yourself and giving yourself over to that.
ON: [Laughter] Yeah, like making a pact. Sometimes, or most times, those acts that happen at the crossroads are intimate experiences that don’t involve other people, they involve you and the other entity. So, I was thinking it could be interesting to think about a space where many things meet, but it’s not a fusion yet, it’s just a place where...
PM: ... they can come together but not necessarily be symbiotic...
ON: Not necessarily. It’s almost like you are entering into a realm of the spiritual world and of giving your soul, but you know that certain parties have given something away and something which belongs to them has been taken away from them and they are not part of the pact, they are just around it.
They’re almost like the landscape, which is dug out, which is used, which is extracted in many ways. So, I think it was a title that could have very subtle ways of being read, but has a very strong relationship to acts that have happened within a certain space. But, I mean, you can go in many directions. And that’s why I didn’t chose pacts, cause when we talk about pacts...
PM: ... it seems so finite and mutually agreeable...
ON: Yes, and acts enter into the kind of gestures of the performative... act one, act two. There’s a kind of systematic structure which leads you into the next space or way of thinking. That’s why I thought it could be interesting to use acts instead of pacts. It still works to bring you to places, take you on a journey.
I remember when I was discussing it with Koyo [Kouoh, Zeitz MOCAA Chief Curator and Executive Director], she preferred pacts, but I decided on acts instead and it’s because it brings you to think of pacts without me explicitly having to say it.
PM: I think it’s natural that when one thinks of a crossroad, you think you have to make a decision, to go left or right, this idea of opposites in a sense or this tension between...
ON: ... right, wrong, forward, back...
PM: Exactly. This idea of being conscious or present, you can’t just observe, you have to participate, even if it is involuntarily.
ON: You’re still participating even though you don’t have a say, but you’re participating because in a way you’re involved, the consequences of those acts touch you. So that’s the idea around the title and it has a great way of being about to touch on different works in the exhibition.
PM: I was thinking about that today, after we went over the exhibition floor plan and the narrative it creates. This idea of stitching things together or destroying things to make something new. This violent act that takes place in order to create a union. It’s beautiful, but its violent, certain things shouldn’t be together but you force them to be.
ON: You can look at various works from Double Plot (2018) or you can look at Taste of a Stone (2010).
PM: Yes, you bind them. I was thinking about that earlier and how bodies, people in the same way are bound by histories.
ON: Landscapes, borders, different groups of people are forced together within one boundary. So, the earlier works that I did were really looking at that.
We can also see it in the video Surgical Hits – The Needle (2003), where the needle is trying to puncture the body. And that’s why we have this very complex grappling with the ways in which perceptions are understood. Depending on perspective, one group of people can believe that their intention is to create something with another group of people. Seeing it as though they are putting things together and making something good, meanwhile the other group feels as though it is being punctured. And yet you don’t realise that that needle - that bond - is also the thing that is destroying everything, and you don’t necessarily want to have it on your body but it’s going through you. It’s cutting you, it’s making you bleed and it’s forcing you to enter into a kind of coalition with another, which you didn’t ask for. But now your paths and your histories are interwoven. So, it was interesting really thinking about the work in that way.
PM: Do you feel as though you are speaking to yourself? To your audience? Reflecting maybe on how the world moves through you or how you move through the world?
ON: I feel that it’s more or less a reflection, let’s say a vision, sometimes of something that becomes discernable within the exhibition space and then it’s translated into a work. Maybe to render that a bit more obvious through a visual material, through sounds, through performances and things like that. Because I feel like within an African context, there are all kinds of partial fragmented histories, many things we are not aware of.
I find that interesting in the context of food, for example. If you consider many places and its people, Nigeria as an example, there’s always been a direct relationship to the plants, to the material that’s there and the food that they eat. But over time, you start seeing national dishes that are not endemic to that place. So, what happened to the plants and materials that you could eat that are endemic to it? Then you realise that those stories are forgotten and lost somewhere along the line.
So, for me, it’s always interesting to try and understand and excavate different histories. It’s not only that but to find ways that one can work with it in the present and think through it for the future.
PM: Speaking about the textile work Kolanut Tales – Dismembered (2010) and specifically about the performance Contained Measures of a Kolanut (2012), can you elaborate on how you use food as a way of investigating fragmented history?
ON: Maybe it’s good to have the picture in front of me. The work Contained Measures of a Kolanut was first conceived in 2012. A lot of my research investigated tropical plants, what they symbolise, their economical values and how certain plants become so banalised or so normal, entering into the stock market, while some resist. So, kola nut was one of those that had for me a very strange way of resisting and not resisting.
In Nigeria we use it a lot in different ways, from the spiritual, to ceremonies and connecting with people, the spirits and different ancestors.
I also discovered when doing the research that a lot of the people that were taken out of West Africa would take the kola nut with them, carrying it in their hair, and that is how it arrived in Southern America and also the United States. When eaten, kola nut gives you energy, but at the same time also cuts your appetite and cuts your thirst.
So, for me it was interesting to understand the notion of energy and what it meant in times of industrialisation and in times of slavery. Coca from South America and kola nut from Africa became ingredients in early Coca-Cola. The combination between these two energy giving plants enters back into our palate, into our memories. So, we drink Coca-Cola and it’s already engraved somewhere in our DNA and we’re connected to those plants, which connects us to our ancestries and all that.
PM: One thing I feel about your work is this idea of taking something as an object but imbuing it with a human quality or a physical, bodily quality and this idea of seeing something and having a personal relationship to it, but also understanding the larger, global context.
OM: I think it’s really interesting to work with local materials as with this installation of Taste of a Stone. Materials that people are familiar with, but don’t see in a certain kind of constellation together.
So even during this Cape Town visit, going to the botanical gardens, having a sense of the atmosphere – the air, the fog, the wind, the trees, the colours, the tones – these are things that should resonate in the installation’s aesthetic. In its form but also in relation to its history, to local people, to people that have come in here and also out of the space because it’s important that it doesn’t stay claustrophobic or incestuous, let’s say, and to have a resonance to other parts of the world. But most times, a Taste of a Stone is seen as a place of contemplation, where different worlds meet and where it calms you down and it allows you to think, if you give it that space and that time.
PM: I think what makes your work so interesting for the space is the way you’re aware of all these different elements that come together. Even the way we’re moving through the exhibition space, we have a starting point and an ending point, there is a connectedness. What is the importance of creating connection in your work?
ON: They have to weave together, one way or the other. They have to find a way of resonating. So even the way I’m thinking of the wall drawing for the exhibition has to connect the space before and the space after. So, it’s almost like the tunnel or the area in which your brain is being recalibrated. So, I had to think of recalibration in certain spaces and other spaces that will be bodily immersive and other spaces that will make the brain work. I have to think of the whole exhibition as different parts of the body, that are being subtly and sometimes maybe more aggressively brought in to the space.
A lot of times we make separations, we’ve learned to enter into a place of thinking of things in a separate way. Say nature or culture and we’re so distant from it. But if we look at it where exactly or close to all the components that we find in our surroundings and so how do we separate that? Even our bones are made of calcium, you see, we have iron, we have water. We’re all of that. And then we completely separate from the landscape that we’re working in and I think that’s one of the most dangerous points of how we treat the landscape. Because if we have a child we try to protect them, if we have a family we try to protect them. We’re born to protect those that we give birth to. But we seem to have distanced ourselves [from the land] because we have science and this and that...which takes you away from an intuitive way of feeling and doing.
So, I think that is the core to be able to change and to be able to think of climate disasters, a fundamental shift in a way of thinking. So even if we say let’s stop doing this or stop doing that, it’s not that. It’s more about understanding that we should be in sync with the earth, so that if you do something you have to appease it, not just destroy it.
PM: When you’re thirsty you have to drink water. When you’ve injured yourself you must rest. Being an extension of the very space that we embody or occupy and knowing that you’re connected to it.
ON: I hope that the work is able to open up these kinds of spaces of thinking or understanding or at least trigger a part of that in a way. I hope.