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Born in Nigeria (1974) and now based in Belgium, visual artist and performer Otobong Nkanga exploresthe notion of land, the social and topographical changes of the environment around us, the identity built on the colonization process in a contemporary context, the impacts provoked by humans - who keep exhuming minerals and objects from their natural environments. An active, subtle, poetic meditation on stability, care and repair.

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Honored with the Special Mention Award at the 58th International Art Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia (2019), Otobong Nkanga is aware that, in interesting times, the momentum has arrived to re-imagine our relationship to everyday environment, our body and the ways we can be together. Soil and earth, the weight of scars, fertile grounds, the taste of a stone, fragmentsand pollution, holes that collapse, cracks around the corner: the matter - both physical and metaphysical - of her narratives and stories revealed, through multi-disciplinary works, since 2000. Tapestry, drawing, photography, installation, video, music and performance.


Otobong Nkanga,The Weight of Scars,2015. Courtesy of the artist and Lumen Travo, Amsterdam, In Situ / Fabienne Leclerc, Paris and Mendes Wood DM, São Paulo, Brussels, New York. © Photo: MHKA.


Described as “one of the most exciting artists working today, keen and sensitive, Otobong Nkanga’s oeuvre is currently on view at Gropius Bau, Berlin, Germany (until 13th December), There's No Such Thing as Solid Ground. Minerals like mica, copper, and malachite, plants, stones, dust, glimmer, archival and raw material are correlated resources that can reveal something about the soil, the people, the economic systems and are deeply connected to memory. 

Otobong Nkanga has adapted her work Diaspore [front image] - originally conceived as a performative work - into a site-specific installation. 15 potted Cestrum Nocturnumplants (also known as “Queen of the Night”, an endemic species that give off a sweet scent only at night) are placed at different spots of the space. As they move around, visitors can reflect on the concept of rootedness, of existence, of something difficult to eradicate, and to what extent feel connected to it. “The rootlessness is not just about nationality but it’s about the land”, says the artist. Dismembered plants that extent the questions to us: Where are our roots? Can we feel at home almost anywhere?


Otobong Nkanga, Solid Maneuvers, 2015. Various metals, Forex, acrylic, tar, salt, make-up, vermiculite, Dimensions variable. Installation view Crumbling Through Powdery Air, Portikus, 2015 Photo: Helena Schlichting, courtesy: Portikus.


My public could be the sea, the mountain, a tree”. The performance became crucial to Otobong Nkanga because she was able to sense the liveness of the emotion. In her woven textile, she depicts men without their head and hands, focusing only on gestures and movements. 

In 2015, after entering the heat of Tsumeb mine - one of the oldest mines tunnel in Namibia - and seeing the holes and dent, she translated the destruction, scarification, wounding, both of workers and of the landscape, intoThe Weight of Scars - her most recognizable work. Because the mining of the world’s natural resources, the colonization of Africa and the exploitation of black bodies are connected to any human being on the planet. Our stories are always entwined. Political decisions have always human, geological and social repercussions. 

Otobong Nkanga’s open platforms and engagements are an essential reservoir to draw from  to connect the spaces in-between - places that are going into crisis - to find solutions within this global fracture. We all hope. From a window overlooking the chestnut forest, I hope.


Otobong Nkanga,Taste of a Stone, Gropius Bau (2020), site-specific installation, boulders, gneiss, granite, iceland lichen, inkjet prints on limestone, marble pebbles, movements, plants, ©Otobong Nkanga, photo: Luca Girardini.


Otobong Nkanga,In Pursuit of Bling: The Transformation, 2014. Tapestry; 71 7/10 × 71 in. (182 × 180 cm); edition of 5, aside from 1 artist’s proof. Courtesy of Lumen Travo Gallery, Amsterdam and Galerie In Situ – Fabienne Leclerc, Paris.


Otobong Nkanga in front of her work Double Plot, 2018, Tapestry: woven textile and photography; yarns: acryl and inkjet print on 5 laser cut metal plates, bio cotton, cashwool, polyester, viscose bast, Otobong Nkanga: There's No Such Thing as Solid Ground, Gropius Bau, Berlin, 2020 © Otobong Nkanga, Foto: Laura Fiorio.


Cover image: Otobong Nkanga,Diaspore, site-specific installation and performance, 14 Rooms, Basel (2014), inkjet-printed topographical map laminated to the floor, Cestrum nocturnum, plant pots, © Otobong Nkanga, photo: Andri Pol.

Written by Petra Chiodi

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