On ViewMuseum of Contemporary Art Chicago
March 31 – September 2, 2018
Curator Omar Kholeif insists that Otobong Nkanga is first and foremost a draughtswoman—her works ideate from sketches even if they end up as paintings or poems, several of the latter which are published in this exhibition’s catalogue. His intuition bears out in the first United States survey of her work, which includes solidly sculptural works alongside paintings on paper, as well as tapestries that work their own glimmering magic in an expansive, all-encompassing gallery. Nkanga’s exhibition is laid out like a landscape, with the far-off vista of a river-like installation catching the eye behind an elaborate display of minerals along with images of their industrial applications and scientific categorization. In Pursuit of Bling (2014) bears a flashier title than the work deserves, but that is perhaps the point. Mica, a shiny sister of sand that gives glimmering life to granite countertops but also insulates electrical and thermal apparati, hovers in magnetic suspension over some of the many metal-framed surfaces that rise and fall over the territory of the installation (which consists of a clutter of side tables, some bearing scientific photographs of the mineral and others showing its industrial uses in make-up, among other applications). Copper is also a subject of this work, and a video screen on one of the variegated surfaces shows the artist roaming Berlin with a malachite crown reminiscent of the Bronze Age golden hat in that city’s Neues Museum. Indeed, the mining and transit of the metal from Africa to the “copper-domed churches in the streets of Berlin” is precisely the story that Nkanga evokes. In the words of Kholeif, “her body becomes a conduit, a voice for these raw materials.”
But minerals are less the subject of this exhibition, evocatively titled, To Dig a Hole That Collapses Again, than the bodies that mine these earthly materials, excavating them from beneath the surface and extracting them from nature in the pursuit of humankind’s ambition. Bodies abound in Nkanga’s work, but they are headless or faceless, appearing as silhouettes or mannequins in her paintings on paper that often place the human form in rigid, structural relations to the natural environment. Hands grasp crystalline branches that appear to pierce the landscape, which is itself a free-floating chunk of earth framed by the intimate confines of the page. The paintings are consummately graphic, not only because they quietly imply sex and death, but also in the facture of their rendering. Colors remain vigilantly within their bounds, evoking the cel shading styles of cartoons and belying their sinister implications. Limbs have gone missing, the circular sockets of their absence feigning a mechanistic regard for the body. Nkanga claims autobiography for many of her paintings, but the chilling exactness of their execution speaks of a far remove. If these are memories, they are gingerly handled, like the wounds of a friend whose pain you try vainly to imagine as you care for her.
A cluster of these smaller paintings telegraph the entire show—bodies, minerals, earth, nature, desire, and destruction. As bodies come together they also fall apart, and as the earth is mined to make man-made things it also crumbles beneath our feet. Nkanga cleverly mimes her process, including the palette for each painting on its same surface, the way a graphic designer might have her colors in the corner of her screen. In this way, you can see the elements of each composition before they are combined to make the figure and ground, evoking the process of applying mica-replete make-up and nodding to the elemental composition of all matter, living or inert. Several tapestries expound on these drawn fantasies, blending the same bright palette with metallic fibers to evoke the subtle sheen of bling. One is hung with its feet in a copper trough full of ink and dyes, absorbing the poison of nature-turned-industry in an apt metaphor for the way our bodies, willfully and unknowingly, imbibe the toxins of the environment we have made—and unmade—for ourselves. Nkanga makes her critique beautifully, imploring us to question the absolute cost of living as we now do.
Two sculptural works drive the show home, extending the artists drawings toward their logical ends, given the clear path from sketch to object that parallels an industrial design process. One is a series of mica and metal plateaus laminated and precision-cut to the specifications of a topographical map, transforming the roughly hewn contours of geography to the representational models humans have developed to comprehend and exploit the earth. Two are mountainous and one is a pit that has been filled with sand. The reference to the exhibition’s title is perhaps too blunt, but what it lacks in subtlety it makes up for in formal elegance. Never before has such destruction been so carefully crafted, except in the realm of mining engineering proper. The whole assemblage is propped up by thin metal rods, implying the fragility of the structures we rely on to physically and metaphorically support our human world.
Behind this sculpture is a massive wall split in two by the contours of a mapped river. The space between these mica-laden gypsum banks is filled with gradient of densely packed earthy brown matter. Before the eyes can register it, the nose picks up on the scents of clove, coffee, peat, and tobacco, among others. Nkanga has drawn a final line, a vista for an exhibition that makes beauty from squalor and tenderness from careful, distant observation.