Oto­bong Nkan­ga The Ethics of Coo­pe­ra­tion

The work of Oto­bong Nkan­ga, who re­cent­ly came to at­ten­tion in France with her show at the In Si­tu–Fa­bienne Le­clerc gal­le­ry (June 1-30, 2016), is a nuan­ced exa­mi­na­tion of the me­cha­nisms of eco­no­mic do­mi­na­tion and constraint. The worlds she creates are mark

Art Press - - POST-COLONIAL -

Loo­king at the en­semble of what’s cal­led post-co­lo­nial art, art ar­ti­cu­la­ted around the ef­fects of co­lo­nia­lism, and more broad­ly the construc­tion and de­cons­truc­tion of in­di­vi­duals and the do­mi­na­tion and po­wer net­works they are caught up in, it’s ve­ry hard to find mea­ning­ful work that doesn’t slip in­to ste­reo­ty­pi­cal consi­de­ra­tions. Recent years have seen a whole swath of work fo­re­groun­ding a com­bi­na­tion of mo­der­nist aes­the­tics and all sorts of exo­tic va­ria­tions, meant to de­mons­trate the the­sis that a hy­brid art has been pro­du­ced by the conflic­tual and yet com­mon his­to­ry of the West and its for­mer colonies. While Nkan­ga’s work has bro­ken free of this re­duc­tio­nist lo­gic, ne­ver­the­less it is the fruit of her ef­forts to found new pa­ra­digms for thin­king and ma­king art that are not cen­te­red on concerns unique to “white” people. What makes Nkan­ga’s work so ori­gi­nal is first of all her ico­no­gra­phy. At first sight it seems to be a vo­ca­bu­la­ry com­pri­sed of ba­nal and re­pe­ti­tive images go­ver­ned by the kind of vi­sual pro­to­cols as­so­cia­ted with com­pu­ter-as­sis­ted gra­phic art. The pa­lette is al­so re­pe­ti­tive, al­most iso­to­pic, ge­ne­ral­ly al­ter­na­ting bet­ween va­rious warm, reas­su­ring tones. Yet the tangle of eclec­tic si­gns makes this ima­ge­ry far more com­plex than it may seem. Bo­dies are de­struc­tu­red and am­pu­ta­ted, but al­ways high­ly ac­tive, as in Fil­te­red Me­mo­ries, 1990-92: Sur­vi­val, 1990-91, F.G.C. Sha­ga­mu, 2010, where a wo­man with ma­ny arms reads, sows, culti­vates and sweeps; she al­so seems to be dra­wing the struc­ture she is stan­ding on. These arms are dis­join­ted but connec­ted by ropes, roots and branches. The back­ground land­scapes are flat, ei­ther sta­cked stra­ti­fi­ca­tions or lin­ked to one ano­ther. So­me­times they are sus­pen­ded in a void, at others they are dee­ply an­cho­red in the earth. “What I un­ders­tand by the concept of Earth is not li­mi­ted to the ground, ter­ri­to­ries or the pla­net; for me it’s tied up with connec­ti­vi­ty and the conflicts we at­tach to the spaces we oc­cu­py, and the way hu­man beings try to find so­lu­tions through simple acts of in­no­va­ting or re­pai­ring,” Nkan­ga ex­plains. NO UNIVOCAL MES­SAGES This way of connec­ting the earth and hu­man ac­ti­vi­ty is al­so to be found in her most pro­tean pro­duc­tions. One of the ins­tal­la­tions in the In Pur­suit of Bling (2014) se­ries is an outs­tan­ding example. Com­pri­sed of two large ta­pes­tries han­ging back to back and twen­ty-eight tables of dif­ferent sizes and heights, it illus­trates the stages in the cir­cu­la­tion of mi­ne­rals from Afri­ca. The stones are sim­ply sit­ting, em­bed­ded in con­crete and han­ging. Their ra­ther aca­de­mic ar­ran­ge­ment re­veals their per­pe­tual trans­for­ma­tion and in­dus­trial pre­des­ti­na­tion. The en­semble re­flects the ex­ploi­ta­tion of the Earth by hu­man beings, and at the same time, since most mi­ning com­pa­nies are Wes­tern-ow­ned, the do­mi­nant po­wers’ ex­ploi­ta­tion of the coun­tries they do­mi­nate. But Nkan­ga re­frains from de­li­ve­ring a univocal mes­sage. For instance, In Pur­suit of Bling was shown in an au­tumn 2015 ex­hi­bi­tion at the MHKA in Ant­werp whose title, Bruises and Lustre, re­vea­led much about her thin­king. First, the Earth is brui­sed by pro­cesses dri­ven by our own at­trac­tion to bling. Se­cond, ma­ny of her pieces, such as So­lid Ma­neu­vers (2015), for example, are lus­trous. This sculp­tu­ral ren­di­tion of the concave and convex to­po­gra­phies of quar­ries and open-pit mines is stud­ded with re­flec­ting silver, as if to contrast the vio­lence of mi­ning and our at­trac­tion to the stones whose ex­trac­tion re­quires hu­man des­truc­tion of the land­scape. This is al­so why Nkan­ga of­ten uses mi­ca, a mi­ne­ral whose name comes from the La­tin word mi­care, which means to shine, ano­ther word lin­ked to the term bling whose aes­the­tic and so­cio­lo­gi­cal conno­ta­tions are clear. But mi­ca is al­so known for the laye-

red tex­ture that al­lows it to exist in mul­tiple forms. “Be­cause of its pro­per­ties as an ef­fec­tive ther­mal and elec­tri­cal in­su­la­tor, it is of­ten used in construc­tion and ma­chi­ne­ry… As a pow­der it’s used in the ma­nu­fac­ture of cos­me­tics, and in­dus­trial plas­tics and paint. In its raw state, usual­ly car­ved and po­li­shed, this mi­ne­ral is va­lued for its aes­the­tic qua­li­ties, and it’s used to de­co­rate je­wels, clo­thing and other ac­ces­so­ries.”(1) Thanks to its in­cre­dible mal­lea­bi­li­ty and ma­ny pro­per­ties, for cen­tu­ries it has been a core com­mo­di­ty in the eco­no­mic, po­li­ti­cal and an­thro­po­lo­gi­cal ex­changes this ar­tist ex­plores and in­te­grates in­to her work. In ad­di­tion to her hy­per­bo­lic re­pre­sen­ta­tions, Nkan­ga al­so in­ter­venes in rea­li­ty di­rect­ly. At the 2014 São Pau­lo bien­nial she en­ga­ged in ex­changes with se­ve­ral Bra­zi­lians, from dif­ferent walks of life but all, pro­fes­sio­nal­ly or in­tel­lec­tual­ly, clo­se­ly lin­ked to the Earth, such as geo­lo­gists and other scien­tists, hou­sing and land ac­ti­vists, far­mers and crafts­men. These dia­logues gave birth to a se­ries of ob­jects Nkan­ga made, with ab­so­lu­te­ly no hie­rar­chy among them so as to avoid crea­ting le­vels of in­ter­pre­ta­tion for each par­ti­ci­pant. She trans­for­med this constel­la­tion of first-hand ac­counts in­to a spraw­ling ins­tal­la­tion with the high­ly ap­pro­priate title Land­ver­sa­tion. UNSTABLE EQUI­LI­BRIUM Nkan­ga al­so makes do­cu­men­ta­ries, such as the cycle of photos cal­led Dol­phin Es­tate (2008), about pre­fab hou­sing in Lagos, and The Green Hill (2015), a fil­mic in­qui­ry in­to the Tsu­meb re­gion in Na­mi­bia, known for its crystal mi­ne­rals and cop­per. But her per­for­mances are the most sur­pri­sing as­pect of her work. Ba­sed on at­ti­tudes that are nei­ther confron­ta­tio­nal nor em­pa­the­tic, these ac­tions at first seem as enig­ma­tic as her images. She of­ten per­forms in the middle of a cir­cu­lar stage, ma­ni­pu­la­ting her art­works, brin­ging to­ge­ther Afri­can oral culture and her own unique mo­ve­ments to pro­duce a me­di­ta­tion on her personal aes­the­tic and ideo­lo­gi­cal ambivalences. The mix is dis­tur­bing, non-doc­tri­nal and still less de­miur­gic. What is the mea­ning of these re­cur­rent ac­tions and connec­tions? They cor­res­pond to what Ri­chard Sen­nett calls “an ethics of coo­pe­ra­tion.”(2) Dis­trus­ting illu­so­ry uto­pias and naïf evan­ge­lism, this Ame­ri­can so­cio­lo­gist dis­tin­guishes bet­ween coo­pe­ra­tion as a mo­del of pro­duc­tion, and so­li­da­ri­ty, which sim­ply per­pe­tuates the cas­tra­ting po­wer of cer­tain ideo­lo­gi­cal and eco­no­mic po­wers. Sen­nett argues for the free as­so­cia­tion of the most di­verse skills so as to create com­mu­ni­ties that are ba­sed not on eth­nic, re­li­gious or sexual iden­ti­ties but ra­ther com­mon ac­ti­vi­ties. He al­so si­tuates Ho­mo fa­ber at the core of so­cial or­ga­ni­za­tion ba­sed on ethi­cal coo­pe­ra­tion. In his book The Crafts­man, he argues, “Crafts­man­ship names an en­du­ring, ba­sic hu­man im­pulse. Crafts­man­ship cuts a wi­der swath than skilled ma­nual la­bor; it serves the com­pu­ter pro­gram­mer; the doc­tor, and the ar­tist; pa­ren­ting im­proves when it is prac­ti­ced as a skilled craft, as does ci­ti­zen­ship.”(3) Crafts­men ap­ply a kind of prac­ti­cal, mi­schie­vous and cun­ning in­tel­li­gence as­so­cia­ted with the Greek fi­gure Me­tis, from which Greek de­rives the word for wis­dom and cun­ning.(4) It im­plies both know­ledge of the si­tua­tion and of the art of com­bi­na­tion, and the­re­fore an es­sen­tial abi­li­ty to adapt to the constraints of po­wer. In Nkan­ga’s prac­tice, the hand and what it does are a re­pre­sen­ta­tion of the need to adapt to the op­po­sing forces in life, and at the same time the links bet­ween people, and bet­ween people and their en­vi­ron­ment, even un­der the most un­cer­tain condi­tions. Her piece Fra­gi­lo­lo­gist’s Pre­di­ca­ment (2011) is an ex­cellent me­ta­phor for this, a vi­sual ma­ni­fes­to. Two fol­ded pa­nels co­ve­red with wo­ven fa­bric, six me­ters high by three me­ters wide, seem to be over­po­we­red and cru­shed by the sur­roun­ding ar­chi­tec­ture. The mo­tifs re­present a vast net­work of car­ved up bo­dies, land­scapes and ob­jects. They float in space, and yet the dots are connec­ted by an al­most cos­mo­lo­gi­cal dia­gram. The title re­fers to a pre­ca­rious si­tua­tion, an

unstable equi­li­brium bet­ween hu­man beings and the world. Ta­ken to­ge­ther, ho­we­ver, these ele­ments consti­tute an en­semble that is dif­fi­cult for our eye to de­cons­truct in­to its com­ponent parts. Nkan­ga thinks dia­lo­gi­cal­ly, which, far from pre­ven­ting co­he­rence in her work, serves as its wells­pring.

Trans­la­tion, L-S Tor­goff

(1) Quo­ted in a text by Gau­thier Les­tur­gie in the In­ter­net ma­ga­zine (contem­po­ra­ry and) af­ter the pre­sen­ta­tion of

In Pur­suit of Bling at the Berlin bien­nial in 2014. http://www.contem­po­ra­ryand.com/fr/ma­ga­zines/amul­ti­tude-of-ar­chi­pe­la­gos/ (2) To­ge­ther: The Ri­tuals, Plea­sures, and Po­li­tics of

Coo­pe­ra­tion, Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2012. (3) Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2008. (4) In Greek my­tho­lo­gy, Me­tis was an Ocea­nid, the daugh­ter of Ocea­nus and Te­thys. The Greek word means a qua­li­ty that com­bines wis­dom and cun­ning. It al­so names a being that can be half one thing and half ano­ther.

Éric Man­gion is the di­rec­tor of the Vil­la Ar­son art cen­ter (Nice) and an art cri­tic. Oto­bong Nkan­ga Née en/ born 1974 à/ in Ka­no, Nigéria Vit et tra­vaille à/ lives in An­vers Études d’art à l’Oba­fe­mi Awo­lo­wo Uni­ver­si­ty d’Ile-Ifé, Nigéria, et à l’ENSBA, Pa­ris Ex­po­si­tions ré­centes/ Recent shows: 2011 Kias­ma Mu­seum of Contem­po­ra­ry Art, Hel­sin­ki 2012 Tate Mo­dern, The Tanks, Londres, Bien­nale du Bé­nin, Co­to­nou; Be­ton­sa­lon, Pa­ris Welt­kul­tu­ren Mu­seum, Franc­fort 2013 11e Bien­nale de Shar­jah 2014 Rooms Ba­sel; 8e Bien­nale de Berlin Ste­de­lijk Mu­seum, Am­ster­dam 2015 M HKA An­vers (16 oc­tobre- 19 jan­vier 2016) Ka­dist Foun­da­tion, Pa­ris Por­ti­kus, Franc­fort ; Ste­de­lijk Mu­seum Schie­dam 2016 ga­le­rie in si­tu - Fa­bienne Le­clerc, Pa­ris

« Fra­gi­lo­lo­gist’s Pre­di­ca­ment » (dé­tail). 2011. Tis­su. 600 x 300 cm. (© W. Van Don­gen). Fa­bric

Ci-des­sous/ be­low: « Bruises and Lustre ». « So­cial Conse­quences I: Cri­sis, 2009; In Pur­suit of Bling ». 2014; « From Where I Stand ». 2015. Ex­po­si­tion au M HKA, An­vers. 2015. (Court. ga­le­rie in si­tu – Fa­bien­neLe­clerc, Pa­ris). Ex­hi­bi­tion view

De haut en bas / from top: « Bruises and Lustre ». Ex­po­si­tion au M HKA. 2015. « In Pur­suit of Bling ». 2014 (© W. Van Don­gen et ga­le­rie in si­tu - Fa­bienne Le­clerc, Pa­ris, pour les ta­pis­se­ries / for the 2 ta­pes­tries). Ex­hi­bi­tion view « Fil­te­red Me­mo­ries, 1990-92: Sur­vi­val, 1990-91, F.G.C. Sha­ga­mu, 2010 » .

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