In March of 2020, when I first began to write about Nigeria-born, Belgium-based artist Otobong Nkanga (b. 1974), I was sitting in my apartment in Windhoek, Namibia, thinking about Namibia’s history—both against the backdrop of the global pandemic and in relation to Nkanga’s work. “To Dig a Hole That Collapses Again” is the title of the artist’s first survey exhibition in the United States, presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 2018. Animated by her interest in the twin forces of colonialism and extraction, the show made reference to the Tsumeb Mine in northern Namibia, which Nkanga visited in 2015. The name “Tsumeb” translates roughly as “place of moss,” alluding to a green copper-ore-rich hill that has been transformed into a giant crater by decades of mining. Tsumeb is one of the most mineralogically abundant sites in the world: at least 170 minerals have been found and catalogued there, twenty of which have not been unearthed anywhere else. They range from rare warikahnite to the newly discovered krieselite to the relatively common duftite. The town and the mine were both founded by German colonizers in 1905, just one year into the genocidal campaign that imperial Germany was waging against the indigenous Herero and Nama people in the southern part of the country. Francis Galton is believed to be the first European to document evidence of mineral deposits at Tsumeb: he was a British anthropologist and a pioneer of eugenics. In her work, Nkanga doesn’t treat the extraction of natural resources as a metaphor for colonial violence: she shows how the two have historically gone hand-
The artist’s four-panel textile piece The Weight of Scars (2015) illustrates the scars that mineral extraction leaves on both the land and human workers. A foregrounded map connects ten unnamed locales with white lines, a representation of supply chains, transportation links, or flows of labor and capital. Two humanoid figures flank the map, each a pair of legs topped by a cluster of different-colored arms: they appear engaged in a kind of tug of war. The scars in the title are not simply wounds in the earth blown open with dynamite so that materials can be drawn to the surface, but also the psychological scars of indigenous and migrant workers who are often subjugated and exploited as they labor on land that is no longer their own. These scars are also bodily; Nkanga represents them in the form of detached arms, recalling the brutal punishments that took place on King Leopold’s plantations in the Congo Free State, where native workers’ hands were cut off when they failed to meet collection quotas for rubber, ivory, and copper. Dismemberment is a recurring motif, seen also in the artist’s 2011 painting The Flow Will Not Stop!, in which a puppet-like system of pulleys forces arms with tools to dig and build, emphasizing a Black worker fungibility that supplants humanity and individuality.
Nkanga’s work consistently foregrounds African people and their position in the international supply chain, emphasizing the continent’s role as a vital point of extraction for raw materials, whether cacao or coltan (used in the manufacture of cellphones and other electronic devices). Devastating large-scale projects are an integral part of colonialism’s conquest of natural and human resources. The postcolonial economy is not so unlike the formal colonial one. Vestiges of colonialism connect mining in Namibia to the mining of phosphate on Nauru and Banaba in the Pacific, and of “conflict” minerals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It lives on in Elon Musk’s glib tweet that he would “coup whoever we want” (suggesting a relationship between Tesla’s need for nickel and lithium and the 2019 coup d’état in Bolivia), and even in the 2012 massacre of striking miners near Marikana in South Africa, a country with its own apartheid history of mining. Nkanga forces us to bear witness to these topographies of land and labor, to remember who creates (and suffers for) the everyday products and luxuries that we take for granted.
WHETHER DEPICTING figures or performing, Nkanga re-presents physical labor, often reminding audiences that human flesh is driving industrialized production. In a video interview recorded for her 2019 exhibition at Tate St. Ives, she describes seeing mica on the ground while walking to school in Lagos as a child, and recalls how she would paint her own skin with the shimmery mineral so she could glitter in the sun. Performance, she says, permits an engagement with a different kind of public. She performs for people in museums, but also, in nature, where the natural world is her audience—the sea or mountains or trees. Some performances, like Remains of the Green Hill (2015), in which she sang to the ruins of the mine at Tsumeb, are recorded and become video installations. For her 2014 performance Diaspore, which she recently restaged for her solo exhibition “There’s No Such Thing as Solid Ground,” at the Gropius Bau in Berlin last year, she recruited about a dozen women who identify as Black or Afro-descendant. Each of them carries on her head a night-blooming jasmine—a plant that releases a strong fragrance in the evenings—while tracing the lines and contours of a topographic map on the floor with their movements. The women hum as they move, their synchronicity inviting viewers to consider a kind of rootedness that is not geographically fixed, but collectively produced. The humming suggests a language of diasporic journeying and identity-making. The term “diaspore” emphasizes the agricultural origins of “diaspora,” which comes from the Greek diaspeirein, meaning to scatter, to sow. “Diaspore” is also the name of a beautiful scaly or crystalline-textured gem that occurs in translucent, earthy greens, reds, or grays.
Nkanga’s installation “In Pursuit of Bling,” which was first shown at the 2014 Berlin Biennale, is a clear example of her most critical motif: how African workers are often oppressed by the very same capitalist and neocolonial forces that extract from and destroy their ecologies. She encourages kinship with the land, rather than hierarchy. The work has two tapestries at its center. One, called The Discovery, transposes the contours of the mineral mica onto a map, symbolizing the distance the substance travels to become part of a wide range of everyday objects. Some believe the name “mica” is derived from the Latin mica meaning “crumb;” others, from micare, meaning “to glitter.” In powder form, the mineral can be used for paints or dyes, but prolonged exposure to its dust at high concentrations—as experienced by African miners—is hazardous, even fatal, to the respiratory system. The second tapestry, The Transformation, illustrates the bottom halves of two people whose torsos are displaced by and become a part of a geometric, gem-studded landscape, suggesting these anonymous bodies do the labor of extracting this valuable material from the earth. Like mineral resources and the products they are made into, the working body is also a fetishized commodity, exploited with the same sense of entitlement as inorganic matter. Surrounding the two tapestries are metal tables holding minerals, photographs of various geological samples, and video monitors laid flat. The videos show the artist interacting with and consuming the extracted products. She holds mica in front of her mouth in the video Indulgence, linking its use in shimmering cosmetics to the mineral supplements we consume for our health. Her work reminds us that violence lurks beneath the glittery glamour of the bling we love and celebrate: that many of our ornaments originate from the exploitation of human bodies and inorganic materials alike.
IN ADDITION TO drawing from anthropology and geology, Nkanga delves into history, documenting figures like the late Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. A noted environmentalist, Saro-Wiwa was a member of the Ogoni people, whose ethnic homeland, Ogoniland in the Delta region, has been encroached upon for oil extraction and waste dumping for more than five decades. Western environmentalists often hold up Indigenous peoples’ relationship to land as exemplary stewardship, but Africans are usually omitted from this conversation. Instead, images of the continent tend to show impoverished Africans in unsanitary slum conditions or surrounded by trash—for example, Pieter Hugo’s photographic series “Permanent Error” (2009–10), which pictures the e-waste dump site Agbogbloshie, located outside of Ghana’s capital, Accra. Africa is often described as being paradoxically resource-rich and materially impoverished: this so-called resource curse or paradox of plenty is widely debated and discussed by economists and political pundits. The first president of independent Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, referred this paradox as a kind of neo-colonialism, or “imperialism in its final and perhaps its most dangerous stage.” Nkanga’s “Delta Stories” (2005–06) is a series of eighteen works on paper that narrate the petropolitical warfare being waged in the Niger Delta. The drawings of flaming land, denuded people, oil-sullied water, and Black citizens confronting a map of redrawn and reinforced borders and waterways were inspired by Saro-Wiwa’s life and work. He spoke out emphatically against both multinational petroleum corporations (particularly Shell) and the Nigerian government’s refusal to enforce environmental protections. Tragically, Saro-Wiwa was executed in 1995 by the military dictatorship of Sani Abacha, due primarily to his passionate campaigning for Indigenous rights and land sovereignty. One of Nkanga’s images, Crying Blood, depicts a child crying brown-black tears of oil, evoking her people’s mourning over the loss of their land, and with it, generations of lore, memory, and cultural practice. Not simply a powerful indictment of consumerism or colonialism, Nkanga’s oeuvre draws critical attention to the African labor foundational to Euro-American modernity.