Nigerian-born, Berlin-based Otobong Nkanga’s early training in the converging traditions of live arts and performance lend a decidedly wayward, playful charge to her research-heavy artistic practice, steering her work away from the dour academicism that so often cripples art projects invested in the production and dissemination of knowledge.
The lighthearted tone that characterises Nkanga’s use of her own body (and voice) does not belie the heft and seriousness of the subjects of her research; if anything, it proves that particular research to be a lived, truly embodied experience. What, then, commands the investigative attention of her heterogeneous, multidisciplinary practice in drawing and photography, installation and video? The role of mapping (ie, the visual imagination) in the history of colonialism; the dense web of social, political and economic tensions and outright conflicts percolating around the oil-rich Niger Delta in the artist’s native Nigeria; memories of a long-lost childhood home, and memories of the many places that have been home, however provisionally, to the artist ever since; the notion of ownership of land and precarious living; the malleability of custom and tradition, and the geographic determination of the notion of use value as it attaches itself to certain objects and products… Earthly matters, in other words, centred upon the paradigmatic notion, so pivotal to information and knowledge economies alike, of the resource.
One could even think of Nkanga’s work as a species of Land art for the twenty-first century, ie, updated for a globalised, mobile and unmoored world hardly conceivable to the macho pioneers of 1960s Earth art – an update whose aesthetic resourcefulness must evidently match the challenges of the earth’s fought-over riches. This the work of Otobong Nkanga does with keen visual intelligence and great gusto.
Originally published in the March 2014 FutureGreats issue, in association with EFG International