‘If you put the responsibility on God, you can pollute as much as you want’

“If you believe there is a God somewhere in heaven who can ask you for forgiveness every time, you can continue to make mistakes and neglect your surroundings.” The Nigerian-Belgian artist Otobong Nkanga is putting the finishing touches on her exhibition at the medieval Saint John’s Hospital, where she has placed her work among the museum’s Christian art, such as artists such as Jan Beerblock or Hans Memling. The latter has, for example, painted Sankt Ursula’s reliquary (1489) between Nkanga’s installations. Large wall coverings alternate with installations on the floor between white stones, there is poetry on the walls and on the ceiling is Nkanga’s anamnesis (2020). The latter work is a white wall through which a trail runs of products brought to Europe from various colonies, such as coffee, tobacco, tea, pepper or incense. anamnesis can be seen and smelled from the idea that all these senses evoke memories and make the past irreversible.

Otobong Nkanga (48) has had many retrospective exhibitions in various European capitals, she was praised for her contribution to the former Documenta, received the Special Mention Award at the Venice Biennale in 2019 and also excelled in this edition of the Biennale with impressive work. In Bruges, she enters into a dialogue with Christian, ancient art and the history of the building. This results in a 2,500-square-foot exhibition entitled Under the shade we lay grounded† Anyone who knows her work knows that it often involves drawings, installations and performances, where she focuses on identity and raw materials that symbolize power and exploitation, but also on how we deprive the earth of its wealth. A conversation in four topics.

By reducing others to your words, you make yourself bigger


“It was not at all complicated to relate to the Christian background and art in this place. I grew up with the Catholic faith in Nigeria, I know all the rituals of the church, I can pray Hail Mary, my primary school was called Our Lady of the Apostles. So it was not an unknown imagery. But we also know what Christianity did to African religions. In this building the sick were cared for and the refugees were received in the name of faith, but under the guise of the same faith many also died in the seas, as you can see here depicted on the tapestries. Christianity has polarized Nigerian society and changed the responsibility to deal with nature. Giving responsibility to gods and replacing it with the invisible god of Christianity changes your relationship with nature. If a tree represents a god, one takes extra care of it, if an invisible god does, then no one is responsible for the protection of that tree. In African philosophy, one was associated with natural elements – everything had a name, one took care of it, nurtured it. If you no longer have that responsibility, you can pollute as much as you want, cut down trees where you want and then say ‘sorry god’. You destroy and are forgiven. Everything we owe to our existence that keeps us alive is outsourced.

Otobong Nkanga in front of one of her tapestries in Bruges. Photo Wouter Van Vooren

“I do not know what it means to be asked if I have an ethical component in my work. I have my own references to how I see the world and how I build my work, which is linked to context and understanding that when the balance in that regard is disturbed, it affects everything around us. I am always afraid of words like ethics. The effect of Christianity alone on language and thus on the world is enormous. Language has led to the reduction of others, and it still matters how I look at, say, Europe or the United States. By reducing others to your words, you make yourself bigger.

“My poems at this museum are partly dedicated to St. John’s wort that was used in the past [vanwege anti-depressieve effecten]† The line with the words ‘Finally at rest’ is about lowering the dust when you let go of everything, but it is also about the last breath from someone who is dying. When I was seven years old, I saw my father die, and I already realized how peaceful he was when he died. “

Economy (and energy)

“That wall coverings, and the technique of making them, are now suddenly more interested in European museums, means nothing to me. I have always been involved in textiles, clothing and manufacturing processes. Museums need trends to fill calendars, I do not have that.

“The tapestries here at St John’s Hospital are a whole and show the different layers of the oceans and are about extracting energy from the oceans. On the one hand, it is becoming increasingly important what the sea has to offer in terms of raw materials, while at the same time this is where the most invisible places on earth can be found. If we want to extract cobalt, nickel or copper – all of which can be found in the oceans – we can destroy any life form and still remain invisible and feel that the raw materials are necessary for sustainability. The sea is home to both horror as a wealth of ideas, but also a legacy and new opportunities.

Recovery is like a broken vase. You keep seeing that it was broken

“In addition to the energy we can find there, the ocean also represents the many who have been transferred from Africa to America. New worlds have emerged from their deaths. Everything is affected by what we do. Worlds created by disasters, that is, what the rugs show.

“I have always been interested in economic structures. I was born in a place where people constantly wonder how to live, how to survive. Economics is not just about money, but about energy, creating networks, how to interact with each other , what it means to pay for knowledge.Finance is about everything, the connection starts the moment your mother teaches you not to talk to anyone in a certain way, to be polite.Connectedness is important because you never know why someone can be important to you, it is the basis of everything, oikos† There is no starting point, no end, only a cycle. ”

The body

“Everything is connected to the body, if you do not have water or air, you die. The economy affects the body in all possible ways: the social class you belong to, where you were born. In the Western world, everything is separate, for example, body and chemistry are seen separately. In school, they teach physics, chemistry and biology as separate subjects, as if the three did not belong together. I did not understand that as a child, how to separate the three? You can also see it in how we deal with the environment, with agriculture. If you go to see what is needed, for example, you focus entirely on corn. The origin was that corn could not exist without also growing beans, having plants that provided the right shade, being free of certain insects and so on. The ecosystem used to be a cohesive whole. It has now been separated everywhere. We grow corn, oh it does not grow, so we look for a chemical solution to it. I think you have to start with symbiosis, in order to arrive at a whole. In my work and in this exhibition, I connect everything and all stories: the wealth of the West, the church, my mother, grandmother. Everything is connected. You also see the limitations of how forced systems have brainwashed you and how it has determined the global economy. If you destroy the ideology of others, you can do anything.

Worlds created by disasters, that’s what my wall hangings show

Can a suffocated ideology be restored? We often believe that recovery is possible, now with nature for example, but recovery is like a broken vase. You can put everything back together, but you will still see that it is broken. The world can never be the same, so how can you go back? To what? We have seen and tasted too much. Whatever you repair, the damage remains visible. “


“That Filtered memories is an ongoing work. I process the past with those drawings. I was afraid I would forget a lot, holes fill the memory. I also want to show those holes. For example, I do not remember a man’s head groping for me, but I do remember the feeling. So I draw the headless man and I draw his hand and my legs. The drawings are reconstructions of events. An intense reaction to, for example, violence or death. I first noticed that I could get furious as I pulled the head off my teddy bear. My mother was furious. The bear was bigger than me and I had ruined it. I was three or so at the time. The second time was when our house burned down and you realize everything is gone. Third time was through tear gas. It blinded me temporarily and felt lost.

“These are small things that I say, because I do not want to explain them in more detail, there is so much. I have to narrow down the events, otherwise there is no room for what is to come. If you enlarge them, you can go no further. Why in my work most men do not have a head and women have a face, I do not know. The women I draw are the women I love, just like my mother. I feel more connected to them, the men in my life were tougher, my brain will forget what they looked like.

“There is such a thing as a collective memory, but everyone has their own perspective, and therefore the ultimate truth does not exist. Art does not have to change that perspective. If a work of art can show that there are several ways to look, it has done its job. As an artist, I do not want to take on the responsibility, you can not impose it on any artist. Let time determine which art is forgotten, timeless or suddenly considered important again. ”

Under the shade we lay grounded can be seen until September 25 in Sint-Janshospitaal, Bruges. Inl: museabrugge.be

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