Ways of Humanity


An interview with Otobong Nkanga.


Otobong Nkanga (*1974, Kano, Nigéria) is a visual artist who lives in Antwerp. She works with a range of mediums from drawing and painting to performance and installation. In preparation for the exhibition “OBJECT ATLAS – Fieldwork in the Museum” at the Weltkulturen Museum in 2012, she was invited for an Artist in Residency program. In 2013 she was a participant in two Think Tanks which were organized in preparation of the exhibition “FOREIGN EXCHANGE (or the stories you wouldn’t tell a stranger)”. I met Otobong Nkanga in December 2016 and she explained her way of thinking to me.


Béatrice Barrois (BB): Dear Otobong, in 2012 you were invited by the Weltkulturen Museum for a residency, to create, based on the collection, a new work for the exhibition “OBJECT ATLAS – Fieldwork in the Museum”. For some time now there has been a trend to invite artists to contribute within the discourse about the future of ethnological museums. I am thinking for instance of the “Humboldt Lab“ in Berlin or the project “Grassi invites” in Leipzig. What do you think about this development in principle?


Otobong Nkanga (ON): I don’t think that we can talk about a trend. I think that’s a very reduced way of looking at an association of objects with artists and how artists have appropriated things from different cultures and have worked with that. If we want to put it in a question of trend, of inviting artists to a museum, I find it a very problematic question or way of looking at things. But there weren’t just artists who were invited, all kinds of people have been invited to the museum to actually engage with the objects such as scientists, lawyers, academicians etc. So, to reduce it to just artists and a trend I find quite a problematic question.


(BB): I know what you mean. My research is focused on the artistic perspective. I am particularly interested in the artistic way of looking at these collections. Do you think that there are specific methods of how artists work with such objects, or is it really personal for you?


(ON): What is your question precisely? I cannot have an opinion on a kind of institutional decision. That’s very difficult for me to say.


(BB): I will try to ask it in another way: In the last decade many theorists talk about Artistic Research. How would you describe what you were actually doing during your time at the Weltkulturen Museum? Was it a kind of research? Or was it an artistic process? Could you please give me a description of your activities?


(ON): For me, I don’t necessarily call it a research or anything like that. I call it curiosity. I think what Clémentine Deliss actually was proposing was a fieldwork in the museum. It is the possibility of entering into the storage and collection of a  museum and having an open place where you can see multiple objects that trigger your interest. This could be a starting point of thinking of a work. I start with the point of curiosity and desire, a place of not knowing. The notion of diving into something can begin with talking to a person in a market selling objects that resemble the objects that I saw in the museum or talking to the family, friends or grandparents, the custodians, a botanist etc. So I don’t know if research is enough or the right word to open up different ways of looking at thinks. When I was working at the museum, it was more or less questioning certain objects. Why were they in a certain way? How were they to be used on the body? I asked if they were totally closed and not open. It is being open to multiple ways of approaching the histories around an object. These histories could actually been used for creating stories. Not necessarily stories that are factual, but also fictions and myths. The process allows me to create and imagine my own history, to relate to the past and have a better understanding of the present and to stimulate the mind and body. So there are multiple ways of entering. It is not necessarily an academic research, but it could come from a kind of personal narrative, it could come from other things, which are not necessarily factual or real.


(BB): During your stay, you were supposed to work with the curators of the museum. How did that affect your artistic work?


(ON): When I arrived at the museum, the curator of the section I was working with, which was the African collection, was actually leaving. So there wasn’t much of an exchange with the curator. The curator provided me with material from the logs that they had or the archive in relation to the works. Most of it was really done in discussion with Clémentine Deliss. I was also working a lot with books from the library. I also had discussions with different custodians and curators from other sections of the museum. But most of the time I mainly worked in the Weltkulturen Lab, the studio which was provided. I had very limited discussions or conversations with the curator of the African collection due to the transitional situation at the museum. So it was more a technical thing of giving out information which are already in the system.


(BB): Let us have a look at your work “Memory of Absent Things”. You created a mind map. Could you describe how you got the idea and how you realized it?


(ON): When I went to all different sections of the storage looking at objects, a lot of things struck me, especially thinks out of metal. When one thinks about African objects, the first thing that comes to mind would be masks. At the Weltkulturen Museum, they had tools, weapons, jewelry and objects for everyday usage, so my interest developed around the relation of metal in warfare and currency. I was curious about how metal was used across different lands and groups of people such as the Berber, Bantus or Yorubas. Every part of the African continent has a strong relationship to the crafting of metals. And this was visible through the wide range of objects that were made of metal such as spears, kipingas or jewelry. Some of the crucial questions I asked was: “What are the values of these things? How did the knowledge about these things came about?” The mind map connected multiple aspects of the use of the metals, dividing them into sections of warfare, prestige or currency. At the same time, the theme of the body became central, its relationship to the material produced. Who were the makers? Which body tells the stories found in the archive? The anonymity surrounding the production of the objects and the loopholes in the narratives in the archives. These were different aspects that drove my interest in relations to the museum’s collection. The museum has an interesting collection of kangas, commemorative cloth and Dutch wax and I was very drawn to the histories and aesthetics around them, but it was hard to know how to pull it together in relation to my proposition to open up a connection or put it out as a proposition for an exhibition. The mind mapping helped to connect the dots, it gave me a space where I could put A and B together.


(BB): At the depot in Frankfurt a.M. you found objects from Nigeria, your place of birth. In the catalog you say that it was a very emotional encounter and that you think about the young generation in Nigeria who don’t know about these cultural artifacts and probably will never have the chance to see and learn from them. You made these fantastic poster, on which you hold some beautiful knifes, Manillas, neck, arm and foot rings in front of your body. Beneath the pictures are short descriptions. The posters were printed in Lagos and I remember a story of you: At the airport in Lagos some custom officers were highly interested ... so interested that you nearly missed your flight! Your plan was to sell some of the posters in Nigeria. Did you do that?


(ON): No, I haven’t done that yet. A lot of projects had just been accumulating ... (laughs) It’s something I really, really want to do. I haven’t found the right time yet. I was meant to do it in 2012 in relation to a project that invited me to Lagos. But in the end, it was canceled, so... I won’t go into detail. The idea was actually to go to Lagos in 2012 or 2013 and to work with an institution to realize the project, but it did not work out. I have two or three projects that are still lingering for Lagos. It is more a question of making time to make it happen. I would like to bring this project into a space where it has direct contact with the local people that don’t go to the museums. Such places as the marketplace seem to be a very enticing and challenging spot to engage with a wide group of people.


(BB): I understand. So hopefully one day you will have the chance to realize your idea.


(ON): Yes, hopefully. The posters are still in Lagos, they are still there and waiting for me... (both laugh)


(BB): Another part of your work was the woven tapestry with a schema of flying throwing-blades in the foyer and two other woven pieces which reminds of me Fancy Prints from West Africa and Kangas from East Africa. Could you explain these works to me, please?


(ON): ...hmm, yes. Normally I don’t like explaining too much... (both laugh) The first work, which you find on the ground floor, is a woven tapestry that has throwing-blades on it. It was meant to be a commemorative cloth. I was inspired from all these commemorative cloths that I had seen in the museum. The narratives printed on the commemorative cloths had most times the name of the personality or event commemorated, date or year of the event. In western African culture, a lot of important events were commemorated with these cloths, which are worn by the people who took part in the events. The cloths become a social comment or statement, that confirms: “This really happened on this day, at this time” or “This person became the president of this committee.” So, they are very much used as a way of creating a statement, but also showing a social connection to a certain cultural background or to a certain political ideology. I made a commemorative cloth to commemorate the opening of the first exhibition by Clémentine Deliss “OBJECT ATLAS – Fieldwork in the Museum” and also to commemorate the forgotten and unknown warriors, artists and craftsmen and -women who made these metal objects or that used the weapons during the war. A war and resistance that happened in different regions in Congo, South Africa or Central Africa... It was not only about the opening of the museum, but also about all people who made these objects, all people who have left a certain kind of knowledge, and even the people who were killed by soldiers. A lot of times when I look at these objects, what strikes me is the anonymity. Often you don’t have any kind of notion about knowledge and the name of someone that has made something. Since we are in a society that deals with individuality − from the Middle Ages to Renaissance until now − we know the names of the maker of a painting or an object, and through this we understand the development of a practice and the transmissions of knowledge that take place. Even if we think about industries or fashion houses, the name of the fashion house is mentioned. But within the context of African craftsmanship, we just know about regional facts. We don’t know anything about the people who made the Benin bronze. We don’t know particular names. For me it was interesting to think about that in relation to commemoration. I tried to find images of people who used objects in the 19th century and I tried to find things that could relate to the personal, to the body. That was the idea of the textile piece on the ground floor. The Kanga pieces upstairs were also linked to a social commentary. In relation to commemorative cloths, which are very much linked to an event, Kangas are social commentaries of people who wear them. Often there is a text printed on them which would be used to tell a story or as social and political tools. For example: If someone is having an affair with your husband, you know about it and you know the lady, you might give her a Kanga cloth that says: “Watch your back!” (laughs) So they could be used as a little weapon or a comment of one’s status. I thought it was interesting in relation to the metal pieces, because the textiles are also a kind of commentary on wealth. Somehow the notion of wealth is something very fragile. The commentary there was: “There is only so much a neck can carry.” So you have a picture of this neckpiece on the Kanga. Looking at the space of the neck, you might have a hundred or thousands of neckpieces, but there is a limit to how much a neck can carry. Even the weight a neck can carry is limited. So it’s a metaphor that talks about, no matter how much wealth you have, there is a limit to that space where you can contain it. The way I was thinking was: When we look at empires or different kinds of institutions that have built wealth, there comes a place where there is a limit and then that tip starts going downwards. The Kangas reflected more on the situation of social status and power.


(BB): In preparation for the exhibition „FOREIGN EXCHANGE (or the stories you wouldn’t tell a stranger)“ you were invited to two Think Tanks. The first one in February 2013 had the title „The Administration of People and Goods”. There you said that many museums think about the repatriation of objects into their country of origin and you wondered why cultural artifacts should not also be shown in other countries all over the world. Once in a talk I visited at the ethnological Museum in Leipzig, Larissa Förster, a scientist, had the idea to send a kind of “Museum Container” with cultural artifacts around the world. What do you think about this idea?


(ON): I think the main notion of repatriation is a very complex in many different ways and also a very simple one. One of the discussions I had during the Think Tank was about the question: “If a group of people that have moved on have a different need and necessity, would repatriation be the best option? Or would there be something else that could be interesting to think about or to propose other than repatriation?” A lot of people are not so much interested in old cultural artifacts or consider cultural objects important anymore in their development and their idea of advancing or going forward in the world. Most people just want to have a normal life with water, food, shelter and education for their kids. Now, where does this play a role in the development of people, when most of their objects and artifacts are found in Western museums to which they do not have access to? It’s a very hard thing, because the answer is not only the returning of the objects to the people or geographies that the objects originally come from, but it is also the creating of a symbiotic and the synchronization of the people to the objects that belong to their geographies, so that the objects can be part and parcel of the everyday reflections and development. What the western culture has done was to be able to put together a whole number of objects and things from all over the world that they have collected, stolen, acquired or robbed, or how ever they have collected it, within a container. A container that has been truncated of its use within the context they originally come from. Another value is added to the objects which become a monetary value and the symbol of power conquest and ownership. That container, on the other hand, has allowed for an expansive way of looking at the world, the appropriation of different knowledges and ways of making. Within the context of repatriation, when an object has been taken out of its place of origin and used, let’s say, for over 100 or 200 years, how can one build the bridge to allow the connection of the object to its place of origin? For me the idea of shipping containers with artifacts is a very temporary thing. The objects always leaves, it never stays in its place of its origin and the objects still belong to the institution that hold them, not the group of people or nations that made them. These artifacts can never belong to the people. The chance is the education. The repatriation has to come with a fundamental change of the educational system to be able to connect the people with the objects through awareness and the importance of their cultural value. So when that object comes back, the people would understand why and for whom it was made. If repatriation has to take place, the receiving end has to be able to take care of the objects and preparations have to be in place for that. The shipping of the objects around and showing them is more like a moving exhibition, a portable museum, but it does not solve the problems of restitution, repatriation or restitution. The problem is much deeper.


(BB): The second Think Tank „Persecuted, Mourned, Pitied, Admired- Collected and Photographed” took part in Mai 2013. You were discussing some of the ethnographical images of the collection. Some of the images showed naked people. People who were photographed my Bernhard Hagen, the founder of the Weltkulturen Museum, during his studies on Anthropometry in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. Some photographs showed people from Namibia, the Democratic Republic of Congo or Brasil. What were your thoughts and feelings when you saw these photos of people? What happened with you?


(ON): Nothing happened to me... (both laugh). Well, let’s imagine just like in science fiction films that we know that there are aliens somewhere we have never been and then we are going to visit the aliens... (laughs). What you do not know, you fear, run from it or prod, investigate, dissect, name it, use and exploit it. The whole idea of the construction of identities of groups, people and geographies came about also from the use of these kinds of images. It brought out these kinds of images that you would wonder about their purpose, what it was destined for and how it was used to justify certain actions that have taken place in history. I believe that it might have started with a certain kind of curiosity and trying to understand the other. From that curiosity it became a tool for different agendas. There are multiple reasons why those images where made. They were not only made for medical or scientific research, but the photographs were used as materials to reinforce the colonial missions. At first glance, it is easy to look at the photographs as just medical or scientific research, but the more one observes the expressions of the faces of the people or the measuring tools, props around the body or the surroundings, the reading of the image exposes the explicit hierarchies that had been set in place. The people look powerless and their bodies became a surface or an object to exercise the mission. It did not change me. It revealed how humans can lose their humanity and treat another human being as a subject, a lesser being. It just showed me the power of photography and how multiple narratives can be created through an image. The image becomes evidence of an act or event, but the narratives can be adjusted, manipulated and used for the specific purpose it is needed for.


(BB): Thank you for this rich talk, Otobong.