When we imagine the biblical creation story, we liken the moments before God says let there be light to a blank canvas; a white piece of linen stretched tight over a wooden frame standing on an easel waiting on the artist to come to it with stories, soul, candour, and colour. We liken it to a blank page. We imagine God as a writer sitting pen in hand or fingers ready on the keyboard waiting to type that first word, that first sentence, that first paragraph. What precedes these firsts, however, is what various versions of the Bible refer to as Spirit hovering, moving or brooding over the existing void. I think about this hovering or moving or brooding as that familiar yet difficult pre-creation act or feeling. Here, the mind and body are in a state of tension straining to substantiate something which was previously not in existence, to give form and matter to something previously formless. A thought. A feeling. A moment.
There is, before the painter brings a brush in contact with the canvas, a hovering or brooding either literal or metaphorical. What colours best tell the story? What is the story? What physical labour will go into shaping this story? What era of art history will inspiration come from? Or what innovative paths can one make within an existing lineage of paintings? Likewise a writer. Before hands start clanking on the keyboard, before that ink makes contact with paper, there is a hovering or brooding: where to begin a story, how to begin a story, where the frame begins or ends, what is contained within that frame explicitly or what is left out intentionally. Or not.
This tension was a steadfast thread running through visual and performance artist Otobong Nkanga’s conversation with Emeka Okereke in a podcast series where artists reflect on their personal histories, creative practice and the politics, or more accurately, the tensions constantly weaving itself in and out of both.
“How do you see the cracks that appear?”
I first met Nkanga, briefly, on a very bright afternoon at a food court in Dhaka where she had been in-residence for a few weeks and was showing Landversations at the Dhaka Art Summit. At the time, all I knew was what a prolific and cerebral artist she was. The import of that was somewhat lost on me.
In this nearly two-hour long conversation, it is interesting to learn that our histories converge albeit in very sparse places: fathers travelled a lot for work, we were both raised Catholic, attended boarding school where we experienced bullying, water scarcities and all the attendants of an urbane missionary secondary school. We both looked to old photographs, where they were present, as necessary for understanding family histories. We loved to read as children and entertained the vivid imaginations these books sparked.
There are also a number of diverging histories: both my parents are still here, I was raised in an eastern Nigeria town only moving after university for work, I have no recollection of early childhood trauma and, artistically, she is incomparable. As I pore over Nkanga’s oeuvre for this reflection, I am fascinated by the diversity of mediums she employs in her artistic expression: music, painting, poetry, performance, photography, sculpture, tapestries and videos, as I am by her preoccupation with the natural and the elemental.
When she is asked about becoming an artist, Nkanga says the implication is that one was once something else and this is not an idea she holds. I agree. Artistry is more of a coming into. But what is it that nudges this coming into? When does the pre-creation hovering or brooding begin? When is formlessness made evident? When do we begin to come into consciousness of life’s fractures? When do the voids left by these fractures begin to call one into the unravelling, tortuous and healing virtues of art?
I am thinking about how early losses and experiences may have shaped her lifelong preoccupation with nature, elements and its convergence with humankind. The illustrated Delta Stories narrates the plight of Nigeria’s Niger-Delta region through a metamorphosing imaginary landscape. Landscape I, the first illustration in the series, a land untouched by humankind. Landscape II, the last illustration in the series, a visibly changed landscape with fissures and viscous fluid now claiming a portion and flowing through the whole. This metamorphosis—before, during and after humankind’s involvement with nature— also features in the photography series Alterscape Stories. In Diaoptasia, minerals like dioptase and ground glittery mica are motifs on the backdrop of the Tsumeb Mines in Namibia, a landscape that features in other bodies of work like The Weight of Scars and where violent extraction of mineral reserves thrive.
At four, Nkanga is tear gassed for the first time during a riot after her family moved from the north to Yaba, Lagos a year earlier. Then an inferno raises down her childhood home in Yaba. When they move to Festac a year after the famed FESTAC ‘77 to live communally for the first time, she lives through the deterioration of the apartment buildings and its resources so that a formerly unburdened terrain with air fresh and vegetation green, with clean running water, gives way to a violent tussle for scarce resources.
“This is a time I understood that when people need something, how violent they can be.”
In Kolanut Tales—Slow Stain, three balls of kolanut are sitting atop a round yellow stool. The brownish red of the kolanuts wash down the sides of this stool. It is a nudge to her Ibibio roots where kolanuts are a significant ceremonial feature from marriages to burials but can also hint at the familial tensions surrounding tradition and extended family relationships.
“Would we be able to resist the crushing tearing bending and breaking?”
In physics, tension is defined as the force that is transmitted through a one or three-dimensional continuous object when opposite forces are acting along it. Think of it as a game of pulling rope, or a web with tension acting along the length of any two points within the mesh. Tension forces are always a pull. It is tightness, stretching, tautness. If we replace these nodes or meeting points with other humans, landscapes, systems, society, self, we arrive at the psychological definition of tension. An emotive state associated with conflict, uncertainty, instability or dissonance.
We are, until eternal rest, in a perpetual state of tension, Nkanga says. For the artist, perhaps doubly so. There is the tautness of our interconnectedness as humans to contend with and then an added layer of how to create from, with or around this network.
An artist comes into consciousness of certain life’s fractures and its resulting void elicits a longing for resolve or understanding. But the fractures may cut deep, too close to home that they remain at conflict as to whether art can or should be made out of such rawness. Or, an artist comes into consciousness of certain life’s fractures and might be unsure they have ample clarity on the kind of void it creates or what kind of art to make out of it. Or, here are certain life’s fractures but the configurations of the emptiness it creates and the kind of art that makes sense of that void is ever changing. Or, here’s a fracture and here’s a void but an artist might find themself at odds with, say, their peers about their artistic interpretations of it. Creation ultimately reveals the nature and essence of the artist. It is why, for some, the dark nature of man remains an indictment on the nature of his Creator.
When a material experiences the pulling forces of tension long enough, depending on what it is made of, the material stretches and eventually breaks. The tautness and tightness of tension’s pull can keep us rigid and able to withstand breaking or crushing or tearing apart. It can also be what breaks, tears or crushes. Art, too, in its making (or its existence in relation to its consumer) can pull and make rigid or pull and tear apart. Consider the mental and physical stretching Nkanga has to undergo to piece all these mediums together to make an installation. Take Bruises and Lustre, a body of work where the Tsumeb Mines are also central. The work is a small universe comprising installations, textile, performance, photography and illustration. All of these parts, be it journeying to Namibia and walking through the narrow tunnels to immerse herself in the ruins of the mines, studying its mineral reserves extensively, naming them, designing and re-making tapestry to fit a desired prototype, spatially designing all these many parts to form a cohesive whole, come with its mental and physical pull.
“Would we be bent to not return to our original form when stress is released?”
In making art, the artist works out personal but also collective conflicts and uncertainties. I am reminded of a 1968 Transition interview conducted in the thick of the Biafran War where Chinua Achebe says, in response to a question about the state of his writing during that carnage, that the role of a writer is tied to the state of health of their society. If the society is ill, he said, it is the role of the writer to point it out and if it is healthy—and no such society exists—then his job is limited.
My writing was born out of a need to feel less alone, to ground myself. Letters were the earliest things I remember writing. They seemed an easier and more exact way of communicating with my father. I kept journals too and eventually wrote an illustrated novel I lost shortly after my classmates picked interest in reading it. Because I began here, my earliest writings were very insular. They were a means to unravel very personal tensions: a crush, a personal disappointment, a saddening family episode, a falling out with friends, navigating boarding house hierarchies and senior bullies. It did not occur to me that writing could, should serve a purpose outside of myself.
In reading other writers and finding myself in characters like Adichie’s Kambili in Purple Hibiscus, this responsibility to extend beyond oneself through writing started to grow. It continues to grow as I navigate a career which attempts to straddle journalism, creative writing, and more recently photography.
Where do my personal conflicts meet public, collective ones? Every node in the mesh of my identity as a daughter, a sister, a woman, an Igbo woman, a Nigerian, an African, a member of an organisation, a part of a society, the list is endless. Just as Nkanga preoccupies herself with nature and how humankind relates to it, I am preoccupying myself with relationships, with the tautness and stretching of these small and big meeting points we make with self, with family, with lovers, with the divine.
In moving from writing as grounding myself to finding where my tensions meet with the collective’s, I, like many artists, am always questioning what my work aims to achieve for the collective if anything at all. What does this bending out of shape, this stretching and pulling pre-creation and afterwards achieve? For me, should I continue to indulge in the luxury and egotism of being one, an artist? For the reader or viewer who has to work out the tensions from affixing themselves to my art?
I like to think now that I may not hold any grand plans for my writing than I did when I began. I am still trying to ground myself. As I grow older, this grounding has moved away from teenage crushes to existential concerns or similar weighty issues. I am still trying to feel less alone. I am still working out personal conflicts and dissonances. And because there are billions of us, I am certain there are people like me with our lives converging at one or many nodes. In a way, nothing is that insular, no experience exclusively unique to me.
The purpose of creating art is not always to resolve tension. Oftentimes, art won’t save the world. It is simply a mirror, simply an invitation to see the same tensions stretched in new ways, pulled apart in new directions.