Otobong Nkanga: Craving for Southern Light

Early in Teju Cole’s latest novel Tremor (2023), the protagonist “decides to use one of two special bars of soap he has been saving. He will use one and save the other forever.” We learn the soap was sold in a dark gray cardboard box that includes the artist’s name: Otobong Nkanga and that the soap was bought at documenta 14 – the über art fair that appears every five years in the German town of Kassel. In the novel, Cole briefly invokes the artist’s voice to explain: “Nkanga had said that the circuit of manufacture and distribution, the bringing into a gallery space of commerce, craft, installation, sculpture, performance, and activism, was integral to her idea of art. The profits for selling the soap would be used to pursue art initiatives. A new foundation, an art space in her ancestral home of Akwa Ibom.” (22)

I catch Nkanga’s solo exhibition Craving for Southern Light in the Spanish city of Valencia the day before it closes. As promised, large blocks of uncut soap and small towers of pre-cut cubes are on display. The stacks, I read in the exhibition guide, are intended to evoke “small towers based on actual soap repositories in Aleppo, Syria, and Nablus, a Palestinian city in the West Bank.” Nearby, hexagon-shaped soap blocks are displayed in purpose built shelving with recipes visible on the wood stands. Indigo powder • olive oil • sage butter • laurel oil • coconut oil • babasu oil • shea better • cocoa butter • water • lye – ran the text below a mottled blue grey block. Other texts are less literal: Asop, aswop, swop, slop / I pick you up / for your to slip away / again and again leaving...

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    read full review on Garland Magazine

  • Image credit

    courtesy of IVAM and photographer Miguel Lorenzo