Representation of the neocolonial structures of power in the Social Consequences drawing series by Otobong Nkanga
During my trips in Netherlands and Belgium I have encountered Otobong Nkanga, Nigerian artist twice. First during the “Amsterdam Art Weekend 2015” in the Lumen Travo Gallery and second time in the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst in Antwerp, where the exhibition entitled Bruises and Lustre was displayed. I found her pieces fascinating and highly related to the topics connected with postcolonial issues. As an artist Nkanga uses many means of artistic expression such as drawings, tapestries, photographs, installations and performances. She represents the invisible structures of neocolonial power and relationship between natural landscape, labor, “indigenous” people and exploitation in a very creative way.
I started my essay with a touching quotation of a protest song by Nneka, Nigerian soul singer. Both songs of Nneka and art works by Otobong Nkanga can be placed in socalled postcolonial art movement, which is part of wider political and intellectual anticolonial movement focused on the critique of the system of power and revisionist towards the cultural remains and colonial heritage. Nowadays postcolonial issues and artists from outside of Europe or United States are gaining more and more attention in the global world of art. A good example might be the last year (2015) Biennale in Venice where Nigerian Okwui Enwezor was the first “black” main curator, responsible for the whole conception of the event.
In the following essay I would like to answer to the question: how does Otobong Nkanga represent the neocolonial powers in Africa? I will begin with the description of theeconomic situation in present Nigeria. Then I will shortly define the notion of neocolonialism. Then I will move to the analysis of the drawing series Social Consequences, where I will focus on three represented elements – the situation of African people, the exploration of the land and natural resources and the invisible structures of power. The analysis will also lead us to better understanding of the role of postcolonial art.
Neocolonialism in Nigeria
Nneka sings about “civilized robbers” and “modern slaveholders” causing the suffering of Africans, she probably means new neocolonial forces. To talk about the neocolonialism in Africa, especially in Nigeria and to discuss how it was depicted in Otobong Nkanga’s drawings, first we need to define what the neocolonialism is. As Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffith and Hellen Tiffin believe: All post-colonial societies are still subject in one way or another to overt or subtle forms of neo-colonial domination, and independence has not solved this problem (1995: 2). Neocolonialism is a variety of new ways of economic exploitation and cultural domination in the postcolonial, “independent” countries. The neocolonial economy is less straightforward, less visible, more fluid than the colonial domination was. It is also stateless because it serves in most cases the interests of global corporations.
Attah Noah Echa in the article called The historical conjuncture of neo-colonialism and underdevelopment in Nigeria (2013) describes the current situation in this country and shows its historic backgrounds. The author claims that: Neo-colonialism can not only be seen as an imperialist policy in an ex-colony, but as political, social and economic characteristics in certain excolonies. The local bourgeois elite is believed to have the crucial role in foreign dependence of the ex-colony. He shows how the process of decolonization was connected with neocolonization of the country. He believes that also independent country without the experience of colonialism can be turned into a neo-colonial state by international finance capital, as it happened in Liberia, Ethiopia, Iraq or Afghanistan (Echa 2013: 71).
Nigeria gained independence from the British in 1960 however it remained under the influence of its former Metropole. Attach Noach Echa provides us with several examples of introducing harmful law, such as tax relief or the right of shipping commodity goods for British companies, unreasonable privatization of Nigerian enterprises, carelessness about the local agriculture (Echa 2013: 71-73). Despite the presence of huge mineral and human resources, the unwise politics of decolonization in the 1960s resulted in high poverty rate, lack of basic infrastructural facilities, unemployment, high mortality rate, political instability and insecurity of lives of Nigerians (Echa 2013: 71).
The scholar presents a bad image of Nigerian politicians as well – they were first generation educated and prosperous men who emerged from working class background. They were involved in corruption and collusion with exploitative foreign firms and they are responsible for monopolizing the access to power and wealth. Moreover, the Nigerian elites were highly influenced by “western” education and demoralized by private accumulation of goods (Echa 2013: 73).
Nigerian resources, particularly oil, are exploited by transnational corporations for the benefit of metropolitan countries and global companies. The process of neocolonialization of Nigeria caused underdevelopment of the state and plunged people into tragic situation. The state lives now in a pseudo-independence, but in fact is a toy in hands of Westerners. This poor reality of Nigeria and the structure of power is depicted in a very interesting way by Otobong Nkanga, what I am describing in the following part of my essay.
Drawing neocolonial economy
Social Consequences is a drawing series which has been created by Otobong Nkanga from 2009 till 2010. All of the pieces are made in the technique of acryl and stickers on paper. The series is divided into three parts, kept in similar stylistics and representing coherent message. They resemble diagrams, maps or calendars – posters from Nigeria which are found in many public places and their aim is to illustrate broad spectrum of topics for illiterate audience (Mutumba 2014: 54). The artist shows both Nigeria and Europe via fragmented objects: houses, bodies, trees, parts of landscapes, anthropomorphic objects. All of them are connected with strings what recalls scientific infographics. The stylistics might be characterized as using soft, pastel colors, and plain, monochromatic background.
Images of black people are present in most drawings. The characters are simplified, so they do not represent any particular people; and reduced to parts of bodies, usually arms or legs. Arms are composed of brown parts and colorful forearms, they are deprived of hands. In the drawing Social Consequences II – Choices we make there is a catalogue of different black arms, all of which are ended with all kinds of tools for digging, cutting, mowing and acting aggressively on people. It might symbolize a set of choices Nigerian people have – they can only choose from a few kinds of occupation. Seize all you can and Heritage show the arms in action, they are destroying houses and cutting down trees into pieces. The black arms are just a part of the bigger system, they seem to be executing orders, they are led by strings like the arms and legs of puppets.
Depicted black people are shown in highly dehumanized way. In the Social Consequences series they often lack faces or heads. They seem to be stripped off any identity or individuality. They look like voiceless, powerless puppets easy to manipulate. Otobong Nkanga uses very simplified way of painting, using few colors and avoiding defining details of the character, what makes them abstractive signs of people rather than portraits of living human beings. The drawings represent the place of African people in the neocolonial economical system. The Africans are treated as cheap labor force, their identity (family, culture, personal history) is not taken into account. Their only aim is to perform the orders of theirs commanders from western companies.
Land is also widely represented in the Otobong Nkanga’s works. It is shown in three different ways – as unrealistic map, abstracted fragments of land or landscapes of mines and overexploited areas. In the Limits of the mapping there is a map of fictional countries with irregular borders, which was pierced through with huge wooden rods. As Mutumba claims: the map stands here as an abstract and disembodied reference to wrecked livelihoods and exploited resources […]. While The Flow Will Not Stop! (2011) shows two lands divided by water but connected with a system, machinery with “black arms-tools”. One land represents probably postcolonial Africa where destruction, disorder and exploitation of land take place. We can recognize a few arms digging out soil. The other land is probably the metropole (Europe or USA) where everything is in order and harmonic buildings give a sense of stability and wealth. Whereas in Social Consequences I – Crisis there are two characters without torso, equipped with many “arms-tools” which are pulling the rope. The string is attached to two pieces of land with countries painted on the surface. The figures seem to have an argument about the pieces of land.
The representation of African land in Otobong Nkanga’s works may show the neocolonial approach to the countries. They are deprived from their identity and culture, objectified, treated through the prism of their economic potential. For the neocolonial economy the African land matters only as a cheap source of minerals. The land can be exploited without any regard for people living there or their property, culture or future.
In the drawings by Nkanga we can often see the power structures and economic relationships. She visualized the way in which commodity goods and minerals are exported from Africa. She tries to define the structure of global economy and Nigeria’s place within it. Social Consequences II – Projectiles represents a chart, where on the right side there are oil barrels, which are connected with land where “arms-tools” were digging, led by a group of black girls. On the left side there are pictures of modern architecture in a high-tech style. They seem to be the places from which the exploitation of minerals is commanded and where the goods go. A similar composition is used in the Social Consequences I – Intertwined drawing. The poor slums houses are connected with two women, who probably represent the African people. Further the women are connected with a green piece of land with trees growing on it. Another step in this relationship is a depicted mine, where black “arms-tools” are working. At the end of the string there is a spool of thread, which seems to be keeping the tension of the sting and controlling the whole working structure of relationship.
Understanding of Nkanga’s pieces is not easy because she uses signs and symbols to comment on the reality in Africa. Economic forces are rather abstract notions however the artist finds creative way to depict them. The situation, people and places come from her personal experience but she abstracts them and changes into iconic signs. In Nkanga’s drawings the world is shown as a kind of mysterious machinery – people, their houses, land, labor, nature are only cogwheels in the huge system. It must be the capitalism conjugated to neocolonialism, which is stripping off minerals and other natural resources using indigenous people in the name of wealth of the Metropole.
Nkanga’s pieces do not shock like many photographs or movies touching the issue of neocolonial domination. There is no blood, starving people in the street, poverty of children visualized. Social Consequences series makes an impression because it shows that neocolonial economy is a well thought out, designed in every details, “clean” system of domination. It is like a modern perfectly working factory. Violence and domination are invisible with the naked eye but they cause huge damage to the postcolonial societies.
Nkanga places herself as an artist in the speaking position. Her art is socially and politically engaged. She speaks on behalf of her nation (or even all Africans), showing the unequal structure of power and exploitation of Nigeria to the European audience, where she works and exhibits (Szewczyk 2014: 45). On the other hand, she visualized all her knowledge about economic system and showed it in the form of drawings to her (often illiterate) nationals. Nkanga’s mission is to give them knowledge and empowers them at the same time. Since Foucault believed that producing knowledge is linked with power (Foucault 1980: 79-108). Hence I believe that postcolonial artists like Nkanga educate people and give them power to resist the oppressive neocolonial economic system.
To sum up, Otobong Nkanga in her drawing series Social Consequences depicts the structures of neocolonial power and domination in Nigeria. She gives analogical image of situation in Nigeria as the article by Attah Noah Echa. She shows how the global economy treats African people, their land and labor. Her art is full of symbols, abstract forms and iconic signs, which make it similar to educational diagrams. Indeed Nkanga’s art is socially and politically engaged trying to attract the attention of the art world’s audience to the problem of neocolonial politics in African countries.
1. Ashcroft B., Griffith G. and Tiffin H. (1995), General Introduction, In: Ashcroft B., Griffith G. and Tiffin H. (ed.) The Postcolonial Studies Reader, London, pp. 7-12.
2. Echa A. N. (2013), The historical conjuncture of neo-colonialism and underdevelopment in Nigeria, “Journal of African Studies and Development” 5.5, pp. 70 – 79.
3. Mutumba Y. (2014), Otobong Nkanga: Nothing Is Like It Seems, Everything Is Evidence, “Afterall”, no 37, pp. 50 – 59.
4. Szewczyk M. (2014), Exchange and Some Change: The Imaginative Economies of Otobong
Nkanga, “Afterall”, no 37, pp. 40 – 49.
5. http://www.otobongnkanga.com/ [access: 21.01.2016]
6. Foucault M. (1980), Power/Knowledge. Selected Interviews and Other Writings 19721977, ed. Colin Gordon, New York.
Ilustracja: Otobong Nkanga, Social Consequences I – Intertwined (2010)