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Otobong Nkanga, 'The Breath From Fertile Grounds' (detail), 2017, Installation view, Temple Bar Gallery + Studios. (Photo: Kasia Kaminska)

We Could Be Allies’, a short text by Otobong Nkanga printed onto cloth and hanging from a metal railing opposite the front door reads:

 

I could graft myself to you

Blend to look like you

Hide underneath each layer

 

If we share our fears

Exchange our fluids

Quietly seal the deal

We could be allies

Against all odds

 

I can poison your roots

Suffocate your lungs

I will leave you hollow

So I can thrive without you

 

If I connect to you

If I am consumed by you

If I crumble with you

Then what do we call us?

What can we become?

 

An interview recorded for the exhibition at Temple Bar Gallery & Studios (TBG+S) reveals the artist’s  interest in how organisms co-habit, from parasitism to symbiosis, to just existing side-by-side. In the centre of the gallery, several kinds of lichen grow on a small stone held up by a horizontal bar adjoining two redbrick columns. This work is ‘Handshake’ (2017). 

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Otobong Nkanga, 'The Breath From Fertile Grounds', 2017, Installation view, Temple Bar Gallery + Studios. (Photo: Kasia Kaminska)

A lichen is, by definition, the success of a partnership. Part fungi and part algae or cyanobacteria, it thrives in conditions hostile to the two species as an independent entity. Algae or cyanobacteria containing chlorophyll can photosynthesise, and therefore supply food. In return, the fungus produces a shell-like layer containing pigments that absorb damaging ultraviolet rays, protecting its breadwinning counterpart from the sun. The commingling of these vital pigments colour the lichens in variations of green, brown, ochre, lilac, grey, and a million other secondary colours.

The wall drawing, ‘The Breath From Fertile Grounds’ (2017), consists of many elements, including acrylic, vinyl, wood, glass, peat, plants and acid water. Chives and other flora grow from a planter on the wall, but paintwork dominates the space. Flat shapes in lichenous shades spread like an angry bruise across the wall, thinning to a single line and becoming a half-torso, a heart, a plant, a line again, cartographic shapes, a half-figure, a mushrooming plant. A line of black tape connects this to another work, ‘Is caol ~ an miotal [slender ~ the metal]’ (2017), a poem written in English and Irish by Doireann Ní Ghríofa, and printed onto cloth which hangs from another metal railing.

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left – right: Otobong Nkanga, 'Is caol ~ an miotal', 'Handshake' and 'The Breath From Fertile Grounds', 2017, Installation view, Temple Bar Gallery + Studios. (Photo: Kasia Kaminska)

The Breath From Fertile Grounds, guest-curated by Caroline Hancock, is Nkanga’s first solo exhibition in Ireland. The works presented at TBG+S are the fruits of a short research trip to Dublin last year. Interests in architecture and the exchange networks that move natural resources around the world for construction led Nkanga to Gráinne Shaffrey, a prominent conservation architect engaged with materials and construction techniques in Dublin.

Central to the discussions they had—according to Shaffrey, who led a walking tour of Temple Bar in response to the exhibition—was the artist’s multifaceted interest in the built environment: as a host for life (a physical support for symbiosis and other activities of living organisms); as embellishment on the land; as physical evidence of exchange. Nkanga’s focus on the provenance of building materials is an invitation to viewers to reconnect buildings to the land, and engage with the politics of exchange that bring resources from point A to point B.

Considering Ireland’s recent economic crisis, the exhibition presents itself as a ‘space of remains and revitalisation’. During the height of the recession, unfinished housing developments dominated images of the Irish landscape. The construction industry had collapsed, the property market was on its knees, no one could afford to pay builders to finish the job. These ghost estates were a symbol of everything that had gone wrong. The ultimately empty promise, If you lived here you’d be home by now, is the title of a photography book by Ruth Connolly, who spent a year documenting these eerie concrete shells between 2013 and 2014. Once intended as family homes, they are pictured unoccupied and overgrown with wild grasses. Visiting in 2017 and sensing the determination to move on, Nkanga found the botanical growth sprouting from Dublin’s buildings and street corners representative of resistance and revitalisation. 

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Grainne Shaffrey leading the Red Bricks and Railings Tour, January 2018. Courtesy Claire Walsh

Shaffrey’s tour offered an insight into her extensive knowledge of the history of brick making and brick work, engaging with Nkanga’s use of brick and iron elements in the exhibition. Fired ceramic brick has been used in Ireland since the 16th century, and, in the centuries that followed, brick fields were operational across the cities and countryside, connecting estuaries, canals and later the railways, supplying hand-moulded brick for all manner of building.[1] In 18th century Dublin there were city brick fields on Moore Street and Sandymount. These became redundant once brick making was mechanised, and it inevitably became cheaper to import from other parts of Europe, a situation echoed in Shaffrey’s note about sourcing the material today.[2]

The façades of Dublin’s red brick buildings are an area of expertise for Shaffrey, who in recent years undertook field research into the city’s traditional brick pointing techniques. Pointing, or the front facing part of the mortar joints between brickwork, decays over time and can make a building porous. The mortar should be conserved in a process called re-pointing, part of the ongoing revitalisation of these buildings.[3] In Temple Bar she leads the group to examples of different repair styles, and the practice’s esoteric nomenclature: tuck pointed, wigged and bastard tuck joints.

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We Could Be Allies, Otobong Nkanga, 2017

Nkanga’s interest in the provenance of materials relates to the physical balance of the land and its attendant political (im)balances. In the interview for The Breath From Fertile Grounds, she describes both hollowed out places and places of embellishment, relating to the extraction of materials from a typically economically diminished point A—rich in natural resources—to fulfil the market desires of the wealthier point B. In the past, she notes, the British Empire was a place of embellishment, whereas in recent years, new economic heavyweights like China and Dubai have taken up that position. “I constantly think of skyscrapers as the underneath of a mountain” she tells Hancock.

For her project with TBG+S, Nkanga takes urban growth and renewal as touchstones for thinking about ways of co-habiting and survival. The Breath From Fertile Grounds is a poetic response to these ideas and an invitation to read further into material memories. The visual impact is light, small in scale and generous in detail, rewarding close readings and repeat visits. Nkanga’s work reflects on how the world is materially constructed, and how the manifestation of resources in point B is counterbalanced by an exploitative absence at point A.


[1] Bricks: A Guide to the Repair of Historic Brickwork, Susan Roundtree, Shaffrey Associates Architects, Gerard Lynch, edited by Jacqui Donnelly, Wordwell, 2009

[2] At the outset of 2018, Cavan is the only county producing red brick.

[3] Information from notes taken at Red Bricks and Railings - a walking tour with architect Gráinne Shaffrey, 13 January 2018

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Claire Walsh is assistant curator of collections at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, and was guest co-editor of MAP with Suzanne van der Lingen throughout 2016