Turin

Otobong Nkanga, Lined with shivers sprouting from the rock, 2021, wool carpet, hand-knotted cotton ropes, weeping-beech wood, handblown glass, clay, metal, video, organic materials, various oils, dimensions variable.

Otobong Nkanga, Lined with shivers sprouting from the rock, 2021, wool carpet, hand-knotted cotton ropes, weeping-beech wood, handblown glass, clay, metal, video, organic materials, various oils, dimensions variable.

Otobong Nkanga

To reach Otobong Nkanga’s exhibition, “Of Cords Curling around Mountains,” on the third floor of Castello di Rivoli, one first has to cross a footbridge overlooking the brick roof of the floors below. A voice beckons, singing a melancholy song, and before even entering the exhibition you are hit by a strong scent of mint, which almost instantly triggers memories and emotions tucked away in the recesses of the brain. Commissioned specifically for the galleries where it is installed, the show encourages viewers to slow down, to smell, to listen, to look. Thick black cords—handmade by artisans from the TextielMuseum in Tilburg, the Netherlands, following an eighteenth-century technique—trail along the ground like braided pathways or rivers, traversing sculptures and walls across the five exhibition rooms.

In the first gallery, small sinuous sculptures in raw weeping-beech wood lie on the floor. (The artist stresses that the trees were already dead when they were cut down.) These belly-size vessels have been hollowed out to hold herbs, incense, or oils—lemon balm, lavender, chamomile, mint—known for healing or calming properties. Like newborns, the sculptures have been massaged with oil, in this case of unrefined palm or almond, the wood given a second life. Concerned with our complex relationship to land and space, with their volatility and its state of flux, Nkanga—who has known many homes since leaving her native Nigeria—combines local ingredients (Piedmont, the region surrounding Turin, is Italy’s primary producer of mint and lavender) with elements, such as palm oil, brought to the region by its new communities.

Music wafts through all the rooms from speakers encased in big spheres of compressed terra-cotta, painted in marbled blacks, browns, and whites—rounded bodies ready to release sound. Each room emphasizes a different sculptural material: first wood, then terra-cotta, then Venetian blown glass. At the heart of the show are two handwoven wool carpets in shades of blue and green. The carpet patterns resembles an eagle’s-eye view of a natural landscape but are intended to evoke minerals or rocks, as suggested by one of the titles: Lined with shivers sprouting from the rock (all works 2021). The hard stone is now soft, bringing to mind a welcoming bed on which to rest after a long mountain climb.

While most of the exhibition’s focus is on the floor, the walls carry weight, too. Painted in warm ocher hues, they bear Nkanga’s poetry and other writing neatly handwritten in chalk. Unfixed, the inscriptions are left to their fate, free to fade or disappear entirely. Although writing has always been an integral part of the artist’s creative process, this is the first time it has featured in a show, its presence a testament to the vision of Marcella Beccaria, who curated the exhibition along with Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and who recognized Nkanga’s writing as a body of work in its own right.

Nkanga first worked with cords in 2015 for the Lyon Biennale, referencing the webs, including those of social media, in which we are all entangled, willingly or not. At Castello di Rivoli, the cords speak of a greater human entanglement, one that connects continents, landscapes, memories, and histories. Throughout the show, one sees traces of care, respect, concern, and love for this earth. Nkanga poetically follows the blurred lines that make up our complex identities, using all the senses to create evocative, reflective, and welcoming spaces in which soul speaks to soul.