The late Carl Sagan put our existence into perspective when he uttered the famous line we are made of star-stuff. Reflecting on her place in the universe, Otobong Nkanga remarks that I was born into this planet, it was here before I arrived and hopefully it will still be here after I have left. I know my remains will be a little particle that will be part of this planet. I cannot disassociate myself from the environment I live in because I am part of it in every sense, from the air I breathe to the food I eat.  We are part of our planet’s seemingly infinite state of struggle and transition as atoms from past and present join, break apart, and reconfigure in the future far past our earthly existence. Part of the apparatus of power of various human civilizations has been to elevate mankind into something separate from nature, aiming to improve our material condition through degrading our material context. Interestingly, many belief systems maintain that evil spirits inhabit an underworld; is it any wonder then that violence, death, and pain ooze from the Earth’s core as part of exploitative extraction processes, and are therefore embedded in most of the materials we take for granted as part of our urban realities?
Nkanga’s practice is one of trying to draw parallels to paint the bigger picture of our interconnected existence through performance, sculpture, painting, drawing, photography and video. She explores the complex relationships between science, politics, emotion and memory that we use to find our bearing in this universe, on this planet, with our land, with each other, and within ourselves. Be it on an emotional, a political, or environmental level, we, and the entire planet are in a constant state of transition, a condition that inspires the title of Nkanga’s inaugural show at Mendes Wood DM in Brussels.
Nkanga creates generative discomfort zones in this exhibition. In a new series of drawings, a human body transitions from a whole form into progressively dematerialized seemingly post-human fragments, intertwined with similarly fractured splices of earth. Beyond the charged central images in these drawings, fleshy tones prime the paper and a stripe of a color reminiscent of a palette used to color-correct an image spans the left of the work. It appears that strips of tape adhere the central images to calibrating surfaces below them. This is a painted illusion grounding these surreal scenes into our plane of reality, creating a sense that they are part of a bigger picture that we are yet to see. This feeling that these drawings may not be final opens up room for time and the imagination to add new meaning to these powerful works of art.