In this exhibition, the Nigerian-Belgian Otobong Nkanga (b. Kano, Nigeria 1974) creates a dialogue between her artworks – both new and existing – and pieces she has selected from Musea Brugge’s collection. At the same time, she enters into dialogue with the place where the artworks will be displayed: the medieval Saint John’s Hospital. Our relationship with the landscape, the soil, our bodies and our feelings is often disturbed. Our insatiable hunger for natural raw materials causes damage to the environment and also to ourselves. The global pandemic and the urgent environmental issues make the need to treat our traumas even more acute. We are not an entity of our own. How are we connected? How are our histories connected? We humans must once again feel a connection with the soil, with our roots. We have to “ground” ourselves again. “Grounding” is also the common thread running through this artistic circuit. In the exhibition at Saint John’s hospital, Otobong Nkanga pushes beyond her focus on wounds in the earth and networks of extraction and exploitation, and offers visitors a landscape that invites discovery, contemplation, reflection and healing. This is an encounter that appeals to all the senses and encourages visitors to ground themselves.
The exhibition begins with the title: ‘Underneath the Shade We Lay Grounded’. If we have to break that down into different parts… ‘Underneath’: The building is slightly below street level. ‘We Lay’: A lot of the works are placed on the floor, quite literally. We have carpets, we have tapestries. So, we’re really looking for that aspect of ‘laying’ and of ‘grounding’ or ‘earthing’. But we’re also looking for a place where you understand that notion of ‘lying down’.
And of course, when we think of St John’s Hospital, which was built around 1188, we can imagine the different people and bodies that have lain here, that have survived and died. And when we think of the cemeteries, of the things that lie under the ground: the bones, the bodies. All this came to mind when I was thinking about the exhibition. It reminds us of the concept of lying down and of the fact that we are lying on something that is meant to heal and to take care of the body. But at the same time, it reminds us that we are not immortal, and that we will certainly die. Some of the pieces are about that, but there are also pieces that open up a space for regeneration. About a place where we heal when we are sick, but where we can also die. So that 50/50 chance of dying and passing away? Yes, that’s what this exhibition is about.
It is no coincidence that the first work the visitor encounters on this pilgrimage is the painting “The Good Samaritan” (2nd half of the 16th century). The Samaritan from the well-known Bible story helps a traveller who has been robbed and wounded. The Samaritan symbolises mental and emotional healing. This is exactly what Otobong Nkanga is aiming for with her art. With her textiles, stone carpets, cords and horizontal wooden sculptures, she infringes upon the norms of the museum, the arrangement of which is classical and perpendicular. In what she describes as “the horizontal museum”, she invites the visitor to connect with the ground, the earth, and natural materials. Loss, mourning, recovery, care and regeneration are the historical themes that Otobong Nkanga weaves through her exhibition landscape. She does this with her poetry installation “And Life came through with a Breath” (2022) that fills a large part of the room. With her words, she weaves many stories, connecting the space to the collection and her interventions.
When you enter the exhibition, the first thing you encounter is the small Ursula shrine, and opposite it hangs a work by an anonymous painter. ‘The Good Samaritan’. I wanted this to be the start of the exhibition because it emphasises a space of care. You see this man lying there, with blood on his face, and he is being looked after. I thought that the painting of the Good Samaritan, someone who actually helps, makes for a good and gentle beginning. And if we think back to the old St John’s Hospital, people stopped here on their way from A to B, because they knew that someone would take care of them here. You didn’t have to be sick; you didn’t have to be in a bad state. This was once a place of refuge. It was a place where you could rest a little and then move on.
Connected with handmade woven cords and sculptures in wood, glass or stone, the horizontal carpets “Shaped by Morning Dew” (2021), “Arched Gorges” (2021) and “Silent Force, Red Caress” (2022) are striking. These are displayed at various points in the exhibition, as a reminder of the hospital’s original function: a ward with guests who receive food, spiritual or medicinal care. The glass and wooden sculptures containing herbs and healing oils such as blue chamomile or St John’s Wort, draw the visitor to the floor to listen, smell, experience, and unwind. The carpets as a whole can be likened to a landscape, with paths that symbolise the search for “healing”. But the carpet sculptures also depicts the detailed structure of minerals such as aragonite, biehlite and a fusion between calcite and cerusitte, rocks which are also said to possess healing properties. Otobong Nkanga also incorporates the link to regional natural minerals and crafts throughout the making process of her exhibition: in the creatively worked blown glass and the wooden sculpture fashioned from a dead tree from the city, which are thus afforded a new function and a new life.
The carpets remind me of the old hospital beds. In the sense that you lie on them and can relax and feel good. The carpets are meant to be healing places. I had the idea to make these glass sculptures with oils. Essential oils with scents that have a calming effect. Like camomile or lavender, for example. They are substances that soothe the body. So, if you’re lying on the carpet and you have the glass sculpture next to you, you can smell it, and it should calm you down.
The wooden sculptures contain garden herbs. Like St. John’s wort. The oil that’s extracted from this herb is used as an antidepressant, but also to fight inflammation and to heal the skin. So, it heals both your mental state and your physical state. I looked specifically for herbs and plants used in the hospital and those from the region. This, to bring it all back to the hospital as a substance, or as things we smell or as things we connect with.
Otobong Nkanga is always searching for traces. Her installations and stories grow in situ during the making process. For Saint John’s Hospital she proposes a new version of “Taste of a Stone”. It is a work that has been evolving since 2010. Nkanga originally endeavoured to examine the different uses we have found for stones throughout history – for architecture, for marking borders and boundaries. Stones can seemingly communicate with humans through the senses, and the spiritual meaning we sometimes give to them. In Saint John’s Hospital, “Taste of a Stone” evolves into an all-encompassing landscape of art and stories. A stony field as an archipelago, with islands which every visitor can explore, and be invited to connect with and marvel at. In order to be surprised en route by a performance, by standing still and slowing down. “Taste of a Stone” contains all the elements of “the healing museum”. The white stone carpet alludes to the rich history and welds together the incoherent construction phases of the romanesque and gothic halls to create a single entity. At the same time, it reconciles and reunites the mind and the emotions. It transforms the medieval wards into an ethereal space, a haven for contemplation, dialogue and recovery.
I made the first ‘Taste of a Stone’ in 2010 and there have been several variations of it since then. So, every time ‘Taste of a Stone’ enters a room, it adapts. That’s its purpose. It expands and it contracts as though it’s breathing.
Here, there was a logical and automatic link with the building because the column bases throughout the space are all stone. And I wanted something that carries the history of that stone throughout the exhibition. But also, the buildings, the facets of brick, stones and pebbles. I felt like I was breaking and cutting into the layers of architecture to bring back that material in abundance. Then, within ‘Taste of a Stone’ we have Belgian cobbles from the Ardennes that were also used to construct the building. So, on the one hand, you’re looking at local raw materials. But on the other hand, you can also see how that raw material was carved and shaped into something that makes a building or an object.
The large carpet “Tied to the Other Side” (2021) shows a world that is sustained by a cycle of regeneration. Below you can see limbs, elements that have perished, and the important links in this process. They provide nourishment for the new organisms around them. Nearby, Otobong Nkanga places the work “The Anatomy Lesson” (1679). This painting is also a brutal confrontation with death, whilst simultaneously depicting new knowledge that leads to new life. Otobong Nkanga plays with the dimensions and symbolism of the horizontal museum. Nearby, the quest for the flat stony landscape culminates in the ultimate “Reliquary of Saint Ursula” which Hans Memling made for Saint John’s Hospital in around 1489. A ray of light from the tapestry is symbolically trained upon the weakened-looking painter, who is depicted in Henri Dobbelaere’s painting (“Memling Paints the Reliquary of Saint in the Hospital in Bruges”, 1857). Here too, healing and new life ultimately grows out of the decline. Or with the bones of the relics of Ursula nearby, there is the comforting thought of a gentle death.
The idea behind ‘Tied to the Other Side’ is this: we have this body that lies close to the ground and is slowly decaying, but as it decays it also creates new life. And that new life becomes the material that modern technology uses to expand, to dissect, to extract. To then create life itself, but without the earth. Life that is, as it were, manipulated and twisted.
‘Tied to the Other Side’ is also connected to spirituality, to something that is less tangible, something that you cannot see to something that is brewing. And so, I was interested in talking about the aspect that isn’t tangible.
In “Underneath the Shade We Lay Grounded”, Otobong Nkanga reflects on energy, the life force of all material, in interaction with the environment and people. Themes such as death and regeneration play a central role. With “View of the Old Ward” (1778), she again uses a collection piece as a benchmark of the past. The painting by Jan Beerblock gives a sense of how the hospital functioned historically. Otobong Nkanga sees it as a period document about life and death, and as the historical space’s identity card. She places the painting opposite the tombstones of the sisters who once lived and worked here. She remembers them with flowers as a symbol of mourning and regeneration. The process of energy that lives on is also central to the tapestry “Unearthed - Sunlight” (2021). After our death we become minerals for the soil, which feed plants, which are in turn used as medicine. A process that also played out in the old hospital. The work “After We Are Gone” (2020) is an echo of the same idea. Against a backdrop of burnt landscapes, new life grows in the form of a hybrid of different plants. Energy that never ends.
In one of the works, ‘Unearthed Sunlight’, there are plants growing in the tapestry. New life that keeps on growing throughout the exhibition. But there are also plants that I use for symmetry. Like the helix plant, which is ivy, or heather. This connection with life, and at the same time with death, is played out on the tapestry.
But there are also specific plants on the gravestones. I want certain things to be alive, and I want certain things to be dead. And you have this continuity between that cycle, but at the same time when I think about the tapestries, you also have the glass sculptures that are filled with herbs, scents and oils. Like the St. John’s Wort oil, which is linked by name to the St. John’s Hospital. And I try to create an energy in the space through all these scented elements, they bring life.
The image of Saint Ursula pervades the exhibition. As one of the patron saints of the medieval hospital, she is responsible for a good and gentle death, as well as symbolising the quest for spiritual care. You encounter Saint Ursula in various small relics and pictures, and ultimately in the well-known reliquary “Shrine of Saint Ursula” that Hans Memling made for Saint John’s Hospital in 1489. As portrayed on the reliquary, with her open robe, Ursula provides protection and care for the hospital’s guests, both past and present. Ursula is the connector throughout this artistic circuit. Linking and connecting are crucial for Otobong Nkanga. She does this with her installations, but also symbolically. For her, reliquaries are ruins of the past, guardians of memories. It is no coincidence that she also places these below ground. Like bones that return to the earth, but at the same time as a body that never rests, which also transmits energy and connects people.
Let’s look at the architecture of the space, and also at the works that it contains. Not only are my works here, but we also have the Ursula shrine, the work of Henri Dobbelaere, the Memlings, the bones of Ursula, the relics. There are many things going on here. And everything is very close to the ground, except for the plinths that support the objects from the collection. So, in a way, I was interested in the possibility of enclosing everything with a curtain. There are poems and drawings on the curtain. How should you think about those drawings? Well, they connect the different objects almost like a chain. So, you have a part that links to the glass sculpture and the wooden sculptures, a part that links to perseverance and care, a part that links to broken limbs and dying bodies, and another part that opens a space to another world. So, it’s a kind of connection, not in a linear way, but in a way that allows your imagination to linger, but at the same time brings you back and lands you in the space.
Walking from the church containing the “Altarpiece of Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist” (1479) by Hans Memling towards this textile drape, the continuation of “And Life came through with a Breath” (2022), a cavity lights up in the centre. Almost a peephole through the wall, through which a small landscape can be seen. A ray of light shines on a body. For Otobong Nkanga death is not the end, but a link in the process of perpetual energy. Time and time again, she creates landscapes that illustrate this action, as in the drawing “Earthing” (2022). The landscapes symbolise regeneration, but also connect to the hospital’s history. This drawing is in dialogue with the landscapes of Hans Memling. With the bodies that she draws, Otobong Nkanga alludes to the people who worked at the hospital, like the Sisters of Saint John, whose tombstones are nearby.
And when I look at these paintings, or at the chapel itself, I immediately feel a relationship that is so connected to the body. Everything is built for the body; everything is built to maintain the well-being of the human body. For me, this is already a place from which to start and connect. And my work is very much connected to that relationship with the body: the human body, bodies of water, and stone. Elements that are used for our own well-being and personal care.
If you look at it from that perspective, you can put a stone next to a Memling painting or an Ursula shrine, because then you can make a connection with Ursula’s bones that have turned to stone. Our organic material is transformed over time into all kinds of new materials. So, you can make a link between the body and those materials, but at the same time, it’s not linear, not one on one. But it’s a reflection of material next to material.