Winner of Belgian Art Prize makes sense of globalised world


Antwerp-based Otobong Nkanga has won the Belgian Art Prize, the most prestigious contemporary art award in the country

Documenting change

For over 50 years, the biennial Young Belgian Art Prize has been awarded to an outstanding local artist. With the likes of Berlinde De Bruyckere and Hans Op de Beeck among its recipients, it is considered the most prestigious art prize in the country.

In the past, the focus has been on recognising rising young talent, but this year the award got a makeover. Renamed the Belgian Art Prize, it now targets mid-career artists instead, with the goal of helping them increase their visibility on an international level, in the same way as the UK’s Turner Prize.

The first winner of the Belgian Art Prize is Antwerp-based Otobong Nkanga. Born in Nigeria, Nkanga has built an impressive artistic portfolio: She is represented by Parisian gallery In Situ and Lumen Travo in Amsterdam, and her work has been shown at London’s Tate Modern.

She’s also taking part in this year’s Documenta 14 in Kassel and Athens, one of the world’s major contemporary art events.

Place of peace

But you don’t need to travel to Germany or Greece to dive into Nkanga’s work: All of the Belgian Art Prize finalists are currently on show at Bozar in Brussels. Nkanga’s winning work showcases a research-heavy practice that looks at how we live today, while documenting the social, economic and environmental changes around us.

“When I found out I was nominated, my first thought was to make new work,” Nkanga says. “But in the end I decided it was best to just continue what I’m doing and take it as an opportunity to further develop my ideas.”

The down-to-earth approach speaks for the artist’s authenticity and rings true for her entire oeuvre. “I never thought I would want to be an artist,” she says. “I was just looking for a place where I could be free in what I wanted to do.”

I never thought I’d want to be an artist. I was just looking for a place where I could be free in what I wanted to do

- Otobong Nkanga

Already as a child, she continues, “I felt at peace when being in a place of making, of reflection. Being an artist allows me to be in this place.”

This distinct thirst and curiosity for reflection and observation as a means of making sense of the world is at the centre of Nkanga’s practice. “It’s about where we are today and how we can move forward,” she explains. “We need to look at the past, how things are shifting today, and how this can shape the future.”

Nkanga examines transformations and documents change, especially as related to landscapes and natural resources – the recurrent themes in her work. This is evident in her winning piece: a poem woven into textile is slowly contaminated by liquid, and a rusted steel sheet manifests the effects of corrosion.

Time for reflection

At the same time, the pieces are influenced by the different places Nkanga has lived – from Nigeria, to France and the Netherlands, where she went to art school, and now Belgium, where she lives with her husband – revealing an inherently global perspective.

“My work is interconnected with the places I’ve lived,” she confirms. “What happens in one place affects another. This is true for nature and also for my work. There is no way of looking at the world in a little bubble. We have to look at all the different bubbles and how they are affecting each other.”

This notion of interconnectedness extends to Nkanga’s use of multiple mediums, which can seem disparate at first. From drawings and photographs to performance, textile, sculpture and installations, everything in her work is connected.

We’ve managed to sustain billions of people, but we need to consider what it means to destroy the whole Amazon forest just for its resources

- Otobong Nkanga

Not limiting herself to specific genres, Nkanga has the freedom and flexibility to completely do justice to her ideas. “Ideas are amplified through the materials being used,” she says. “Some things can only be done in poetry, others make sense in clay. Still others need a combination of materials to be able to convey the complexity of the thoughts.”

Standout works include “Baggage”, for which Nkanga transported sand from Africa to Europe and back; the “Contained Measures of Shifting States”, which displayed the four elements of liquid, ice, smoke and fire in a state of movement and shift; and “Alterscapes: Playground”, a series of photographed installations that exposes how human kind has economically and politically reshaped landscapes.

While Nkanga’s work might strike the viewer as a harsh criticism of humans’ treatment of the earth, the artist dismisses this impression. “It’s a double-edged sword,” she says. “We can’t only be critical of what we’re doing to the planet. We’ve managed to sustain billions of people. But we need to consider what it means to destroy the whole Amazon forest just for its resources.”

There needs to be a balance, she continues, “and in order to achieve that, we need to rethink how we live and work”. And that’s exactly what she strives for: to make people think, incite reflection and inspire the viewer to look at the bigger picture.

Until 28 May, Bozar, Ravensteinstraat 23 Brussels