In Discussion with Kosisochukwu Nnebe: What I might be is uncontainable

Kosisochukwu Nnebe. I want you to know that I am hiding from you / since what I might be is uncontainable.
Installation shot. Photo credit: Justin Wonnacott and Kristina Corre. 2019. 

Questions by Adi Berardini

Kosisochukwu Nnebe is a Nigerian-Canadian visual artist. An economist by training and a policy analyst by profession, her visual arts practice aims to engage viewers on issues both personal and structural in ways that bring awareness to their own complicity. Her work has been exhibited at AXENÉO7, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Place des Arts, the Art Gallery of Guelph, the Nia Centre, Studio Sixty Six, Z-Art Space, Station 16, and the Mohr Gallery in Mountain View, California. She has given presentations on her artistic practice and research at universities across Quebec, including Laval, McGill, and Concordia, and has facilitated workshops at the National Gallery of Canada, the Ottawa Art Gallery, and Redwood City High School in California. She is currently based in Ottawa.

I was wondering if you could speak to your solo exhibition I want you to know that I am hiding from you / since what I might be is uncontainable and the meaning and inspiration behind it?

The exhibition initially began as an exploration of the concept of objectivity, and the ways it had been used as a tool against folks who look like me – Black women – as a way of (re)asserting white male dominance. However, in moving from theme to exhibition concept, one particular image took root and became difficult to shake: a podium in the shape of a slave auction block in the middle of a room laden with hidden imagery and messages. The image came to me clear[ly] and everything else flowed from there.

Kosisochukwu Nnebe. I want you to know that I am hiding from you.
Installation shot. Photo credit: Justin Wonnacott and Kristina Corre. 2019.

Playing on ideas from feminist standpoint theory, the podium eventually became the centerpiece for the first installation, I want you to know that I am hiding something from you, which can only be fully experienced from one unique position within the gallery room: from atop the wooden steps. Here, within the space of the installation, as in society, what is seen, and unseen is dictated by one’s positionality. In order to truly understand the piece, the observer must become the observed, must give up the comfort of their position on the floor to mount a podium and become the object of interest for others. In many ways, this action asks us to value the perspectives and knowledge production of those people who had been enslaved, to understand that they had seen and understood the world in ways that would have been impossible for anyone else.

Beyond this emphasis on the biased – rather than objective – nature of perception, this room also aims to explore the potentiality inherent in hesitation, as explored by philosopher Linda Marín Alcoff. Entering into the room, the viewer is greeted by the sight of the podium in the center, with sheets of red Plexiglas hanging overhead, and two printed red banners on opposite walls. What I wanted was for the viewer to enter the room, be confused, and hesitate.  They would be faced with a couple of choices: either go through quickly, not see anything and leave, or stay in the room and try to engage with the works in a more productive way (like getting close to the banners). Or if they were courageous enough, they could go and stand on the podium. If they chose the latter, they would be rewarded by the materialization of hidden images and messages on the opposing banners that are only possible through a red screen. In this installation, hesitation is generative; it creates an opening, an opportunity to glimpse into a different way of seeing.

What is interesting is that what is seen through the red Plexiglas is yet another hidden message, this time in the shape of a spider that materializes on one of the banners. Often, when people would get on the podium, they would see the spider, and thinking they’re done and have seen what was required, would leave the room thinking they had fully understood the installation. Unbeknownst to them, the installation is a game of hide and seek where I, the artist, have hidden myself in the room and am asking them to look for me, to think beyond what a Black woman should look like and to see me as I would like to be seen – a trickster. The spider is an allusion to Anansi the Spider, a trickster figure in Ghanaian folklore. What’s important here is that even if you see me, you haven’t actually seen me properly – I’m still hiding, taking refuge in a politics of refusal.

From there, the exhibition moved from being about objectivity towards something that felt much more rooted and tangible to me: the politics of visibility and its implications on the Black body, and the Black female body in particular. The first installation provided me with one pole of the spectrum – notions of invisibility. More specifically, it asked, rather than thinking of invisibility as something that is forced upon Black bodies, what does it mean to find agency in speaking and representing blackness in ways that are not easily recognizable or understood? What remained, however, was an exploration of the sensation of hypervisibility that is so common to the experience of Blackness in Canada.

The second room takes up where the first leaves off, exploring the effects of racialized perception – the projection of race onto the body – on the lived experience of the embodied subject. In the opening passages of the chapter “The lived experience of the black man” in Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon describes an encounter with a young white boy and his mother in a way that is visceral and raw. The moment is one in which the narrator finds himself reduced to his race and seemingly stripped of all agency and indeed of his body altogether: “My body returned to me spread-eagled, disjointed, redone, draped in mourning on this white winter’s day.”

Since what I might be is uncontainable, is a direct visualization of this passage, which has, since the moment I first read it, haunted me as a visceral description of the pains of racialization. The second room thus becomes a simulacrum of my day to day navigation in society as a Black woman – with my body spread bare in front of all those who have the power to racialize me and then treat me accordingly, be it with violence or with love and care. As the audience navigates the room, the shadows of body parts flitting across their clothes and skin implicate them in this moment of racialization. However, beyond an emphasis on the potential for violence associated with this moment of being recognized as Black, the installation understands that racialization can occur between two similarly raced individuals. In those instances, what occurs then is the opportunity for kinship and understanding, which can be as comforting as it can be restricting.

Kosisochukwu Nnebe. I want you to know that I am hiding from you / since what I might be is uncontainable.
installation shot. Photo credit: Justin Wonnacott and Kristina Corre. 2019

To speak to the complexities of Black identity and Black community, the installation employs audio from “Black Is… Black Ain’t,” the final documentary film by Marlon Riggs, which adeptly explores the give-and-take that comes with identifying and being identified as Black.  The documentary begins with a call and response, led by Riggs, wherein Blackness is described as: “Black can get you over/ Black can set you down/ Black can let you move forward/ Black can make you stumble around.” Embracing the notion of paradox, Since what I might be is uncontainable hints at the contradictions of race as a lived reality; the process of racialization – in many ways an act of naming – gives rise to both violence on the basis of difference and a sense of kinship predicated on shared experiences.

Since what I might be is uncontainable hints at the contradictions of race as a lived reality; the process of racialization – in many ways an act of naming – gives rise to both violence on the basis of difference and a sense of kinship predicated on shared experiences.

What is your process for choosing the medium for conveying the complexity of intersectionality?

I’ve been working with Plexiglas for a couple years now. Initially, my interest in it as a material came from what it allowed me to do in terms of layering. The first time I worked with Plexiglas, I used it to layer different representations of Black womanhood, in such a way that, depending on your position, you could see each depiction individually, or all at once. That was actually what spurred my interest in exploring feminist standpoint theory through my art practice.

From that first piece, I also became very interested in the kinds of shadows that are cast by Plexiglas. This is, of course, something that you see in my latest work, “I want you to know that I am hiding something from you / since what I might be is uncontainable.” For one of the installations, I used replicas of my legs and arms printed on Plexiglas. The light source in the middle of the room projects the shadows of those body parts onto the walls so that they are larger than life and taking up the entire space – in its shadow form, my body becomes uncontainable. There’s also a bit of wind in the space that creates movement in the pieces of Plexiglas as well as their shadows that again reinforces this sensation of consuming and overpowering the entire room as well as all those in it.

Increasingly, I am also interested in the body of the viewer and how I can also use that as a medium. In particular, with the piece with the podium, I was expecting that people wouldn’t want to climb onto it, either because they were unsure whether they were allowed to, or because they found it awkward, or because others would be watching – especially on opening night. At first, that night, people were shy to get on the podium for those exact reasons. However, within 15 minutes, I had people lined up waiting their turn to climb it, children and entire families getting on it, friends going two at a time, etc. It’s something I wasn’t expecting, and which now excites me. When you use people as your medium, you have no control over how they will react in a space.

Kosisochukwu Nnebe. I want you to know that I am hiding from you.
Installation shot. Photo credit: Justin Wonnacott and Kristina Corre. 2019.

It seems like you’re up to the next big project. What do you have planned next?

I am currently curating an exhibition that will be opening at the Carleton University Art Gallery in February 2020 and will be on display until April 2020. The idea for the exhibition came from my time working as a policy analyst on the development of Canada’s first Food Policy. It’s the first national policy that covers all aspects of the food system, from production to waste, and touches on four main themes, including food security. In my position there, I ended up developing a strategy for engaging Indigenous communities on the policy, that entailed building relationships with organizations such as the Assembly of First Nations and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, and travelling to Yellowknife, Nain, and Thunder Bay to engage firsthand with communities.

During this time, I was constantly in conversation with Indigenous people, and Indigenous women, in particular, learning about their food system as well as their relationship to land (these two go hand in hand). These conversations made me realize just how political food is and prompted me to start questioning my own relationship to food, as well as to this land that we now call Canada. Over the course of close to two years, these questions kept bubbling up inside of me with no outlet through which I could begin to address them.  When you’re working as a representative of the Federal Government and doing that kind of engagement, it often supersedes other relationships you may have with the people you’re working with. You become a physical embodiment of government and there can be a lot of tension and mistrust (for good reason) that you have to navigate. It left me a lot of unanswered questions around the kinds of relationships that are possible between Indigenous folks and Black Canadians.

With time, I found that the best way for me to begin to answer some of these questions was through art. I approached the Carleton University Art Gallery with the idea of curating an exhibition together bringing Black and Indigenous women artists – KC Adams, Deanna Bowen, Roxana Farrell, Bushra Junaid, Amy Malbeuf, Meryl McMaster, Cheyenne Sundance, Katherine Takpannie –  to explore their relationship to food, to this land, and to each other through the lens of food.

The end result is an exhibition entitled “They Forgot That We Were Seeds,” which uses foodways to re-imagine the history of Canada as a settler-colonial state, placing Black and Indigenous women at the centre of an effort to construct a counter-archive. Sugar, salt and cod take on layered meaning as the histories of labour, displacement, and adaptation they contain are excavated. Touching on issues of land, migration, and food justice and sovereignty, the exhibition offers a glimpse into decolonial and sustainable futurities rooted in Indigenous worldviews. In it, Black and Indigenous women are more than just the seeds that history has tried to bury—they represent deep roots and a harvest more plentiful than we could ever imagine.

Check out They Forgot That We Were Seeds at Carleton University Art Gallery from February 9, 2020 until April 19, 2020. The opening reception is February 9, from 2 – 4:30pm.

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