Artist Otobong Nkanga redefines kolanut, Nigerian tradition in Contained Measures of a Kolanut

Kolanut
BAMPFA/Courtesy

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The tastes and traditions of Nigeria found a home this past Saturday in the UC Botanical Garden.

Surrounded by the lush, leafy vegetation inside the Botanical Garden’s Tropical House, a small circle of people stood gathered around a set of simple pinewood tables with an array of photographs, maps and, most importantly, kolanuts.

In the center of this free-flowing crowd sat globally acclaimed Belgian-Nigerian mixed-media artist Otobong Nkanga, knife in hand, set in front of a table of kolanuts and waiting for willing participants to sit across from her to begin her one-on-one performance project of cultural exchange, Contained Measures of a Kolanut.

Designed in 2012 after extensive research in the historical library of CIRAD in Paris’ Bois De Vincennes, Contained Measures relies on individual participation and Nkanga’s lines of dialogue about the West African history, global impact and contextual human culture of the kolanut.

Contained Measures loosely follows the structure of a time-honored West African and Nigerian ritual of breaking open and eating the kolanut together — a practice in reverence of the ritual, for the kolanut and for one another. Then, she asks the participant to choose among cards arranged on her table for her to engage in oral storytelling on different aspects of her research.

Nkanga’s performance may appear rehearsed, but laughing to one participant, she revealed, “I never remember what I say.”

Her engagement with the audience creates a unique art experience of mutual communication and participation, far removed from the voyeuristic tendencies of Western aesthetic and artistic conventions.

The sacred act of breaking the kolanut together goes beyond simple consumption. As Nkanga revealed over the course of the afternoon through her thoughtful oration, eating a kolanut becomes an act of trust between people, linking each to the other and to a greater community.

As Nkanga explained to one participant, the ritual itself makes eating the kolanut “not a selfish act or an individualistic act, but an act of deep connection.” Somewhere between sweet and bitter, the earthy tastes of the kolanut traditionally recall the ancestors from one’s lineage and a shared lineage between people, revealing the commonality of all. The kolanut ritual can be significant in welcoming visitors, bonding families through marriage and binding people together for all number of reasons.

This context may be entirely lost in a global perspective on the kolanut, especially considering its more recent (and far more commodified) history. In the hands of the global market, the caffeinated kolanut became an early ingredient in Coca-Cola and other cola-based soft drinks. The practice of using the kolanut plant for commercial soft drinks came out of fashion at the turn of the 20th century, according to Nkanga, as its requirements for care — including proper soil and environment maintenance — were too difficult for plantation-based economies to sustain.

The kolanut isn’t sitting in supermarkets today because of decisions made early in the development of global commercial fruit markets. Instead, the kolanut has become, like many natural products, a thing of the recent past in terms of economic development.

Contained Measures focused on reclaiming the kolanut from this history of global commodification and its subsequent abandonment within this history. Nkanga’s focus on the landscapes of tradition and on cultural reclamation in this project sought to educate her audiences toward a more loving, ecologically and historically uncontaminated positionality.

Women aren’t traditionally allowed to break the kolanut. In breaking the kolanut, then, Nkanga breaks the boundaries of tradition while also reifying the memory of this unsettled culture for her audience.

Nkanga, near the end of her four hours in the garden, cheekily revealed that garden managers had left her expecting a kola tree inside the Tropical House. “‘Will you have a kolanut tree?’” she recounted of the exchange. “They said ‘Yes, hopefully!’ And when I arrived, they said, ‘Oh, it died.'”

Her audience, coming out of the reverie with which they witnessed her work, fell into fits of silent giggles.

Contact Justin Knight at [email protected].