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© Pompeii Commitment. Archaeological Matters, a project by the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, 2020. Project Partner: MiC.
All archival images and photographs taken at the Archaeological Park of Pompeii are used with permission from MiC-Ministry of Culture-Archaeological Park of Pompeii. Any copies or reproductions are strictly forbidden.

Otobong Nkanga, with Matteo Lucchetti. Imagine Being a Particle

Commitments 42    07•04•2022

1. Excerpt from:

Imagining the flow of a particle,
a site visit to Pompeii on January 24 2022,
video recorded by Matteo Lucchetti

2 – 11. Texts:

Otobong Nkanga
Poems for 08 Black Stone,
part of Carved to Flow

02, 04, 07, 09. Images:

Otobong Nkanga
sketches on paper, ball pen and digital drawing
13 x 21 cm
Courtesy the Artist

05, 08, 10. Images:

Otobong Nkanga
Unearthed (Abyss, Twilight), details
woven tapestry / various yarns
Courtesy the Artist

With thanks to Kunsthaus Bregenz (Austria) and TextielLab at the TextielMuseum in Tilburg (The Netherlands)

Part, parts, parted
particles slowly breaking
to hit another with an impact
merging encore

Otobong Nkanga

Misenum, today Capo Miseno, is the town from which the deadliest eruption of a volcano in European history was observed by Pliny the Elder in 79 AD, about 29 kilometres of distance from Pompei. He decided to get closer to the epicentre, to try to save his friends and observe the phenomenon. He sailed closer to the eruption, only to return dead three days later, probably asphyxiated by the toxic gases. We know all of this thanks to the letter that Pliny the Younger wrote to the historian Tacitus, giving an account of what he observed in the final hours of his uncle’s life. History and its accounts are often a matter of distances: a physical one from the event, in this case, that allows its storytelling to exist, but also a temporal one, where elements get rearranged in light of new findings, new perceptions and understandings of what happened.
At the invitation to contribute to Pompeii Commitment. Archaeological Matters, artist Otobong Nkanga decided to practice her distance from the event and started imagining how things could have gone from a non-human perspective. “Imagine being a particle,” she told me during our first meeting about Pompeii. How can we imagine an account of the eruption in 79 AD coming from the perspective of a particle of matter? Would the explosion be as relevant to its life as it is from a human standpoint? The particle the artist has in mind did not end its life in that event, so deadly for human beings; it rather changed its status and relation with the surroundings. It started many new chapters of its existence that are perhaps still present today and which pre-existed the times of the Roman town.
Now, imagine being a particle. Imagine having landed on the skin of a woman that just left the thermal baths of Pompeii, and then being scrubbed off into the wind. A few hours before the eruption, imagine the particle landing on the soil and being transported by the galloping of horses towards the harbour. Imagine it getting stuck to the feathers of a seagull haunting for fish on the shores: while the bird hovers on the surface of the water, the particle falls towards the seabed where it lays for a few hours. Until the seafloor begins to tremble, and the beginning of the eruption signifies a transformation of the particle, that through heat ceases to be one and merges with the surroundings while the town of Pompeii gets covered up in ashes and pumice. Imagine the following explosions pulverize the particle in many parts and these starting different journeys around the area and beyond, reaching out to indefinite parts of the cosmos too. One of them evaporates because of the rise of the water temperature and goes back towards the lands around Pompeii via a mist that surrounds the coast, mixing with a new fertile soil left by the lava. Many centuries later, the offspring of the particle is part of the life of an olive tree, that grew strong on the hills between Pompeii and Herculaneum, observing the first excavations happening under the rule of Naples by the Spanish dynasty of the Bourbon. Imagine now some of the offsprings of the original particle travelling the world via the many precious objects uncovered in Pompeii that the empress Teresa Cristina of the Two Sicilies brought with her to Brazil in1843, when she married Dom Pedro II of Brazil. These particles probably remained in the National Museum of Rio de Janeiro until 2018, when a big fire destroyed almost the totality of the collection, including the pieces that survived the Vesuvius eruption. But even then, the particles didn’t die. They probably transformed into something similar to carbon, bringing them closer to their ancestors, almost certainly made of the same matter as the stars.
These imaginative exercises could continue endlessly and reveal the artistic methodology of Otobong Nkanga, who translates such interconnected way of thinking into incredible artworks and projects. This digital contribution features some original drawings of the particle’s journey and a series of close-ups of a tapestry work in four pieces, titled Unearthed (Abyss, Midnight, Twilight, Sunlight), that the artist produced in the framework of her recent solo exhibition at Kunsthaus Bregenz. In these close-ups, the coloured threads of the warp reveal the layering that renders the complexity of the earth, through visualizing sedimentation, extractivism, particulate matter and other forms of describing our interdependentness to earth as humans. Each colour and their juxtaposition talk about the weaving of particles in the making of what we see and describe as living and non-living: coral reef, seabed, soil, vegetation, rocks, and more. Therefore, the tapestry becomes the way to unearth the complexity and expand our notions and understanding of the environments we live in, even more so through the climate crisis we face. Along with the drawings and these details of textiles appear a series of poems by the artist, initially written in connection to one segment of Carved to Flow, a long-term socially engaged project by Nkanga regarding the production of soap and developed thanks to the work of many collaborators. The artist wrote these poems to accompany each box of soap – called 08 Black Stone – resulting from “networked geographies, economic histories and affective entanglements that inform the creation of everyday products.” 1 The soap as an object in close contact with the body is here a reminder of the daily relationship with many different materials, particles, and oils that, through intimate contact, connect us with a myriad of other lives and non-lives.
“Life is merely a moment in the greater dynamic unfolding of Nonlife,” 2 writes Elizabeth Povinelli to stress the urgency in our time to reconnect with the “so called” Nonlife. The practice of Nkanga sheds entirely new light on the Vesuvius eruption and its aftermath in Pompeii, imagining it as a mere moment in a more significant journey of a particle and its offspring. ML

1 This description of the work comes from the original website of the project. Connect to http://www.carvedtoflow.com/ to know more

2 Elizabeth A. Povinelli, Geontologies. A Requiem to Late Liberalism, Duke University Press, London, 2016. Page 176.

Imagine Being a Particle is presented in collaboration with Kunsthaus Bregenz (Austria) and TextielLab at the TextielMuseum in Tilburg (The Netherlands).

Home page image: Otobong Nkanga, sketches on paper, 2022. Courtesy the Artist

Otobong Nkanga (Kano, 1974; lives and works in Antwerp) is considered one of the most outstanding artists working today. She is an alumnus of the Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, Nigeria, École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Rijksakademie van beeldende kunsten in Amsterdam, DasArts Amsterdam and she was awarded with a residence at DAAD in Berlin. In 2015 she was awarded the 8th Yanghyun Art Prize and in 2017 the Belgian Art Prize. Nkanga’s project, Carved to Flow, was presented that same year at documenta 14, Kassel – Athens. In 2019, Nkanga received a Special Mention Award at the 58th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia; she was awarded the Prize for Best Permanent Installation at the 14th Sharjah Biennial (with Emeka Ogboh); she won the prestigious Peter-Weiss-Preis, and she was also the recipient of the Flemish Cultural Award for Visual Arts – Ultima. In 2019 she was the initial recipient of the Lise Wilhelmsen Art Award Programme and in the fall of 2020 she presented the solo show Uncertain Where the Next Wind Blows at the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter in Høvikodden, Norway. Her most recent solo exhibitions took place at: Centre d’art contemporain of Villa Arson, Nice, France (2021); Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Turin, Italy (2021); Kunsthaus Bregenz, Austria (2021-2022); Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA), UK (2020-2021); Zeitz Mocaa, Cape Town, South Africa (2019-2020); and Tate St. Ives, UK (2019-2020). Her work is part of the collections of numerous international institutions including: Centre Pompidou, Paris; Tate Modern, London; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Turin and many others.

Matteo Lucchetti is a curator, art historian and writer. He is co-founder of the project “Orchestre delle Trasformazione”, a curatorial agency that promotes new artistic imaginaries for the 2030 agenda. Since 2011 he has curated with Judith Wielander “Visible”, a research project and support for socially engaged artistic practices in a global context of Pistoletto Foundation and Zegna Foundation. He worked as curator of exhibitions and the public program at the BAK in Utrecht in 2017-2018, and was curator of the 16th Rome Quadrennial. Among the most recent curatorial projects: Marzia Migliora. The spectrum of Malthus, MA * GA, Gallarate; Sammy Baloji. Other Tales, Lunds Konsthall and Kunsthal Aarhus, 2020; Marinella Senatore: Piazza Universale. Social Stages, Queens Museum, New York, 2017; De Rerum Rurale, 16th Rome Quadrennial, 2016; Don’t Embarrass the Bureau, Lunds Konsthall, 2014; Enacting Populism, Kadist Art Foundation, Paris, 2012. He was curator in residence at Para Site (Hong Kong), Kadist Art Foundation (Paris) and AIR (Antwerp). He is a faculty member of the Unidee Academy, Biella. He is visiting professor at HISK, Ghent; Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam; Sint Lucas Antwerpen, Antwerp and Brera Academy of Fine Arts, Milan. His critical contributions have appeared in Mousse Magazine, Manifesta Journal and Art Agenda. Lucchetti lives and works between Brussels and Rome.

Pompeii Commitment

Otobong Nkanga, with Matteo Lucchetti. Imagine Being a Particle

Commitments 42 07•04•2022

Asop, aswop, swop, slop
I pick you up
for you to slip away
again and again leaving

Déjà vu

The chains are formed
linking stubborn bubbles
of isolated worlds
will it stain or purge
these aging cells


Rub me once, let me foam
to nourish your cracks
rub me twice, let me kiss
your skin with softness

Act of love

Charred, so I had to breathe
in the absence of oxygen
scarred, so I had to leave
these lands of bare ash residues
fleeing, breathing


Eight meet in a melting pot
fifty five degrees perfect hot
sign a pact to form a solid block
bound by lye and blood


I dreamt of you early in the morning
early in the morning
early after mourning
I dreamt of you
slightly foaming
lightly with a smell

Last year June

Part, parts, parted
particles slowly breaking
to hit another with an impact
merging encore


On your skin I roam
Moistening every crust
formed by dust
back to the soil
Broken we start again


Let me linger
in your pore
Let me linger
a little more


My fate is in your hands