Nkgopoleng Moloi on Rahima Gambo

Rahima Gambo’s exhibition “Bird Sound Orientations” employed a constellation of organic and inorganic materials to embody reoriented ways of perceiving the world. Hinging on the Nigerian artist’s personal connection to various places and the pathways and forms of connectivity within and between them, the works explored parks, forests, and fields—nature in both rural and urban guises. The collages, silk-screened prints, and sculptural installations featured imagery familiar from her past work, including flora, birds, and children at play. By arranging found images—including those from coloring-book illustrations and textbook pages, as well as feathers, soil, pieces of wood, and sheets of paper—on the wall and floor, Gambo drew attention to the impact of physical space on human behavior and emotions. She elicited an acute awareness of the relationship between one’s own body and other entities to suggest an expanded range of possible human interactions with plants, animals, and nonliving things: Rocks remind us of the knowledge beneath our feet, while trees and shrubs act as navigational tools, marking place and facilitating orientation. Works such as the collage drawing Sighting Palm Trees in Johannesburg, 2022, map out the city through its ecology, connecting the artist to the place through plant life as previous works have connected her to the Nigerian landscapes of Abuja, Lagos, and Maiduguri.

Gambo collaborates with a group of students in Maiduguri, in northeastern Nigeria, on various projects, using materials including their own voices and bodies, fabric, slates, chalk, and even a mattress, to make discoveries and inventions. The single-channel video Tatsuniya II, 2019, shows a group of seven girls engaging in various forms of play—drawing, singing, and skipping—interspersed with nervous laughter, gentle instructions to each other, and the murmur of breath as they run, clap, hop, and fall. Some of their games involve birdlike motions of gliding and flapping. As we observe these gestures, we hear the sound of birds in the field. The games require interpersonal skills as well as confidence in fellow players; in one game, the group forms a semicircle and a participant leans and falls back as the others catch her. With each iteration the falling player exudes more energy, adding more momentum to the girls’ collective movement. Play becomes a tool that opens up different ways to understand complexity and approach learning.

Instruments of Air, 2021, is a single-channel video of someone walking across a field. Unsteady camera movements captured from the viewpoint of the subject are disorienting. The walker holds out a bronze hoop until it frames the sun. Bird calls, the bleating of goats, and footsteps crunching on a gravel road overlay the sound of a Fulani flute, as this diatonic wind instrument’s graceful piping draws us deeper into its rhythm. In subsequent shots the hoop is variously replaced by an arc, a triangle, and a right angle—geometry as a language of symbols. These same geometrical elements find their way into the artist’s clay, soil, and copper sculptural installations, by which she broaches spatial markers as a form of communication.

Although all sorts of geometrical forms appear in Gambo’s work, for her the history of movement and territory seems to be best understood through curves—whether the circular trajectory of a line on a piece of paper, globes connected through arrows on a grid, the coiling of a bird’s nest, or young girls twirling on a playground. These symbols, motions, and gestures represent sensory information that is essential for orienting oneself to the world.

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