In Ima-Abasi Okon's 2021 display at Tate Britain, the artist has filled pairs of hand-crafted glass lights with palm oil and Courvoisier VS cognac. They are installed into a modular ceiling that is hung underneath the original. Shining through the palm oil and cognac, they spread a golden glow through the space.
What do palm oil and cognac tell us about global economies? How do palm oil and cognac’s biological properties co-mingle?
Press play and listen to medicinal herbalists Katja Swift and Ryn Midura explore the properties and medicinal uses of Palm Oil and Cognacs.
In the lamps, there are two liquids: palm oil & cognac.
That’s an alcohol and an oil.
alcohol & oil = liniment
The combination of an alcohol and an oil is something herbalists work with for topical applications. This is one of the ways to make what we call a liniment.
Liniments can help with all kinds of troubles – we make liniments for bruises and sprains, for the relaxation of tension, for pain management, for improved circulation, and so on.
This is a topical-only preparation. We don’t tend to consume herb-infused oils as medicines in Western herbalism, though that is a feature of some traditions.
When we make a liniment, it would not be 'plain' alcohol and oil, but rather, each component is infused with herbs. Then they are blended. This allows multiple options to come together: the choice of the alcohol, the oil, and the herb(s) to be infused in each one.
The combination is immiscible - the alcohol and oil layers will separate as it sits - so we have to shake well before each application. This produces a short-term mixing of the ingredients during which time they're most effective for medicine. You must catch the right moment to get the best effects!
The major benefit of the combination of alcohol & oil liniment is that the alcohol elements will be rapidly and deeply absorbed into the body, while the oil elements are more active on the surface, and slowly absorbed. It creates a kind of time-release effect.
Alcohol and oil also extract very different constituent sets from the herbs that are infused into them - so even if the same herb is infused into each one, the chemistry of the end product will be different. They would be almost like two halves of a whole, in that way.
Let’s talk a little about preservation.
A liniment like this is largely self-preserving (and this one with palm oil would be particularly resilient, since palm oil is very stable in comparison to other vegetable oils).
“Preservation” here means retention of the nutritive & medicinal effects of the substance. There are two major factors to consider here: microbial contamination and oxidation.
With a stable oil like this one, microbial threats are very minor – microbes need water to grow, and oil repels water. Also, any liquor with an alcohol content above 20% will kill off pathogenic microbes. So in this combination, there aren’t a lot of microbes that can get a foothold here and cause trouble.
When the exhibit is “turned off” for the night, or put into storage, that oil will cool and congeal – palm oil is semi-solid at cool temperatures. So it will make a good seal.
In the ancient world, people would keep their wine in jars or pots, and pour a layer of oil on top. This oil layer protects the wine from oxidation.
Oxidation, though, is accelerated by light, and heat! So when the lamps are on, the pigments and the beneficial medicinal compounds in the liquids – such as carotenoids, polyphenols, etc – are breaking down. It happens slowly, but it is happening. Nothing lasts forever.
Infusing herbs into the ingredients would make it even more resilient. Or rather, infusing other herbs – since, after all, the palm oil and cognac originated with plants!
originating source plants
Let’s look at those source plants for a moment: grape and palm.
grape (Vitis vinifera)
Cognac is a kind of brandy; brandy is made from wine, wine is made from grapes.
From the vine, the grapes are pressed and fermented by wild yeasts. The wine is then distilled in copper alembic stills, twice. Then the brandy is aged in wood casks for at least two years. Several batches may be blended together to make a distinctive flavor.
Grapes have been with people – as cultivated plants – for a long time. You can see them in ancient art from the Mediterranean, but also many other places. The oldest known wines from about 6000 BCE, in eastern Europe.
All grapes are rich in polyphenols. These are phytochemicals which have a variety of beneficial health effects, including antioxidant activity. You may have heard of resveratrol, a particularly famous anti-inflammatory compound. Polyphenols also improve the integrity of tissues in the body, like the tiny blood vessels called capillaries.
In contemporary herbalism, wine and brandy are both helpful in medicine-making. We often make herb-infused wines, and brandy is one of the types of alcohol we use to make tinctures – those are alcohol extracts of the herbs. Brandy lends a sweetness that makes tinctures more appealing.
You may also encounter grape as a supplement, grapeseed extract. This is a concentrated preparation of those polyphenols. (Note: this is not to be confused with grapefruit seed extract! That is something else entirely.)
palm (Elaeis guineensis)
There are many kinds of palm trees In the world. The palms from which palm oil is derived are called “oil palms”. In this case the source species is Elaeis guineensis, which is native to west & southwest Africa. This species is now intensively cultivated in Malaysia and Indonesia.
We must be very conscious of ecological & social justice issues when sourcing palm oil, because unscrupulous corporations have caused massive ecological damage and worker abuses in the pursuit of profits. Know where your oil comes from, know how the land it grows on is being cared for, know how the people who harvest and process it are being treated.
Palm oil is higher in saturated fat than other vegetable oils – and this is desirable! It makes the oil more resistant to high-heat cooking; that’s also why it will become semi-solid or solid at cooler temperatures.
The red color of the oil comes from carotenoids. You may have heard of beta-carotene in orange carrots, or lycopene in red tomatoes. All of these carotenoids have antioxidant qualities. Whenever you look at a colorful plant, you’re seeing pigments. Those pigments are medicinal activity! They are the antioxidants, the protective and health-promoting chemistry the plant produces.
Plants make these compounds for their own purposes. They are part of the plant’s metabolism, its defenses, its capacity to thrive. Surprisingly often, those actions are the same in the plants as they are in our bodies. Carotenoids can protect a plant from excessive sunlight exposure, and when we eat plenty of them, they are integrated into our skin – improving our own resilience to sun exposure.
In contemporary herbalism, palm oil is an excellent choice for infused oils and salves, because of its long-lasting nature and its own inherent medicinal qualities.
So, to step back and compare for a moment: here we have two plants, one from East Europe and one from West Africa – different parts of the world, brought together. And we have alcohol-borne and oil-borne medicinal elements – again, two different or even mutually avoidant substances. Two halves, which together can make a whole.
In the lamps they are in a stable equilibrium, separate in their layers. But we know that if we poured them together and gave them a good shake, they’d come together – just for a moment – and be good medicine.
Katja Swift & Ryn Midura are a wife-and-husband team of herbalists and the founders of the CommonWealth Center for Holistic Herbalism. They co-wrote the book Herbal Medicine for Beginners and produce the Holistic Herbalism Podcast together. From their home in the New England forests, they work to make training in practical and clinical herbalism more accessible, affordable, and enjoyable for people all over the world.
In this second recording, artist Otobong Nkanga discusses the economic and social histories of palm oil and cognac, two materials that Okon uses in her work.
[On palm oil:]
I would start with the palm tree, and I’ll talk also about the soil. I think these are very crucial in relation to thinking about the existence of a certain kind of fauna or flora within a specific space.
For me, the palm tree has always been a sign that I’m home. I remember visiting Brazil and seeing the palm trees also there. The soil was red, like the soil you also see in the southern parts of Nigeria or in many parts of West Africa. That red soil, filled with iron, is a very fertile soil. For building and for farming.
You get to realise that palm oil does not just have one way of existence, or one way of being eaten or drunk.
The people that have trees in their land, their trees will produce lots of fruits. The palm fruit is almost like a bunch. It’s an orange-ish, dark red-ish, coloured fruit, that hangs. There is [always] lots of them.
I remember with my mother we would put this palm fruit in a big basin. We would crush out the fruit. Sometimes you would use your feet to crush it, to press it, so the fruit starts giving out liquid.
You then add a lot of water to it. As you’re adding the water, you squeeze out the chaff—that means the skin of the fruit—which is a bit rough. That rough skin is put aside. Then you sieve out all the different impurities, the remains of the chaff, and also the seeds. You put these seeds aside, because you can break these open and collect the seed inside the seed. You can crush these to collect oil from them too.
Once you’ve washed out and squeezed out all the remains from the chaff, you have a deep orange, rust-coloured liquid. You slowly heat it up and then collect the oil from the top.
There are different ways of making it. As a kid, this is how we made our soaps. My mother would make soap from palm oil. We’d start from the fresh fruit.
That economy [the palm oil produced by these families] is very strong. That knowledge of making palm oil, and the reputation of the kind of palm oil that comes from that region, is well-known.
If I think of [palm oil] coming from the regions that I come from and also where Ima-Abasi Okon comes from—we are from the south-eastern region of Nigeria—a lot of people and families [there] produce palm oil to be exported to other parts of the country. That’s created an important economy for families.
These [family producers] are not like the huge plantations that have affected the reputation of palm oil. When I think of the economy of [these] local people, within the African continent, [I’m thinking of] something that hasn’t been exploited as much as in, for example, Indonesia.
The African palm tree was exported there. Indonesians got them from the West African region, especially from the southern belts of West Africa. And then [they] mass-produced it, which affected a lot of the flora and fauna of the region. That’s why there is a huge problem about the use of palm oil, because of the way it’s been exploited on the land [in Indonesia], the way it’s affected the local fauna and flora, and the way that labour, the people that work around that industry, has been treated.
It comes with that kind of exploitation, that creates an economy for the place, and also creates the endangerment and death of the landscape—and the local materials, minerals, and resources—of the place.
> [On cognac, alcohol:]
When I think of alcohol, and when I think of Nigeria, when I’m in the village, I think of the meeting of the elders and people—or the gathering. [I think of] how the gathering is not only a gathering between humans that are alive. It’s [also] a gathering of the ancestors, of those that have died. Of those that have given life to something, and have also taken life.
That combination of thinking—that the present, the past, and the future is completely embedded within every moment that you’re moving through life—is so important in the fabric of thinking.
The alcohol is something that evaporates [by itself]. It can slip through the soil and enter deep into the ground. That evaporation makes one believe and see: this thing has been drunk by our ancestors. They have been taken in and accepted by that ancestor.
Even before you start a conversation [with the ancestor], you call them through alcohol. That idea of alcohol—or when you talk about spirits itself—became something that was very strong within the society, as a way of getting into the world of the unconscious, when one loses the control of themselves. You believe the body has been taken over by a spirit.
I remember as a kid we talked more about schnapps. Schnapps was one of those things that were used much earlier as way of connecting with the other world. I think the relationship with cognac has built over time.
From different resources I tried understanding how things move through space, how does one element become the thing that is linked with a specific identity and then becomes embedded within a culture. Many things move through war, through conflict, through displacement of people, but also through music.
I sometimes wonder if the coloured tone and the density of cognac has something to do with it [I.e. how it has moved through the world].
I think there’s an association that becomes embedded with drinking cognac, which is not the same association with drinking, let’s say, Irish whisky. It [the association with cognac] comes with a relation to material and status.
When you listen to, for example, Tupac, who made a song called ‘Hennessey’—and there were different rappers that talk about Hennessey—that Hennessey is not just saying Hennessey. When you pour in a nightclub and everyone is drinking cognac, it shows that these people have money.
We also have to understand that the French companies have understood how to sell this product, and continue selling this product, to the Black population. Their product is associated with a high status.
These audio responses are part of a series of responses to Ima-Abasi Okon’s work developed by writer and curator Taylor Le Melle. Titled Stretching opacity shine, physicality, Palm Oil Cognac Rhythm, these commissions explore Ima-Abasi Okon’s work through their materiality.
- carotenoids. These are pigments which occur naturally in herbs and plants. When you notice the orange of a carrot or the red of a tomato (or of palm oil), you’re seeing carotenoids. All carotenoids have beneficial antioxidant qualities.
- immiscible. When a combination is immiscible, the different elements will not permanently mix. If left to sit, the elements will separate into layers. An immiscible combination needs to be shaken well before each use.
- liniment. A liniment is a combination of an alcohol and an oil. Herbalists make liniments for many different reasons: to treat bruises and sprains, for the relaxation of tension, for pain management, and for improved circulation. They are applied topically.
- oxidation. Oxidation describes when a substance’s chemical structure is altered by contact with oxygen in the air. Herbalists typically want to prevent oxidation, as oxygen will usually break down the beneficial medicinal compounds in their treatments.
- phytochemicals. Phyto means plant, so these are chemicals which occur naturally in plants. There are a great many different kinds, and they can influence human physiology in a wide variety of ways. Many are medicinal.
- polyphenols. Polyphenols are one category of phytochemicals. They have a variety of beneficial health effects, including antioxidant & anti-inflammatory activity. Polyphenols also improve the integrity of certain tissues in the body, like the tiny blood vessels called capillaries.
- preservation. When herbalists use the word “preservation”, they are referring to the retention of nutritive and medicinal effects. Substances can lose these effects through microbial contamination, oxidation, exposure to light or heat, and simple aging.
- salve. A salve is an ointment, cream, or balm with soothing, healing, or calming effects. Herbal salves are made by infusing an oil with the herbs and then mixing this infused oil with beeswax.
- tincture. A tincture is a remedy made by infusing herbs in alcohol. Brandy might be used to lend sweetness to tinctures, which might otherwise be bitter.
- topical. A topical remedy is one which is applied directly to the skin/body, rather than eaten or drunk.