‘I’m Proposing Many Ways of Seeing’: Artist Kapwani Kiwanga on Unearthing Buried Histories to Imagine the World Anew

The artist is a nominee for the prestigious Prix Marcel Duchamp.

Kapwani Kiwanga. Photo: Bertille Chérot.

The Canadian artist and former academic Kapwani Kiwanga has been based in Paris for nearly a decade, but her work is rooted in the world at large.

Her minimal artworks, which span film, audio, sculpture, and installation, vary greatly in size, shape, and medium, but each is bound to Kiwanga’s research-intensive practice, in which she digs up events or historical footnotes from places such as Rwanda, Tanzania, or the US state of Virginia. Each work, whatever form it take, results from carefully mined historical research.

Kiwanga tries to create new ways of seeing and understanding places and events, some of which are poorly visible to begin with. “I am not trying to restate what we know,” she tells Artnet News. “I am trying to build beyond it.”

On the heels of shows at the MIT List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and at the Serpentine Gallery in London last year, the artist is now in the midst of putting the final touches on her solo show at Formerly Known as Witte de With in Rotterdam, which opens in September. She is also in the midst of conceiving a three-chapter show at the Haus der Kunst in Munich that begins in October, after which her works will be on view at the Centre Pompidou, as she is one of four nominees for the prestigious Prix Marcel Duchamp.

I met Kiwanga at a safe distance on a leafy terrace in Berlin to talk about the natural world and politics, how flora can be a witness to history, and what she is planning for her solo exhibitions this fall.

Flowers for Africa: Nigeria (2014). Courtesy the artist and Courtesy Galerie Jérôme Poggi.

You studied anthropology before attending art school. Your work does seem to be very informed by an interest in science and academic research. Could you speak a bit about how that slightly unusual education informs your artistic work?

It’s just kind of life, right? I still do love research. I really respect people that can dedicate themselves to one domain and go deep into it, but I think I’m too impatient and academia itself wasn’t for me. I was interested in too many different things. When I finished school, I thought I’d do documentary filmmaking, but I realized that it was too limited for me. I felt like trying something different, so I applied for this postgraduate program, “La Seine” at l’École des Beaux Arts in Paris. It labeled itself as a research program, and it was good but I did not really find my feet there. I did another postgraduate program in the north of France that was known at the time for “new media.” Over the last year of that second program, I committed myself to trying to make art, and I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to keep on doing what I want to do.

Was it a difficult decision to venture into art and away from academia?

I am someone who doesn’t need much be happy in terms of material goods. So I think when my career started and I was earning enough to pay my rent, I  decided to see how long it would last. Thankfully, it hasn’t stopped yet.

The focus of your artworks has a meandering geography. You’ve made work that has investigated histories of Tanzania, the US, Suriname, to name a few. How do you come to land on certain countries of interest?

There are multiple ways in which that can come about. It can occur through a conversation with somebody or my stumbling upon a historical anecdote. Sometimes, it is just a matter of where I am invited to do my work. I am always trying to understand where I’m standing, the history of the place that I’m in. I often try to do a metaphoric archeological dig and then that will land me in a place. That’s what research does, it takes you somewhere where you did not know you were going to go. Geography is important, because I am usually trying to look as wide as I can and see how there may be intertwined histories and repercussions in different parts of the world emerging from the same politic or way of being at a particular time.

While the research behind your work is very specific, the language of your sculptures is quite open-ended.

When I make an artwork, I’m trying to be in dialogue with the visitor, and I am proposing a way of seeing, or many ways of seeing. I leave it open to people to take from it what they want. I will be quite loyal to the research I’ve done, but it doesn’t mean that the people that are experiencing it necessarily have to have that. It’s an open invitation somehow for people to spend time with an idea as opposed to being presented with a discourse. There are other platforms that can do that, and that is not what I want to do with my work. Different people come to the work with different cultural, historical, or social baggage and so there are different nuances in the works which one person will experience that another will not.

“Safe Passage” at MIT Cambridge. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Tanja Wagner, Berlin. Photo: Peter Harris Studio.

You’ve said you’re seeking “exit strategies” in your work—routes which offer a way around or through typical road blocks in culture.  

I’m not trying to restate what one knows. I’m also trying to see what ways to get past what we know. To do that requires very simple things like just looking at it differently, or just even looking at it for the first time. And it’s about being able to sit with it long enough that you can allow yourself different ways beyond it. These “exit strategies” are very personal but they can be collectively experienced as well. It’s not completely revolutionary, but being aware of one’s body in relation to power and to space, that can be an invitation to think of an exit strategy.

For one my first exhibitions in 2014, I was looking at ethnographic collections and the Maji Maji war in Tanzania. I’d spent time in the ethnographic museum in Dahlem, Germany, at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and I had been in Tanzania to look at different museums, to do research and meet with people in different locations. At that point in time in art, I had seen a lot of work related to similar subjects that was showing a lot of objects from ethnographic collections. It was this kind of bulimic and fast-paced approach of showing objects. It was working quite well for a lot of artists, but for me personally it was quite disturbing, especially after having been spending this time in these collections looking at 500 iterations of one particular spear. I felt like this object-based approach was repeating a colonial appropriation. My exit strategy for that, personally, was to work the opposite way and to not represent these easy, seductive objects—though I was aware that could work really well and tick all the boxes. I decided to work with absence. Presence and absence are, of course, two sides of the same movement of power and energy, and of objects being in one place and not in another. My exit strategy at that point was to not reproduce that aesthetic, which I think adds more power to this colonial continuation of colonial thinking and to try another way. I think we can do better.

What feels more important to show?

Power and asymmetries of power are not static. There was a sculpture on view at my show Under the cover of darkness in 2019 at Tanja Wagner called Jalousie, which is an example of this. It was made with a two-way mirror, so one had the experience of being observed when standing on one side and being the observer when standing on the other side. It’s a simple expression about the idea of identities shifting in context. I think it is important to be sincere about the spectrum of abuse and entitlement. In one situation, you could be the person who could be saying that something is unfair and in another situation you could be the person who is imposing your power over someone else. It’s never such a simple dichotomy. The question of power asymmetries is probably the idea that pushes me most in my work.

At the same time, it doesn’t make any sense to me to reproduce something which we already have. I don’t feel the need or pressure to be incredibly original or groundbreaking, but what is important is to take what I have, which is mostly from the past, and say, well, if we want to talk about this now, how can we conceptually, politically, and formally break away from legacies that do not work anymore?

Flowers for Africa, an ongoing series that I began in 2013 is an example of reframing historic moments as well. Because the images that the floral arrangements are based on are archival, it means that it is always reinterpreted and rethought each time a floral arrangement is made. Each time it is remade, it is different depending on the florist, the budget, what flowers are available. So, this historic moment, this proof gets watered down so we then just have to listen and sit with it, and read it from where we are now.

Flowers for Africa: Rwanda. Courtesy the artist and Courtesy Galerie Tanja Wagner, Galerie Jérôme Poggi, and Goodman Gallery.

Like with Flowers for Africa, you often incorporate natural elements into your work, yet it doesn’t seem like you’re particularly married to the beauty of nature as such. It seems like it is more of an entranceway to get to some other place.

The flower arrangements were witnesses to a moment in which an African nation came into its own. All the organic or geological material I use, I see all these materials as witnesses. When I think about archiving and documenting, which are important themes in my work, I am trying to find different ways to do that which we have not activated as much as we could. I am quite frustrated with text and image as the main witnesses or documents of a past event. I think the natural world is a different kind of witness to human history and it can help us think about documentation in different ways. The materials I use are always chosen for their historical or political importance, its never simply because I love their materiality. I’m not a sculptor’s sculptor in that way. It often starts instead with their being intertwined with human social history and economic history.

Your work at FKA Witte de With in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, which opens in September, is also looks at the epistemologies of flora.

The plants are all replicas in some way. I will show paper plants that are a model of a peacock flower, which was used in the Caribbean and South America as an abortive. When African slaves were brought in, if they didn’t know this already, they acquired this knowledge from the indigenous populations. Using the peacock flower in this way was a way to gain control over their own reproductive powers. But I am reconstructing this plant paper, which refers to a moment in Victorian England when upper-middle class and wealthy women would make paper flowers as a hobby—because it was something that was deemed acceptable for them to do. These would adorn their homes. This work is a way of looking at two different spaces, and two estranged but related and dissimilar women’s histories.

Another work draws from Dutch researcher Tinde Van Andel, who has been studying the introduction of red rice into both Suriname and Virginia, US, a grain that would have come from West Africa and been brought over via the slave trade. This particular type of rice was integrated into clothing or into hair to allow one to be self-sufficient if they were to escape slavery. These grains have been reproduced in ceramic by a local artisan and they are being woven into a tapestry. This hidden rice becomes an invisible seed bank of sorts for possible future communities.

Kapwani Kiwanga Semence (2020). Ceramic replicas of rice grains of variety Oryza glaberrima. © Photo Lisanne Ceelen- Courtesy the artist and Goodman Gallery

How was it conceiving and creating two major exhibitions—both at FKA Witte de With and also at Haus der Kunst—in the midst of lockdown and so much social and political tumult?

Everything was pretty much settled beforehand. And what I wanted to talk about—questions of resistance and rebellion and creative refusal—were already embedded in my work for a while. Yet for my show at FKA, because I was looking specifically at African Diasporic histories, I felt like I had to respond to the moment that we were in, which was different than when we started talking about it. Otherwise, I think I have always been trying to produce work that offers a way forward into a more just society or a way of being, regardless of location or history. So, I just keep on going. There’s not much that changes for me apart from being asked to respond to things like the renaming of things or the removal of monuments, which I think is not really for me to provide a sound bite on. There are a lot of activists who have a lot to say and who have a considered discourse and concrete action points to comment on these topics. Of course, how I live and how I think about the future has changed, just like everybody else. But, you know, how I am thinking about my work has not changed drastically.

Can you share a bit about what you are planning at the Haus der Kunst? That architecture of the Haus der Kunst is a lot for artists to wade through, I can imagine.

Yes, but I don’t think one needs to respond to everything. I think that there’s been a lot said about that building. Giving power into the same discourse is, again, not where I want to place my energies. So hopefully I will open it up to something else, and give way to the natural history behind it, which has always been in communication with the building and actually precedes the building and perhaps redirect attention from it for a time. Then the next artist will come and direct the attention in some other way.

It’s not completely settled, but the show should unfold in three chapters. I hope to integrate the English gardens—which is one of the largest of this kind in Europe and one of the first public parks. It remains to be seen whether we can do what we are hoping to do in this last chapter, which brings together my interest in natural history, botany, and architecture together, and how that threads into politics.

I’ve learned through my research in Munich Nazi architecture of which Haus der Kunst is exemplary is in general really devoid of any plants or nature. It is very mineral, full of stone. I hope to bring a softness into the space and make it more permeable. As you come in and you have the swastika above you, it is a visible reminder of a particular use of power. The misuse of power is often invisible although no less dominating and violent, arguably even more so. So, for me, navigating that space as opposed to navigating the streets, it’s different, but it is not that different in terms of strategy. There is an archive about the building and its history and the institution’s team really gives space to artists to explore the history of the building and its use. But the gardens remain more interesting to me.

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