For some ten years, Paris-based, Canada-born artist Kapwani Kiwanga has been creating works that consider myriad subjects, including marginalised histories and colonial economies. Drawing from her training in anthropology and the social sciences, her rigorously researched projects stage spatial environments while exposing the ways in which bodies experience and inhabit structures of power, subtly illuminating society’s ills. Kiwanga’s newest exhibition investigates disciplinary architectures and complex regimes of visibility, a special form of resistance.
© Photo Matthew Bradley. Courtesy the artist and Goodman Gallery, Cape Town, Johannesburg, London
Kapwani Kiwanga doesn’t focus on protest within her work, but through her work she effectively reveals many wrongs. Her background in anthropology and religion means she looks round, she looks backwards, and she looks round again, asking “How did we get to where we are now?” In a world with so much man-made chaos causing people to rally or speak out, Kiwanga keeps a firm eye on the past, on history, on the moments that led to the society we live in today. By looking at what has happened, and in some cases to injustices, like the Maji Maji Rebellion, Kiwanga gives the past some space — ‘space’ is a significant word to the artist, who mentions it 13 times during a 20 minute conversation. She gives space to those who have been oppressed. She gives freedom to people, objects, and even Earth’s resources, like light, to set them free of control. When asked about which of her works is her favourite, she cites her first solo exhibition. And why? “Because I could take up space.” Space and freedom to create, to tell the stories she wanted to tell. In 2022, we often see and hear Insta-therapists or healers or just any ‘woke’ person reposting to their story that it’s important to “take up space”. And it’s true, we need to free ourselves by taking up space, telling our stories, being ourselves, being seen and heard in a world that often encourages us to be small, compact and say the right thing. To be yourself in those spaces and to give others space to do the same, well, I think that’s a modern-day form of protest. To give injustices throughout history the space they did not get at the time is like lending room to challenge what was accepted back then, and often, what’s still accepted today.
Exhibition view, "Maji, Maji", Jeu de Paume, Paris (FR), 2014. © Photo Romain Darnaud. Courtesy the artist
In her exhibition about the Maji Maji Rebellion that lasted from 1905 to 1907 in German East Africa, Kiwanga brings forward momentos of the culture that was being oppressed and demolished by colonisers at the time. Perched on shelves are pictures, postcards, materials, plants, and landscapes of the people involved in that war. She mixes elements of its stark history, like materials and anecdotal components. Kiwanga looks at the supernatural spiritual medium who provided special water which would protect his followers against German gunfire, and in doing so she gives the oral, less formal history more room. She allows space for the legends of the Maji Maji and for discussion centred on the minutiae of the culture; these were very spiritual people. By exhibiting their stories, she gives a voice back to those who were oppressed, the minority. “I always look at how one can create spaces of liberty and freedom through creating alternatives.” In a world where our voices, our experiences and our suffering are listened to, we can be free of some facets of our systems of oppression. The key element is having people who will listen, and Kiwanga quite literally sheds light on the Maji Maji people, with a glow that extends across the front of the installation, giving them the room to be heard.
By adopting some of the ways in which our oppressors try to abuse us, for example verbally, we can subvert their power — reclaiming the names they call us is just one of the ways to do this. Subversion is a thing that fascinates Kiwanga, even when it comes to something like light. You see, light can be used as a method of control by those in power — it illuminates the vulnerable, it highlights those who don’t want to be seen. In fact, artificial light, in general, is a victim, trapped by the world to harness its power. In her upcoming exhibition Off-Grid at the New Museum in New York (30.06—09.10), Kiwanga explores the effects of freeing light; this gives it uninterrupted space to behave as it is, completely raw. The spectacle of the entire installation being the freedom to just let light be; to go from light to dark, from night to day, so that there’s more than one way to look at this piece. The exhibition also takes a look at ‘disciplinary architecture’ in urban areas and at the 18th-century Lantern Laws, which enforced holding a lit candle or lantern, after dark, in front of people who were enslaved.
Exhibition view, "Safe Passage", MIT List Visual Art Center, Cambridge, MA (USA), 2019. © Photo Peter Harris Studio. Commissioned by the MIT List Visual Arts Center. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Poggi, Paris
A common thread or point of conversation within Kiwanga’s process is based on injustice. “Systematically or institutionally looking at how power is structured. Yeah. How injustices and inequalities are created.” In her work Tripartite 3, Kiwanga uses contrasting materials — shade cloth, steel and wood — to create a commentary on the exploitation of Nature for a capitalist agenda. By using an opaque material, a substance where the light can break through, she contrasts what is made visible in society, the things that are accepted and palatable in agriculture, and the underside of it all that is not seen by the public. The geometric element in the piece shows the clear divisions between what is visible through a hazy lens, versus what we can’t see. The representation of what we can’t see is pink — a rose-coloured lens, perhaps, through which society is often naive to capitalist greed and manipulation.
In the Under the Cover of Darkness exhibition, light is explored as a form of racial domination in Kiwanga’s installation Greenbook. Between 1936 and 1966, when public transport was still segregated and discriminative, there was a guidebook known as Greenbook, which was intended for Black drivers only. This ‘guide’ included a list of hotels, boarding houses, taverns, restaurants, service stations and other establishments throughout the U.S. that “served African Americans patrons”. Kiwanga brings framed excerpts to her space to emphasise the racial injustices back then, that also still exist today. “This idea of what the constraints were, legally, and also socially and culturally, which made it dangerous for racialised people to travel freely.” Racism is still rampant at the hands of white people and white-catered systems; we have police brutality, everyday racism, and more. As a Caucasian myself, I can’t possibly speak of, realise, or imagine this. “So I think the question of protest is kind of more about honouring and giving space and visibility to these little acts that are, maybe not, you know, completely changing systemically, you know, these power imbalances.”
You cannot right the wrongs of the past, but by giving them space, by letting the artefacts tell the story, and by freeing what has been captured, you can send that history down new and fascinating pathways. It might not be a protest in the sense of marches, homemade signs and crowds, but it’s more like a demonstration, in the literal sense. The way Kiwanga works, the way she even chats on the phone, is simultaneously delicate and strong, because ultimately, as she puts it: “Creativity itself is a way of just resisting.”