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Door Marking2020 gepubliceerd op Friday 31 July 10:55

This confounding contradiction lies at the heart of Kiwanga’s series “Glow,” which consists of black, human-size geometric monoliths, each with a single embedded LED light. The sculptures allude to eighteenth-century lantern laws, as described in Simone Brown’s scholarly study Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. These ordinances required enslaved people to carry lit candles with them by night, if they were not accompanied by a white person—a disturbing legal precedent for Jim Crow sundown laws and contemporary racial profiling. Kiwanga’s forms recall commercial lighting fixtures, but their scale and silhouette make them something far less familiar. They could have glided right out of an Afrofuturist science fiction film.

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Kapwani Kiwanga: Glow 3, 2018, wood, stucco, acrylic, steel, and LEDs, 70 by 39 1/4 by 10 inches.
COURTESY JÉRÔME POGGI, PARIS. PHOTO PETER HARRIS STUDIO.
Like her sculptures in shade cloth, the “Glow” pieces make reference to the unstable power dynamics of visibility. They could be read as stand-ins for Black bodies under scrutiny, but also as watchful Black sentinels occupying the gallery. Art history is called upon here: Michael Fried’s well-known critique of Minimalist sculpture deemed it too anthropomorphic, just a literal, affectless presence in the viewer’s space. Kiwanga unsettles that reading by infusing Minimal forms with embodied, psychological and historical implications. The sculptures are anti-monuments, witnesses to a tragic history: racialized individualsve rarely been able to consider their own “presence” in the neutral terms that Fried took for granted.

Yet Kiwanga prefers not to grapple directly with art historical precedent, any more than she does with the headlines in the morning newspaper. “I have affinity and respect for those that came before,” she says, “but so much more interest in social science. Theory comes first, and then I navigate it through the body.” She made this observation in connection with her series “Nations,” sewn and sequined wall sculptures made for her in a textile workshop outside Port-au-Prince. Each includes an image from Haiti’s troubled past. Nations: Ogé’s Uprising, 1790, for example, refers to an insurrection by freemen of color—ultimately unsuccessful—that presaged the Haitian Revolution soon to come, and its eventual establishment of a free Black republic. The central image, based on a period print, shows five hands in various attitudes of attack and outreach, prefiguring later gestures of protest and rebellion. Recognition is at issue once again, this time at the scale of the state. Nations, like individuals, may be more or less visible. Kiwanga has provided emblems for a liminal condition, in which a people struggles to be seen as an entity at all.

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Kapwani Kiwanga: Nations: Snake Gully, 1802, 2018, steel, fabric, embroidered fabric, sequins, beads, and fringe, 63 by 94 1/2 by 4 inches.
PRIVATE COLLECTION. COURTESY GALERIE JÉRÔME POGGI, PARIS.
Kiwanga’s recourse to the hands of skilled textile workers, in the “Nations” series, positions the works in a vernacular context. Materially, they are very close to actual flags, including ceremonial loa (spirit) banners customarily used in Haitian Vodou (important during the Haitian Revolution as a “galvanizing force,” as Kiwanga points out). Having provided the craftspeople with a basic design and image, the artist intervened as little as possible in their formal choices, even leaving key matters like color selection up to them. There are certainly precedents for this. Alighiero e Boetti springs to mind, as does Judy Chicago. Kiwanga rejects such comparisons, though, at least to the extent that they become a “rubber stamping” exercise. She has no interest in “circling back to what has already been validated.” Indeed, this would be contrary to her central objective, which is not to draw authority from the past, but rather to mine its latent potential for disruption and departure.

For her upcoming exhibition in Rotterdam, at the institution long known as the Witte de With (it is currently undergoing the process of changing its name, inherited from a seventeenth-century Dutch naval officer involved in colonization), Kiwanga plans to once again work with artisans, reprising aspects of a project that she first staged in 2018 at the Musée d’Art de Joliette in Quebec. Titled “Sunlight by Fireside,” that exhibition explored the politics of territory. Kiwanga had a trench dug outside the museum and the dirt moved into the gallery, an act of displacement intended to draw attention to the seizure of land from its Indigenous inhabitants. Prior to her physical removal of the earth, Kiwanga hosted a sort of ritual: an open conversation by a bonfire, in which she and members of the museum staff and the public discussed the issue of decolonization. (She remembers the event as “sometimes convivial, sometimes heated.”) She then had local potters take ashes from the fire, combine them with clay sourced from the region, and make a wall of ceramic tile, formed and fired in such a way as to encourage warping, as if the material itself were expressing the stress and trauma of cultural dislocation.

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