Published  18/11/2015

Kapwani Kiwanga: ‘It is always great to be true to yourself’

Kapwani Kiwanga: ‘It is always great to be true to yourself’

Kapwani Kiwanga has been named as the commissioned artist of the Focus Section at the Armory Show 2016, which looks at art from African perspectives. She currently has a solo show at the Galerie Jérôme Poggi in Paris. Here, she talks about how anthropology has informed her practice


Artist Kapwani Kiwanga was born in Canada in 1978, and now lives and works in Paris. She studied anthropology at McGill University in Montreal, and applies the social science’s methodology to her installations, performances and videos, such as the Sun Ra Repatriation Project (2009). Her research into belief systems and ethnographic collections informs her practice, notably her installation about one of the first large uprisings on the African continent, Rumours that Maji was a lie … (2014), first shown at the Jeu de Paume in Paris last year, and later developed as a new project, Kinjeketile Suite, which was exhibited this year at the South London Gallery.

She currently has a solo show, entitled Continental Shift, at the Galerie Jérôme Poggi in Paris. In this exhibition, she explores the relationship of Europe and Africa, and the separation between the two, as seen in the Strait of Gibraltar and the Mediterranean Sea. From the gallery, Kiwanga spoke to Studio International about how anthropology has informed her research-led art practice and her response to being named as the commissioned artist of the Focus Section at the Armory Show 2016. The following is an edited excerpt of the conversation.

Nicola Homer: I understand that you have a Tanzanian background and grew up in Canada, where you studied anthropology at McGill University in Montreal, before coming to Paris to study at art school. Could you tell me a bit about how your career has evolved, and how studying as an anthropologist has affected your art practice?

Kapwani Kiwanga: I studied anthropology and comparative religion, so those subjects inform my work. It is a question of social sciences, but also one of scientific, religious or spiritual belief that comes into my work. I ask: “What is that motor of belief?” I studied anthropology because I was interested in cultural perspectives, which change geographically. Yet, in the same geography, we have multiple ways of looking at the world. My beginning in anthropology continues into my work now, in this idea of how I can reframe what we know, or bring to light something unknown. 

There is also the methodology, which has come from my training in anthropology, where I have spent a lot of time doing research in the field, going to places that I’m interested in, or meeting people who are experts in the area I’m interested in, and, of course, reading articles and books. My interests range from popular culture to more academic knowledge systems. But whenever I work with a method from the social sciences, I’m questioning the authority of science or hegemonic discourses.

NH: Could you give an example of how anthropology has informed your practice, and say how you made the shift from social sciences to the creative field of art?

KK: I was sitting in a university classroom in my second year and I realised that I wouldn’t be satisfied with writing academic texts for colleagues. It was a world where you need so many codes to understand it. I was more interested in transmitting ideas to a broad audience. That was why I went into film-making. It was one of the more democratic ways of doing this, especially in television. But I was a young film-maker and was unable to have the final say on some editorial decisions, and that was not for me. So I came to Paris and started a two-year postgraduate programme at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Paris. I didn’t say: “I’m going to be an artist.” I said: “Well, I’ll see.” I found access to a new context, to a different environment, and to curators with whom I could discuss ideas. So that was an experiment for me. In those two years, I was observing and reading a lot, trying to get a basis in art history. My references often come from historical moments, the social sciences or politics.

NH: Could you tell me about one or two of the influences on your work?

KK: I often return to the question of shifting perspectives and multi-vocality. I have a wide range of influences, from literature to the social sciences and anthropology. I think the literature of the “south” is interesting, and also feminist perspectives. I was interested in the ideas of the cultural anthropologist Victor Turner, and in reading James Frazer’s huge tome The Golden Bough (1890), which is a comparison between science and belief, and a continuum that is broken at some point. But he frames it from where he was in his time, and I read his work with a different interest.

My degree work at Le Fresnoy – Studio National des Arts Contemporains, after I studied at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Paris, speaks of my incorporation of anthropological methods. In the Sun Ra Repatriation Project, I made a film and an installation about Sun Ra, a progressive musician from Alabama, in the United States. He made up a myth, saying he was an extraterrestrial from Saturn. I spoke to musicians who played with him and biographers of his personality. I visited astrophysicists at the jet propulsion lab in California, doing research on Saturn.

I created a system in which I tried to create a contemporary ritual in which Sun Ra is repatriated home. On speaking with scientists, I learned that one often communicates between the Earth and the stars or planets through radio. So we had musicians, astrophysicists and amateur radio astronomers. There is a 43-minute video of these interviews and I am doing a performance in that. I dedicated about a year to this research. The Sun Ra Repatriation Project is my first artwork in which that marriage between the social sciences and searching for new forms came about.

NH: How do you bridge the disciplines of art and science?

KK: I don’t have a magic theory for how those two come together, but each project takes on a different form. Another work that is emblematic of that is an installation called Rumours that Maji was a lie … That gives you an example of my research, which I do at ethnographic museums. I spent time in Tanzania at different historical sites linked to the Maji Maji war, which is the focus of the project.

NH: Rumours that Maji was a lie …is an important work. I understand that it was the subject of your solo show at the Jeu de Paume in 2014, and that you took that research further in your exhibition at the South London Gallery this year. Could you tell me a bit more about the starting point of the project?

KK: The starting point is a war that happened between 1905 and 1907 in what is now mainland Tanzania, which at that time was colonised by the Germans. It was one of the first large uprisings on the African continent. There was a traditional healer called Kinjeketile who rallied together different groups of people to resist colonial domination by using traditional forms. He used a protective water enrobed in a narrative, which not only talked about freedom and resistance, but also spoke of a supernatural belief system, which bridged different cultural groups. I knew about that moment from visiting my family in Tanzania. To research the piece, I went to sites of battles or places where people from that war had lived. Then I went to ethnographic museums, the Museen Dahlem in Berlin and the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, where I looked at collections from that period and region. I researched charms or amulets, protective elements of life, which I could find in their different archives.

NH: Could you tell me about Continental Shift, your solo show at the Galerie Jérôme Poggi in Paris, which also relates to international issues?

KK: The title is a play on words referring to the term Continental Drift – the gradual movement of the continents across the Earth’s surface through geological time. I’m showing pieces from a larger project, in which I am thinking about the relationship of Europe and Africa, and the separation between the two, in the Strait of Gibraltar and the Mediterranean Sea. I am focusing on prehistoric times and I’m wondering what it was like when the continents were joined together and when they split. If we project ourselves into a distant future, they may be rejoined. I want to get a better understanding of the micro-movements of these continents, moving at velocities imperceptible to us. I ask the question: “Is the human perspective about these continents the only one?” That relates to my interest in reframing how we look at the world.

NH: What works are you exhibiting in Continental Shift?

KK: I am showing a cabinet, which is a play on 1960s and 1970s museum displays, where archaeological fragments are exhibited. It is a collector’s vitrine, which looks at the idea of empty space, or what can’t be contained in an airtight discourse. I’m also showing a fabric screenprint, resulting from my correspondence with scientists in Spain and at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. We looked at different rocks, which are important when talking about the separation of continents and metamorphic change. We located two types of rocks, which you can look at through microscopic polarised light. They produced these lovely textures and minute landscapes. Limestone is emblematic of the rocky outcrops on each side of the Strait of Gibraltar, which in Ancient Greece were seen as two columns marking the end of the world. In the 16th century, Charles V talked about that as being the end of the known world, but said one had to go beyond that. He opened up this idea of the discovery of the Americas. So it is a pivotal region for many things. And I talk about cultural productions, which question the exchange between Africa and Europe.

NH: Why have you chosen the theme of your current exhibition?

KK: I came across an article talking about the Afro-tunnel. It’s an idea similar to the Eurotunnel, part of an underground network, which would link Spain and Morocco. I found that interesting, especially when we talk about current questions of Fortress Europe and ask: “What are the frontiers? How do we open or close these?” Of course, the question of migration is invoked. It’s an interest in my work, but not the sole one.

NH: Could you tell me a bit more about your own background?

KK: I was born and raised in Canada, but part of my family is Tanzanian. That influences my vision of the world, but so do people I have met in my life, people who have been close friends, people from different cultural backgrounds, who have allowed me to learn about them – for example, a very good friend from Uganda. I would say it’s true that Africa and the idea of diaspora often come into my work, because it’s a rich area. As someone going to see contemporary art, I didn’t see that represented as much as I would have liked. I thought it interested me and I was happy to research that area, so why don’t I share that? My work comes from a genuine interest in that area.

NH: I understand you will be participating in the Armory Show 2016 in New York. You will be the commissioned artist of the Focus Section, which looks at art from African perspectives. Could you talk about your work at the show?

KK: I will be doing a new commissioned work in a specific area, or dispersed within the fair. I’ll be showing work with the gallery and there will be a benefit edition made for the Museum of Modern Art PS1, which I think will be a two-dimensional work. I will also be designing the visual identity for the cover and the catalogue of the show.

NH: How do you think you will bring your unique perspective to the work?

KK: I am interested in the place that I’m going to be, in New York, the United States, and how that can relate to global issues. I’m honoured that the Armory Focus curators, Julia Grosse and Yvette Mutumba, thought of me. They founded Contemporary And, a platform that looks at international art from African perspectives, and have been following my work for a while. They have an overview of what is happening on the continent and the diaspora. They have highlighted some great artists.

The fact that they talk about African perspectives, and I am not from Africa, is interesting. I’m maybe not the most obvious choice, because I’m not living on the continent, although I do try to go to a different country on the continent once a year. I trust that their position is based on a desire to move beyond simplified representations of African art, or African artists. Those terms are slippery labels. One has to accept the messiness of the situation, and to try to add layers and allow them to co-exist in a way that may be more difficult, but is more true to authentic experiences.

NH: Do you have anything that you would like to say to young artists?

KK: I think that someone told me when I first started studying in Paris: “You don’t really make your first artwork until you are 10 years out of art school.” That was comforting, because it allowed me to say: “OK, I have time to figure this stuff out.” There really isn’t any model to follow. It is always great to be true to yourself and to find a form that makes sense to you.

NH: What are your hopes for the future?

KK: I would like to achieve a balance. I would like to have enough time to work deeply enough, to research the questions I’m interested in, and to be able to have a better balance between that time and finding a form that goes with it. I would like to have the time to work in a way that is enjoyable, where I can enjoy meeting people, and I can get excited about reading an article, encountering a new idea, which is a nerdy thing, but that joy is still there and I hope it continues. If it doesn’t, then I think I will have to stop.

Kapwani Kiwanga: Continental Shift is at the Galerie Jérôme Poggi, Paris, until 28 November 2015.

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