Brundyn+, Cape Town
24.07.2014 – 30.08.2014
I was standing with the artist Kiluanji Kia Henda towards the end of the opening night of his exhibition ‘As god wants and the devil likes it’ at Brundyn+ when he turned to me. “Come,’ he said, ‘let’s take our revenge on the Kimberly Hotel.” He was referring to two separate incidents that have occurred there in the last six years, both which involved head traumas. “Here,” he continued, pointing to some of Chad Rossouw’s sculptures that make up the exhibition in the room adjacent to his, “we will just take some weapons with us. I will wear the helmet, you take the spear, Chad can take the sword. Get the car, we will have our revenge.”
It struck me only later that this is exactly how Kia Henda’s art practice works. He appropriates what is in front of him and molds them like plastic into another concurrently running narrative. Of course, it is a similar process to the one Rossouw used to get the sword, helmet and shield into the gallery in the first place. Kia Henda is certainly to my mind, along with Rossouw, one of the best subversive appropriators working today. His Icarus 13, a fictionalized documentation of an attempt by the Angolan government to send four astronauts to the sun, still, to me, is one of the most profound and inventive projects of the last decade. And it was one that would influence the likes of the Spanish photographer Cristina De Middel’s ‘The Afronauts’ and the Zimbabwean artist Gerald Machona in his latest exhibition at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg.
However, Kia Henda’s lens-based practice is entirely different to the others mentioned here. He is not the kind of artist who makes things to create his fictions. Instead, he adapts what is in front of him and subverts its narrative into a something new, something imaginative. And it is through this imaginative leap that Kia Henda attempts to investigate the reality of history. As Rossouw said in a recent lecture at UCT on his own exhibition, quoting Ursula le Guin, “truth is a matter of imagination.” It is this process that underlies almost all of his practice.
Some years ago, I visited Kia Henda in Paris at a residency there to find him beginning a new project which would turn into his fictional NGO, the Organisation of African States for Mellowness (O.R.G.A.S.M.) – the work whose residue takes up half of his current exhibition. He said to me that what sparked the idea was seeing all the homeless people that took shelter under the residency’s arcade around the corner from Notre Dame. He said: “Hey, perhaps an African NGO can help these people.”
O.R.G.A.S.M. takes the form of a wall of photographs and a wall with the NGO’s emblazoned logo. The photographs mock-up meetings and conferences (some photoshopped) with famous European politicians donning afros and cornrows. Others are of ‘real’ meetings. Amidst these are images of the artist in poses synonymous with religious iconography. As Kia Henda has intimated in a recent interview, the work is a mirror to the perverse and ambivalent relationship that the West has with Africa – both aid provider and protector on the one hand and interventionist stirrer on the other. However, the work goes further than that. It questions just what aid is and what its supposed saintly underpinnings are motivated by. Like the growing number of developmental economist from Bauer, to Easterly, to Collier, to Moyo, the work questions whether Western aid and the accompanying NGOs that so populate Africa are not just another form of Western paternalism, as much the creator of the problem as the solution to it.
On the wall adjacent is another work, Balumuka-Ambush, which questions the current state of Africa. Photographs of a stockpile of old military equipment and colonial and post-colonial statues in a transit-zone in Luanda – they reflect a historical dumping ground of outdated and unwanted Angolan national identities. As Sean O’Toole has stated of this piece, it is a “descriptive work…about Africa’s remaking.” In it, the statue – a seemingly recent edition of the 17th century Angolan queen, Nzinga Mbande – rubs shoulders uncomfortably with Soviet armed cars and 4x4s, South African Casspirs, Middle-Age cannons and other statues and relics of Angola’s colonial past. Here Kia Henda leaves the viewer to fictionalize the conversation that must take place after hours in this ‘toyshop’ of African historical identity.
But it is the video work Concrete Affection – Zopo Lady that, above all, shows Kia Henda to be one of the most interesting artists working on the continent. Based on the work of great Polish journalist, Ryszard Kapuscinski, ‘Another Day of Life’, which describes the last days in colonial Luanda in 1975, Concrete Affection narrates the story of a city without a people, a city whose ‘wrists have been cut’ and a narrator whose fragile hold on memory and a sense of identity is deeply inculcated in the structures of the city itself.
At times the narrative seems to take the position of what the poet Stephen Watson referred to as the ‘emptiness’ of the ‘colonial-condition’. Attached only to a city, without the roots of tradition, Kia Henda’s character seems exiled from any stable identity and is left only to ‘construct a place and make it home, a fortress where we cultivate our affections.’ The city, which is likened to the ‘marble’ of a European woman, is the only stable construct in an otherwise empty existence. And, as Watson pointed out in his essay on Albert Camus: this emptiness; this exile; this cultural vertigo; is not only a colonial condition but is the close neighbor of ‘postmodern man and woman.’ Kia Henda perhaps would add ‘postcolonial’. As Camus himself put it ‘exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land.’
As I have said elsewhere, Kia Henda shows in this piece his objective hand. He combines the two narratives of Africa, accepting each, on a person level, as valid – the universal experience of the loss of identity takes primacy over the culturally specific and factual narratives. The narrative of Concrete Affection – Zopo Lady is almost poetic, its quality matched perfectly with the ‘appropriated’ shots of the hauntingly empty streets and harbour of modern Luanda.