Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
21.10 – 18.11.2017
Kapwani Kiwanga’s first solo exhibition at Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg is a revelation of her depth as an artist and academic. Kiwanga is a consummate researcher who invades archives in search of hidden truths. Following that, she begins a process of converting and distorting data in order to create artworks. The end product can either be recognisable or abstracted. Kiwanga studied anthropology and comparative religion at McGill University (Montreal, CA). She has followed the program “La Seine” at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Paris. (This combination of diverse interests and experiences allow her to access the various cultures and religions that she teases out in her work).
The show is divided into five main sections, each exploring materiality and provoking the viewer to not only engage with the subject but to question the process. Kiwanga brings in a complex body of work that draws heavily on her interests in sculpture, photography, performance and flower arrangement.
One never knows what to expect from Kiwanga’s latest instalment, thanks to her multi talents and unending quest for new ideas. Her Flowers for Africa series has traversed twelve countries in total and is an exploration of colonial pasts. Instead of obviously stating her disdain for each countries’ link with its colonial past and the consequences thus far, she uses flowers to convey her thoughts about the countries, thus leaving the rest to the viewer and his or her understanding of the subject being engaged. This is a clever device to bring in the viewer as a participant in her discursive dialogue with the theme. Take for instance the Flowers for Africa: Union of South Africa, a reference to the 1910 Union of South Africa. Flowers are arranged into two main arch-like displays referencing the unity between the English and Afrikaner nations that curved a future of their citizen at the expense and exclusion of the majority black people.
Kiwanga further interrogates the spatial reconstructions of black settlements by the apartheid government through spaces designed for the exclusive accommodation of Africans, looking at topographic imagery of the various African townships. The poignant point she makes is how restricted the access and exits were to the residences of these townships. Controlling and restricting access of black people was central to the success of the apartheid ideology, hence the series titled In the Desire Paths. The artist ignored the official approved paths and routes but focused on how residents of these townships (District Six, Langa, Soweto and Cape Flats) defied the status quo by creating their own pathways. The manner in which she represents these is very intriguing. It would have been interesting to engage the viewer with a comparison of the two paths and routes.
The most satirical work in the exhibition is the one that refers strictly to the title and theme of the exhibition, The Sun Never Sets. Kiwanga seems to take a swipe at colonial governments for having taken over and destabilised the lives of the colonies’ people with impunity. However as the tide has turned, the very same governments refuse to take-in refugees seeking asylum when they (former colonisers) were and are the cause for the inequalities raging in those countries. The photographic techniques employed in capturing the static sun are amazing: at times trees and leaves move, at others the scene is static and occasionally the frame allows clouds to move while nothing moves in the foreground.
Of all the different series of works in the exhibition, Kiwanga’s tendency to collide the contrasting complexities of colonialism and post-colonialism is best personified by the Subduction Study series of photographic assemblages. Referring to ‘subduction zones’ (a geological term which defines the process in which one tectonic plate moves under another before sinking into the mantle as the plates converge), the series contrasts two photographs taken from rocks in the collection of Paris’ Natural History Museum. One image depicts a rock from the European side of the strait of Gibraltar, while the other belongs to an African country on the Mediterranean shore. “The project speaks of the probable future collision of the African and European continents at and around the Strait of Gibraltar,” the exhibition’s curator Gareth Morris-Davies elaborates,”The work thus proposes a new continental configuration; a new territory”.
The strength in Kapwani Kiwanga’s work is the hidden meanings which are offered to the viewer in glimpses of clues. Baptismal in its level of conceptual integrity ‘The Sun Never Sets’ is an outstanding exhibition from an artist with so many complex interests.