Goodman Gallery, Cape Town
07.10 – 18.11.2017
At first glance, Kiluanji Kia Henda’s In the Days of a Dark Safari appears to its viewers as light- hearted and humorous. It is an unintimidating and, in fact, rather inviting exhibition when considering its appeal and simple layout in Cape Town’s Goodman Gallery. Framed in a light pine wood the first series of eight images, In the Days of a Dark Safari, and the second series of five, Dictator Mussanda N’zombo Before the Great Extinction, are evenly spaced around the white room, and conceptually elaborated upon in an accompanying short film titled Havemos de Voltar. However, when putting some thought to this apparently amusing ensemble, its uncanny quality is slowly unveiled.
Staged in the Museum of Natural History in Luanda, the photographs emulate African landscape dioramas. The backdrops of the museum exhibits set the scenes of hand-painted, pastel coloured views of jungle forests, watering holes, and semi-desert – rich documentations of the African expanse. Stuffed animals are placed in the foreground, with a focus drawn to the giant sable antelope. In viewing Kia Henda’s works, the exhibition visitor could be seen as being, and feel as if they are a visitor to the museum in Luanda and the gallery in Cape Town simultaneously, setting an interesting premise for further interpretation.
In the first series, In the Days of a Dark Safari, Kia Henda’s intervention of veiling the stuffed animals on display in black cloth against the painted backgrounds is a simple yet effectively thought-provoking act. The result renders his photographs deliberately fictitious, emphasising the artificial nature of the display. In this manner, Kia Henda evokes a dual narrative in highlighting the fictitious element of official history. The photographs speak to dual notions of Africa and Europe, of the 19th and 21st centuries, destabilising the categorising Western gaze of the continent and asserting a space for new narratives and a reconsideration of history. Similarly, the viewer is placed in the position of a Luanda museum visitor considering normalised colonialist tropes of Africa, while at the same being a 21st century gallery visitor reconsidering these notions.
In the light of recent art discourse – the censorship and veiling of artworks at the University of Cape Town, for example Willie Bester’s sculpture of Sarah Baartman, and a prominent, centrally placed work by Diane Victor titled Pasiphaë – one can interpret Kia Henda’s black veils as a symbol of removing the Eurocentric narrative of Africa, and reclaiming authority through the assertion of authentic African narratives and perspectives. Another interpretation is that the exhibition in the Museum of Natural History in Luanda has been closed, as the stuffed animals in the display had been covered. In that case, what does it mean to view a closed exhibition, and why is it closed in the first place? Kia Henda does not hesitate to subvert, undermine and erode our entrenched ideas and tropes, and to challenge what we accept as fact – effectively done with a tongue in the cheek.
Kia Henda cleverly positions the viewer at a point of multiple intersecting tropes. Simulating the museum dioramas and the viewer’s roles as a gallery and museum visitor, the viewer becomes an active part in his rebuttal against a normalised Western grand narrative in an inherently Western and colonial institution. His effective demystification and destabilisation of predominant narrative lies in the evenly lit, documentation style photographs of the museum displays, which are perceived as a form of documentation itself. Kia Henda’s intervention thereby poses an equally constructed narrative upon another, which is elaborated in the second series.
Dictator Mussanda N’zombo Before the Great Extinction changes the direction of conversation towards a contemporary political contemplation. Kia Henda actively intervenes in the contrasting fallacies of ‘noble savagery’ depicted in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness by imposing his own call for re-narration and reclamation in his photographs, a concept continued from In the Days of a Dark Safari. Deliberately bigger, the second series embodies the essence of the corruption, anxiety and fear experienced by the antelope depicted in the short film through a character based on the persona of former president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mobutu Sese Seko. Kitted out in platform-heel boots, a tight suit and embellished in jewels, Dictator Mussanda N’zombo symbolises rulers of post-communist, post-colonial states, and furthers the role of narrative in the exhibition by means of Dictator Mussanda N’zombo employed as a character and metaphor.
A strata of interpretations come to light in viewing the accompanying short film prior to pondering the photographs. Havemos de Voltar, meaning ‘we shall return’ – the title of a poem by Agostinho Neto, the first president of Angola – expands on the symbolism of the stuffed animals. The poem, to provide some context, symbolises the return of lost sons, exiles, loved ones, and freedom fighters of Angola, and a return to the homeland, liberty and a re-attribution of resources. The short film follows the story and ultimate escape of a giant sable antelope in the Luanda archives. Embodying the opposing discourses of the colonial-era, the antelope harbours a visible anxiety when trying to reclaim his freedom and facing wealthy foreigners wanting to buy him as decoration for a nightclub. This seemingly absurd story uncovers Kia Henda’s underlying tropes. A comparison is drawn between the assumed powers and authority of the foreigner in collecting objects, artefacts and stuffed animals for their museum display cases while dismissing the continent as a ‘place of darkness’. Kia Henda utilises remnants of Angola’s communist propaganda – spray-painted quotes on public walls – as a backdrop to the story. He effectively comments on the regime’s pervading influence in contemporary Angola, simultaneously speaking to the present and past.
Kiluanji Kia Henda’s In the Days of a Dark Safari is a fantastically stimulating, thought-provoking and visually pleasing exhibition. It comes to no surprise that he is the winner of the 2017 Frieze Artist Award.
This review was selected for publication from the Art Criticism course for Honours students at UCT’s Michaelis School of Fine Art