Kapwani Kiwanga: Breaking Down Walls to Step into New Beginnings

Kapwani Kiwanga and Simple Enclosure, 2018. Installation view,

Kapwani Kiwanga with her work Simple Enclosure, 2018. Paint, wood, glass and drywall, dimensions variable. © Kapwani Kiwanga / SOCAN (2021). Photo: NGC

It is no surprise that people have ascribed horrible fortune to 2020, choosing to throw it away like worthless ephemera, while looking forward to 2021 with fresh hope. Between a stubborn global pandemic, raging civil unrest, uncertainty about the economy and new models of employment within an already rapidly changing world, the word “stressful” feels too lazy to describe the past year. The media catchword of the day, “unprecedented,” sounds too feeble an attempt to describe the human abandonment of office buildings towering over desolate streets, or the adjustment to the physical and virtual architecture of laptop screens, socially distanced meetings and grocery store lanes. I prefer, like the two-faced Roman deity Janus (for whom January is named), to look backward while also looking forward. Art, at its best, does the work of looking back, while looking ahead to new beginnings, and describes it in a way that words oftentimes cannot.

Hamilton-born Kapwani Kiwanga is a multidisciplinary artist whose work analyzes the ways in which we interact with one another as society, cultures and individuals, while examining the power imbalances within those interactions. Kiwanga is the 2018 winner of the Sobey Art Award and presented her works Simple Enclosure and The Primer at the National Gallery of Canada that year. Speaking of the project that included those works, as well the earlier pink-blue, she describes the exploration of “disciplinary architecture,” historical and current, and how “colour and light were used to control bodies and create barriers, which are sometimes physical but also psychological.”

The pink-blue installation, shown at The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in 2017, appears as a bright hallway divided into halves through the usage of two distinct colours. Baker-Miller pink, meant to have a calming effect on the body, and blue neon lights, originally purposed by public spaces to discourage intravenous drug users, lead to a projection room utilizing a more harmonious combination of the same pink – the last room also includes olive green, beige, white, and assorted images.

Kapwani Kiwanga, pink-blue, 2017, installation view at Power Plant Gallery 2017.

Kapwani Kiwanga, pink-blue, 2017. Baker-Miller pink paint, white fluorescent lights, blue florescent lights, variable dimensions. Courtesy of the Artist, Galerie Jérôme Poggi - Paris, Galerie Tanja Wagner - Berlin. © Kapwani Kiwanga / SOCAN (2021). Photo : Toni Hafkenscheid, installation view Power Plant, Toronto

Thinking about pink-blue specifically in relation to last year, it is impossible not to think about the tangible and intangible barriers exposed by the pandemic, as well as structural and social imbalances within society. COVID-19 has created invisible, yet invasive barriers between individuals at the risk of their physical wellbeing. Within bricks-and-mortar structures, long-term care homes, hospitals and even our own dwellings, we have found ourselves trapped within the limitations of these constructs. Depending on the power imbalances affecting your socio-economic status in society, those structural confines have proven to be either calming “pink” sanctuaries for the privileged who work from home in single-family units or dangerous “blue” environs for those deemed “essential” with low wages, crowded public transit and domiciles. As we look forward to a vaccinated world of post-COVID euphoria, I have to wonder if we will continue to see our individual privileges or continue to applaud the people who don’t have them.

Linear Painting #4: Weyburn Mental Hospital, part of Kiwanga's Linear Painting series, is part of the Gallery’s collection. These two-toned paintings presented on panels of drywall are meant to evoke the separation of social groups and societal hierarchies in relation to institutional spaces. The colours here – a pale grey (neutrality) and a light turquoise (calm) – take on a different meaning within the historical context of their usage in a notorious psychiatric hospital, now closed, in Weyburn, Saskatchewan. Taking the liberty of relating it to COVID-19, it again becomes a representation of amorphous barriers that marginalize members of our society. I think of “essential workers” without sick days or living wages, forced to serve the more privileged, while living in communities hit hardest by the pandemic. The black lines cutting through the centre of each painting, meant to act as a force of division between the colours, are lines that could just as easily represent socio-economic, racial and even geographical divisions, alluding to certain areas with higher rates of infections: the ratio of calm to neutrality being relative to which end of the line you fall on.

Kapwani Kiwanga, Linear Painting #4: Weyburn Mental Hospital (Weyburn, Saskatchewan), 2017. Paint on drywall sheet

Kapwani Kiwanga, Linear Painting #4: Weyburn Mental Hospital (Weyburn, Saskatchewan), 2017. Paint on drywall sheet, 250 x 125 cm. © Kapwani Kiwanga / SOCAN (2021) Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Tanja Wagner, Berlin

In 2020, the global movement under the banner of Black Lives Matter pushed against the physical, emotional and psychological barriers denying access and equitable human rights to a people. Kiwanga, herself a Black woman artist, has chosen to centre her work around this idea of barriers – both visible and unseen – and their effects on the human psyche. In discussing her 2017 solo exhibition, A wall is just a wall at The Power Plant, Kiwanga explains that the title was a line from former Black Panther Assata Shakur’s poem Affirmation, in which the activist/poet states: “If I know anything at all / it’s that a wall is just a wall / and nothing more at all. / It can be broken down.”

Kiwanga's two-channel 12-minute sound installation 500 ft, also in the Gallery’s collection, is an audio work taken from that show. In the work, the artist recites colour theory and behavioural science alongside more subversive information, such as a transcript from a 1931 Paris International Conference on Colonial Urbanism that considered “500 feet” the safest distance to maintain between Indigenous populations and European colonists. Distance is the appropriate word to describe the events of last year in more ways than one. However, when considering the globalization of the Black Lives Matter movement and the scale of protests calling for a societal reckoning, though the imposed spatial distance between us has grown, is it too optimistic to presume that perhaps the empathetic distance is closing?

New Year’s resolutions are arguably well-intentioned exit strategies for a year that has left us wanting. In the NGC video filmed for the 2018 Sobey Art Award, Kiwanga describes the exit strategy within her work as, “Moments where the visitor can look differently or untangle themselves from structures of learning that create unequal relationships, but also moments that allow one to think about the future in a different way.” It would be easy to be misanthropic about last year, while being ecstatic about this new one, but Kiwanga’s work shows us that there is light both within, and at the end of the tunnel. Visible and invisible structures that exist to keep us safe, and systemic man-made barriers that exist to keep some of us confined.

Kapwani Kiwanga’s practice speaks to the uncertainty of a new beginning, with all the opposing realities of life that lead to an unknown destination. To see each other outside the prism of artificially generated perceptions, stay the course through what sometimes seems like an endless corridor of conflicting emotions and negative behaviours, and to continue breaking down the walls that keep us caged and lead to nowhere; to see the future in a different way.

After all, a wall is just a wall.


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