Deconstructing in light and colour: Kapwani Kiwanga in the 2018 Sobey Art Award
The artwork of Kapwani Kiwanga nearly always begins in an archive. The way others might build from paint or clay, this artist’s research-based practice treats library stacks and museum holdings as its primary materials, working their contents to illuminate histories hitherto quieted or uninvestigated.
Her findings are articulated through a variety of media, including documentary films, sculpture, printed matter and participatory installation among others. The performative lecture, in which Kiwanga leads a talk assuming the role of an expert in some field, is a recurring format. In the first such series, Afrogalactica, Kiwanga plays an anthropologist from hundreds of years into the future, tracing the roots of speculative civilizations (so it seems to the present-day audience) back through the philosophies, aesthetics and art histories of 20th century Afrofuturism.
She is compelled by items and articles that evidence the imbalances created by, and that uphold, the social, political and economic power structures organizing society. She is also interested in the artefacts of those who have learned to circumnavigate those structures. Kiwanga draws our attention to the different ways these materials communicate a continuum that connects the past, present and future: “How where we are now started before, and where it’s somehow leading us.”
Kiwanga’s art-making practice — which is scholarly and rigorous, but never inaccessible — has been recognized both nationally and internationally. The Paris-based artist who was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and raised in nearby Brantford was the recipient of the 2016 Armory Show Artist Commission and won the inaugural Frieze Artist Award. Her work has appeared in the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, she has been the focus of solo shows at Toronto's Power Plant and Calgary's Esker Foundation and has artwork in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. This year, Kiwanga represents Ontario as one of the five finalists of the 2018 Sobey Art Award.
Kiwanga produces art in projects, she explains. These are large bodies of work inspired by a common research topic. One such project — a recent subject of study and the project which Kiwanga is bringing to the Sobey exhibition — has been an exploration of what’s called “disciplinary architecture”, architectural forms that impact human behaviour in public spaces. She is interested in the way such spaces are designed and controlled to determine the ways we engage with them and move through them.
In her 2017 exhibition at the Power Plant, Kiwanga explored the subject in her installation called pink-blue, focusing primarily on light and colour. She painted one half of a hallway — floor, walls and ceiling — Baker-Miller pink, which was studied in the 1970s for the colour’s hypothesized psychological and physiological effects in calming aggression. A number of detention centres took note and coloured their prison cells the PeptoBismol-ish shade to reduce violent behaviour. At the Seattle U.S. Naval Correctional Facility, where the colour was first applied, it did appear to quell hostility. In trials elsewhere, however, violent incidents increased. In one prison, the inmates scratched the paint off with their fingernails. The second phase of the hallway is bathed in blue neon light, the kind sometimes installed in public restrooms to deter intravenous drug use. The neon is intended to make it difficult for users to locate a vein. In actuality, it does not deter them, and only makes their activities more harmful to themselves.
A related work called A primer, shown alongside pink-blue, similarly explores the institutional use of colour to exert control over certain spaces and certain bodies within them. Baker-Miller pink reappears in the single-channel video alongside the white Ripolin paint of Le Corbusier and modernism. (According to his “Law of Ripolin” every wall should be painted in white enamel to emphasize form and to encourage “inner cleanliness”). It also features the beige and olive tones of hospital aesthetic, which by reproducing colours prevalent in nature were thought to encourage rest and healing among patients.
The exhibition's title A wall is just a wall is a phrase taken from a poem by Assata Shakur. It suggests that such walls, although built for control, are only walls, and accordingly, can be dismantled and deconstructed. “Becoming aware of them, acknowledging them is the first step,” Kiwanga says. “I’m talking about real architectures — walls, etc. — there’s also this very clear link to social architectures as well. I wonder: how did we get here? It’s very easy to see, when one starts to look at their history, of the very concrete ways — be it the walls and the colour the walls are painted, or policies — that these asymmetries are created and maintained. Through small ways of thinking and looking and being, I would hope that we can start to learn to decolonize what has already been colonized in our individual selves, but also in our communities and societies.”
The installation Shady, commissioned for 2018 Frieze New York, was made of coloured shade cloth that was affixed inside industrial metal frames and assembled into a vertical partition. Kiwanga was inspired while travelling through Haldimand County in Ontario, a region where there has long been tension between the Six Nations and settler communities there over land use and ownership. The artist saw large expanses of shade cloth covering the fields – to grow ginseng. “Here is this quote-unquote foreign plant or crop brought in and then maintained with shade cloth that otherwise couldn’t be cultivated at such scale in an environment it maybe wasn’t meant to be in.” It echoed the sort of colonial activities seen there before, Kiwanga says, which suggests those practices are more of an evolving and ongoing process than some vestige or resurgence.
That is not to say, however, we are trapped or condemned by history. Kiwanga slashed holes in Shady to admit viewers passage through the partition, to emphasize its penetrability and porosity. To her, such walls mustn’t determine those stuck by them, instead they can be pierced.
Kapwani Kiwanga is one of the five finalists of this year’s Sobey Art Award. Her work will be shown in the Sobey Art Award Exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada from October 3, 2018 to February 10, 2019. The winner will be announced on November 14, 2018. To share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right hand of the page. Subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest Gallery news, and to learn more about art in Canada.