Moridja Kitenge Banza: Identity, Memory and Place
Moridja Kitenge Banza’s large-scale ink drawing De 1848 à nos jours | coupe de bateau négrier, acquired by the National Gallery of Canada in 2021, relates to an important moment in the Montreal-based artist’s career to date: his presentation at the 2010 Dak’Art Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary African Art in Dakar, Senegal, in which he won the Léopold Senghor Grand Prize. Banza’s overall project for the Biennial, titled l’Union des États, conceived of a fictionalized nation-state, along with national anthem, currency and a vision intended to “replace all the institutions in the world.” The project undergirds much of what has followed for the artist within his wide-ranging artistic corpus, which incorporates painting, photography, drawing, video and installation. In the worlds Banza creates, historical and contemporary realities meld through deliberate acts that “confuse fact and fiction to problematize hegemonic narratives and create spaces where marginalized discourse [can] flourish.”
Translated as “From 1848 to the Present | Cross-Section of a Slave Ship”, Banza’s drawing establishes legacies of the Middle Passage and the diasporic dispersal of Black histories as consequential to many of the negotiations with identity, memory and place that have followed within his diverse practice. Using a mixture of diluted inks on a sheet of slick mylar, the drawing depicts the outlines of a boat’s hull in graphite, over which pigment has been added. Both image and title imply that the depiction of spoons, arranged in rows and columns, are stand-ins for the bodies of African slaves. The reference is both brutal and distressing, yet also all too accurate about the manner in which slaves were positioned inside the holds of merchant ships designed to transport human cargo from the 17th to the 19th centuries. For Banza, sugar spoons in particular are rich in their associations with colonial and economic exchange, and indeed sterling silver varieties of these utensils remain popular – and at times highly valued – souvenirs. Banza has himself amassed a collection of hundreds of sugar spoons, which he has consciously sought out over the years in return for currency bills he created as part of his l’Union des États project. He has exhibited these spoons in a grid-like fashion, their shiny, reflective surfaces casting viewers’ images back on themselves, implicating them in the histories the artist is characterizing.
De 1848 à nos jours | coupe de bateau négrier, completed in 2016, is based on the artist’s original watercolour made for Dak’Art 2010, which became too delicate to continue being exhibited or travel after the biennial. That Banza chose to recreate the drawing in ink on mylar speaks to the work’s importance to the artist, which he has officially dated it as “2006–18” to encompass its direct association to the original prototype on paper.
For Banza, De 1848 à nos jours | coupe de bateau négrier expresses continuity between past and present in which slavery and colonialism can often be relegated to historical study and interpretation. Having left Africa to live in the diaspora elsewhere, the artist emphasizes how contemporary migrations from Africa to unknown horizons can, for many, be fraught with undetermined and often tragic outcomes. In an interview for Dak’Art, he stated: “Today you don’t put the slave in the boat. You travel on your own. But when you leave your country, you are pushed to emigrate by a system. The day when you will have understood that, you will not leave any more. If you had enough to live on, if you had the means to educate your children, you would not leave.”
Banza does not view his drawing as a “memorial image,” and it is for this reason that the title looks ahead to “the present.” The work serves as a poignant reminder of the reality that modern slavery – be it forced labour, domestic servitude and/or human trafficking – has not ceased and that, within certain systems of global industry, the terms and prices of resource extraction (diamonds, zinc, uranium) continue to be set by Western countries, with potentially exploitative results. The acquisition of De 1848 à nos jours | coupe de bateau négrier by the Gallery places the work within the history and socio-economic and political realities of Canada – the country that Moridja Kitenge Banza now calls home, and a nation that has, until most recently, downplayed any historical associations with Black slavery in the formulation of its founding narratives.
Moridja Kitenge Banza's installation The National Museum of Africa will be on view at Projet Casa in Montreal this spring. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.