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Kiwanga’s artworks bring attention to the backstories of systems of authority and their embodied effects

Exhibition view: Kapwani Kiwanga, ‘Plot’, Haus der Kunst, Munich, 2020. Courtesy the artist and galerie Tanja Wagner, Berlin. Photographer: Dominik Gigler

Over the past decade, the Paris-based artist has created complex installations, sculptures, performance lectures, and films that consider myriad subjects including marginalised histories and systems of power. Drawing on her training in anthropology and the social sciences, Kiwanga’s rigorously researched projects often take the form of installations that stage new spatial environments while exposing the ways in which bodies physically experience and inhabit structures of authority and control.

Stemming from archival investigations that range from the history of decolonisation to the migration of plants across continents, Kiwanga’s artworks bring attention to the backstories of systems of authority and their embodied effects. Through this research process, her installations articulate a type of historical imagination, but they do so by constructing unique perceptual encounters with fluidity and estrangement.

Installed in the New Museum’s Fourth Floor gallery, the exhibition debuts new commissions alongside recent work, which together bridge historical research with a site-specific spatial intervention. Invoking the use of police floodlights in targeted urban areas and, by extension, the New York legal codes known as “lantern laws” – early eighteenth-century ordinances that required all enslaved individuals over the age of fourteen to carry lanterns or lit candles after dark – Kiwanga’s installation continues the artist’s investigation into disciplinary architectures and complex regimes of visibility.

The central piece in the exhibition is a metallic veil, which has been sprayed with pulverised aluminium obtained by melting down police floodlights. This scrim acts in conjunction with a large wall work nearby, which serves as both a screen and a reflective surface. Also sprayed with the remains of the transformed floodlights, this piece synthesises the artist’s ongoing interest in revealing social and political contents hidden within materials. Taking a different physical approach, the imposing mass of Maya-Bantu (2019), also on view, is achieved by accumulating layers of sisal, a fiber native to Central America and later cultivated by German settlers in Tanzania, where it became a staple of the local economy both under colonial rule and the country’s early years of independence.

Kiwanga’s use of fiber, metal and repurposed materials highlights complex histories of exchange and exploitation, and woven together, they maintain a rich texture characterised by different layers of opacity and transparency. This tension between visibility and obscurity is amplified by the artist’s decision to present the exhibition solely in natural light, subverting the use of artificial illumination as a means of social control.

Amid the shifting patterns of natural light throughout the day, the exhibition stages a type of speculative scenario, evoking both the sudden closure of cultural institutions during the Covid-19 pandemic and a not-so-distant future when museums and society will have to operate with limited access to power.

‘Kapwani Kiwanga: Off-Grid’ is curated by Massimiliano Gioni, Edlis Neeson Artistic Director, and Madeline Weisburg, Curatorial Assistant, and is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue published by the New Museum. The catalogue includes a conversation between the artist and Massimiliano Gioni, a conversation between Simone Browne and Madeline Weisburg, and texts by Glenn Adamson, Rashid Johnson, Kathleen Ritter, and Yesomi Umolu. The exhibition will be on view from the 30th of June until the 16th of October 2022. for more information, please visit the New Museum.

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