Ever thought about how throughout history, nature has earnestly witnessed the human experience? Be it grand or minuscule, the motions of humanity have an ever-present spectator that accounts for our hegemonic ways. In her first solo exhibition on the continent, Kapwani Kiwanga delicately investigates this meeting of the organic, history and politics.
Both disciplined in the social sciences and visual arts, Kiwanga’s works are interest driven and marry her training to create works that examine memories of historical moments and dissect different perspectives. Leading to her current exhibition, The Sun Never Sets, Kiwanga had been thinking about nature and how the organic witnesses our passage through the world.
During her residency in Dakar, Senegal, she began examining what was on “the periphery or the untold…what was happening on the outside, the edge of the frame” during the celebrating or documenting of the birth of independent African nations after colonialism. In her series, Flowers for Africa, Kiwanga looked at archival photos of these celebrations or negotiation tables and noted how the flowers present were documents or witnesses. Through collaboration with florists, Kiwanga recreated the flowers present at the independence of Libya, Namibia and the union of South Africa. The flowers access a moment of history that partially liberated fellow Africans. Through the duration of the exhibition, the flowers will gradually wilt and die, almost like the idea of an independent African state.
The centrepiece of Kiwanga’s exhibition is a video installation drawn from the 20th century expression, “the sun never sets on the British empire” and speaks to our colonial heritage in a way I’ve never imagined. As Kiwanga continued investigating how the organic can be documentation as well, she began thinking of our relationship to nature and landscape, and how it is influenced by the colonial project. In an effort to unpack this, Kiwanga asked people around the world, who live in places that were part of the British Empire or who are still under British subjugation to film the sun setting behind a landscape. “I don’t think we always think about how our relationship to nature or romantic image of landscape in nature was constructed so that we could then, under the colonial project, appropriate resources, kick people off of land, mine land to take resources, cut down trees, etcetera, were all an economic goal for all of us. It’s the capitalist’s colonial project,” explained Kapwani. By viewing the sun setting in Canada, Ireland, Myanmar, Tanzania, India, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Africa, Kiwanga interrogates the romanticisation of the use of land and the appropriation of its resources in a colonial project.
Kiwanga also looks at the agency of people under oppressive regimes through their use of unofficial footpaths in a series called Desire Paths. Using aerial photographs mostly in Cape Town during apartheid, Kiwanga observes how even during systems of discipline, surveillance and the militarisation of land, people still expressed their will by navigating themselves in a way that suited them. Kiwanga traced the alternative trails, which were initially documented on the terrain.
In another series called, Subduction Studies, Kiwanga observes the space between Earths continents, specifically Africa and Europe. The speculation of Pangaea Ultima suggests a supercontinent occurring again, which will see Europe slipping underneath Africa. This theory inspired Kiwanga to take photographs at the History museum in Paris of rock specimens from the Northern coast of Africa and Spain. She then folded the photographs together to demonstrate a new form. Again, how nature accounts for geological movements but also speaks louder to our relationship as separate continents. It is interesting to observe the reception of migrants by Europeans and imagine a world, which might eventually be geographically connected.
As Kiwanga talked me through each series that makes up her exhibition, the topic of colonialism reoccured. Colonialism as a project that was not strictly African but one that every continent is familiar with. The exhibition is driven by multiple observations Kiwanga has made about hegemonic moments and how the silent bystander, the organic, can account for our humanity. Kiwanga’s use of Anthropology causes her to produce works that voice perspectives that are causally overlooked. The attention she gives to the organic is fascinating and necessary.
The Sun Never Sets will be exhibited until 18 November 2017 at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg.