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It could be a political agenda: flowers to investigate African historical narratives

Flowers for Africa is the winning project of the Prix Marcel Duchamp. Kapwani Kiwanga is urging the public to question existing historical narratives in African decolonization 

The winner of this year’s Prix Marcel Duchamp award is Kapwani Kiwanga, a Canadian visual artist who encompasses her academic background into her research-driven creative process, within which exploring and demonstrating history’s impact on society and the long-term consequences that continue to exist today. Influenced by her degree in Anthropology, Kiwanga aims to look beyond the visual and acknowledge the historical narrative, which features prominently in her works. Currently based in Paris, the artist has herself experienced varying perspectives, which are subsequently reflected in her art, questioning social and political aspects of modern-day civilization. Kiwanga is an established name in the contemporary art world, represented by Galerie Jérôme Poggi in Paris, the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg and Cape Town, and Galerie Tanja Wagner in Berlin, and with artworks exhibited at venues such as the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; the Serpentine Gallery, London; the Jeu de Paume, Paris and the MACBA, Barcelona. 

Kiwanga’s winning work praised by the international panel of judges was Flowers for Africa, an ongoing project from 2013, which takes inspiration from the flower arrangements photographed during independence ceremonies in African countries. Instead of focusing on the paperwork, the public, the guests, the artist looks at the smaller details which were present within these celebrations: flowers. By researching the visual archives related to African decolonization, Kiwanga analyzes the symbolic relationship between flowers and individuals, nations, and resistance movements. 

KK Afrogalactica Berlin A 1
KAPWANI KIWANGA PERFORMING AFROGALACTICA: THE BLACK STAR CHRONICLES AT MAXIM GORKI THEATRE, BERLIN, GERMANY, 2014 PH. EMMA HAUGH

The final form is sculptural works, presented within a different context: no longer on a political stage, instead positioned with care in an exhibition space, these flower arrangements run the course of their natural lifecycle as time moves forward. The organic elements begin to wilt and dry, leaving a shadow of their original form. This itself is a continuation of Kiwanga’s comment on these flowers’ presence at these historical moments: «At first the country is enthusiastic and hopeful for their future as an independent state, distancing themselves from their colonial history, yet this enthusiasm gradually fades with the realities and difficulties of every day, whether in terms of politics, economy or society». Through the project Flowers for Africa, Kiwanga reiterates an explicit symbolization of the global impact of colonialism and its visibility in contemporary culture and society.

Another noteworthy work by the artist is the Afrogalactica trilogy project (2011-), where Kiwanga is shown as an anthropologist from the future who studies and researches Afrofuturism, African astronomy, and gender. The artist’s fictional character of the anthropologist has traveled back in time to inform the Afronaut Odyssey world. In this fusion of fiction and reality, Kiwanga produces new narratives taking inspiration from historical facts, science fiction, and popular culture. The final result encourages the spectator to question existing reports: who is telling the story? What is emphasized? What is left out, and what do we need to add to the known dialogue? «On December 8, 2058, the United States of Africa came into being. The date was chosen to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first Pan-African Conference, which took place in Accra, Ghana, in 1958. It was during this historic meeting that the then President, Kwame Nkrumah endorsed the model of the United States of Africa, which called for the federation of African States».

Kapwani Kiwanga: My academic background is quite sparse. I studied Anthropology and Comparative Religions at McGill University (Montreal), and early on, I understood that I did not want to be an academic. I’m not at all a researcher; I’m a curious person. I spend time reading, looking up more information, contacting experts willing to chat with me, reading their articles, and asking them questions. From there is when I more or less start the beginning of my artistic work during the research stage. Eventually, a form or an idea will take shape, and I understand if I should be making a film, a video, an installation, or a distinct work. Every project is different; therefore, one project may require more research than another. 

Glesni Williams: Your works are born from your personal research on different issues within human, social, and economic history. 

KK: It comes from looking at what’s going on in the world. It is essential to observe. From there, I will begin to wonder why. How is something related to each other, maybe a certain piece of architecture or a certain use of language? It’s just looking around and becoming more aware. 

GW: Reinterpretation is a theme within your works. 

KK: Instead of a theme, perhaps more of a guiding question: power. How is power achieved, how is power distributed, how are systems, societies, and cultures constructed? Relationships are something that I often think about. Lesser-known histories, lesser-known stories, and the question of narrative: what narratives we see? What narratives are missing? Not that they are non-existent, they are not included. It’s a question of adding a different perspective to a conversation, whether in parallel or contrasting. The discourse is already there. 

GW: With the projects Flowers for Africa and The Marias, you highlight the varied use and symbolism of flowers. Please, discuss further.

KK: For Flowers for Africa they are cut real flowers and for The Marias I have used paper flowers, but in both works I am looking at flowers as an entry into history. The construction of the flower arrangements is done by a florist, who already knows how to sculpt the flowers, therefore once prepared, I have to understand how these flowers will work in the exhibition spaces, their positioning, and how they can create a dialogue. The final compositions could differ significantly from what I had initially imagined as it’s not always somewhat controlled. Here interpretation is significant as the florist reinterprets, which is also a part of the project. It becomes a question of rethinking and reevaluating, constantly in flux. In itself, it becomes another interpretation of the arrangement and history. 

GW: Do you collaborate with one florist in particular?

KK: No, as the project travels, I always look to involve local florists. Therefore up until now, I have not worked with the same one. I find that it is interesting to have different people designing flowers and see their reinterpretation. Each time has been an experience, as I discuss with the florist, explaining the concept and context, not only of the project but of each historical event, which can then inform their choice in the final forms. 

GW: Can you give some examples of the flowers you have exhibited?

KK: Currently, on view at the Centre Pompidou, in collaboration with a local florist in Paris, I have prepared thirteen flower compositions, each one representing a different African country and its independence ceremony. Algeria’s independence from France in 1962 was marked by bouquets of red and white gladioli, whilst the Republic of Rwanda adorned its independence ceremony with an arch of eucalyptus leaves in 1961. I take a lot of time researching through visual archives to find the flowers which accompanied and witnessed these events. 

GW: Your works are shown at the Centre Pompidou and then displayed on a world tour. 

KK: The visitors will ask themselves, ‘Why are there dried flowers here? They’re beautiful, but what do they mean?’. Wall labels indicate the historic moments the flowers represent. I want the public to be interested in these moments in time, and start to research in their own way, find out what they think is interesting, and come across a part of history which perhaps they are not so familiar with. I want to transfer to the public the desire to ask more questions, to become more curious. 

The ‘Prix Marcel Duchamp’, this year celebrating its 20th anniversary, is considered a prestigious award for contemporary artists with French heritage or currently living in France. The award was founded by ADIAF (Association for the International Diffusion of French Art), aims to promote French art, both in its creation and visibility. The winners receive €35,000 as a means to support and encourage their career. The projects, including works by all four finalists, are exhibited at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, then followed by a tour to a collection of venues worldwide. The finalists of 2020, including Kiwanga, were Alice Anderson (1972, UK), Hicham Berrada (1986, Morocco), and Enrique Ramírez (1979, Chile). Past winners of this prominent award include names such as Thomas Hirschhorn (1957, Switzerland) and Kader Attia (1970, France). 


IMAGE GALLERY

Kapwani Kiwanga
Canadian artist working in Paris.
Represented by Galerie Jérôme Poggi, Paris; Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg and Cape Town; Galerie Tanja Wagner, Berlin.

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