Inside the culturally loaded works of Kapwani Kiwanga
Art and science aren’t the most obvious bedfellows, but according to Kapwani Kiwanga, the two fields have more in common than you might think. “They share this quest for making meaning out of the world,” says the 39-year-old Canadian. Now based in Paris, Kiwanga graduated from McGill University in Montreal with degrees in both comparative religion and anthropology. While her research-fueled artworks take on a variety of forms—from monochromatic wall paintings to flower-bouquet displays to multimedia sci-fi storytelling—her process always involves a deep dive into questions of identity, place, and perception. Take, for example, her ongoing Flowers for Africa project, a series of 11 floral installations which she began making in 2012 and which are modeled after those that were used historically to commemorate the de- colonization of Africa. Over the course of an exhibition, the fresh blooms are left to wilt and decay, suggesting the impermanence of independence.
In another recent installation, pink-blue, Kiwanga installed neon tubes across a gallery ceiling in an evocation of Dan Flavin or James Turrell—only much more culturally loaded. Pink neon was implemented in American prisons after it was found to be effective in calming aggressive inmates, while blue neon is often used in public bathrooms to reduce the visibility of veins and thus deter intravenous drug use. “I’ll sometimes reference the history and the social-political importance of a particular material,” Kiwanga says. “And then what I try to do is reassemble it, or recontextualize it so that we experience it in a different way.”
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