Kapwani Kiwanga Conjures Up Deities and Scientific Studies in Sculptural Installations

The Canada-born, Paris-based artist Kapwani Kiwangi creates anthropological and research-based works that explore the African diaspora. She currently presents new sculptures in a group show at Tiwani Contemporary, London, including several representations and interpretations of water as an anthropomorphic spirit, including both scientific and mythological conceptions of mankind’s relation to water.

  • Installation views of Kapwani Kiwanga’s works in “Mythopoeia” at Tiwani Contemporary, London. Courtesy Tiwani Contemporary and the artist. Photography by Sylvain Deleu

The exhibition, “Mythopoeia,” features work by Kiwanga, Mequitta AhujaPamela Phatsimo Sunstrum, and Alida Rodrigues, and addresses the role of mythology in understanding and rationalizing the unknown. Several of Kiwanga’s artworks refer explicitly to mythology and religion, both in their titles and in their forms. Trained as an anthropologist, her work is inspired by the study of artifacts, social structures, and histories. In a recent interview, Kiwanga said “Anthropology, like every other cultural artifact, is contaminated by histories of oppression and power. I am no longer a purist in terms of rejecting these things. I think we have to work with the things that are problematic.” And in her sculptures and performances she examines such problems, including those of bridging science with art, and contemporary art with traditional cultures.

Koki Dore (2015) is an assemblage of salt, fabric, ropes, and a shell, balanced delicately and running from the floor to the ceiling. A conical salt lick on the floor anchors a thick nautical rope, which is hooked to the ceiling and is weighed down on the other side by a large swath of blue-sequined cloth, which forms a small basket for a conch shell. The title refers to one of the names of the Voodoo god Agwé, who rules over the sea and is the patron of fishermen. The sea salt, the rope, the glittering textile, and the shell all collude to conjure the god. The draping form of the cloth is anthropomorphic, resembling a tall figure hovering in the gallery. Like artists such as Samuel Fosso and Derek Fordjour, Kiwanga uses formalism and materials to explore history and cultural ethnography.

Mami Wata (2015) takes its name from another water goddess. Meaning “Mammy Water,” she is common to religions from Central, South, and West Africa. Here the goddess is suggested by a globe of salt suspended from a rope over a sheet of glass. The water-like glass and the round, feminine form of the salt are evocative, but also simple and formally graceful. 

Hydrospheres (2015) comes explicitly from the realm of science: the term refers to the ecological systems and diffusion of water in the environment, from rivers and seas to clouds and aquifers and the water inside our bodies. Like molecules or atoms, the sculpture is comprised of an assemblage of vinyl records through which float balls of salt. The records cant at various angles, fanning from a central point. This dissociated, scientific vision of water is shown to be just as inherent in Kiwanga’s use of materials as the traditional, anthropological ideas of the other two sculptures. This network of ideas, and of connections between in and outside, myth and science, pervade her work, giving us a new lens through which to see the world and peoples’ knowledge of it.


—Stephen Dillon

Mythopoeia” is on view at Tiwani Contemporary, London, Apr. 10 – May 9, 2015.


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