Up and Coming: Armory Artist Kapwani Kiwanga Explores the Social and Political Economy of Gift-Giving

Emily Nathan
Feb 24, 2016 10:37PM

Portrait of Kapwani Kiwanga in her Paris studio by Emily Johnston for Artsy.


The library is not the first place that comes to mind for the creation of contemporary art—but for Kapwani Kiwanga that’s where the process begins. “I start with a spark of interest in the subject matter, or an anecdote I overhear, or an event, and then I do what I like doing best—research,” she tells me from her scholarly studio in Paris’s 13th arrondissement, framed by stacked cardboard boxes, shelves of piled books, and a woolly, wall-hung composition destined for next week’s edition of The Armory Show comprising the only artwork in sight.

Detail views of Kapwani Kiwanga’s Paris studio. Photos by Emily Johnston for Artsy.

The Ontario-born and Paris-based artist—who’s also an anthropologist, social scientist, and award-winning filmmaker—refuses to tie herself down to any particular discipline. More often than not, her multi-layered installations favor idea over object. Since her 2005 move to Europe for a residency in Paris, she’s cast her creative gaze in all directions. Her interests range from Afrofuturism and science fiction to the anti-colonial struggle, and investigations into the knowledge and beliefs of histories that have, as she says, “fallen through the cracks.”

Left: Portrait of Kapwani Kiwangi in her Paris studio. Right: Detail view of Kapwani Kiwanga’s Paris studio. Photos by Emily Johnston for Artsy.


Consistently weaving fact and fiction and uniting documents both archival and imagined, her process flies in the face of traditional practices that tailor an idea to a preferred material. Instead, she seamlessly integrates film, photography, performance, ephemera, and sculpture to play with the mutability of historical narratives. In her ongoing project “Afrogalactica” (2011-present), for example, Kiwanga occupied the invented persona of an anthropologist from the future, researching such fields as hybrid gender identity and African astronomy, and conducting interviews with pertinent figures. “I’m not at all pretending to be a seasoned academic,” says Kiwanga. “But I’m always trying to look at multiplicities, or multiple tellings of the same story.”

Detail views of Kapwani Kiwanga’s Paris studio. Photos by Emily Johnston for Artsy.

Kiwanga’s ability to parse the subjective tendencies of culture—the Rashomon-effect that history can have—drew the attention of the curators for The Armory Show’s Focus section, Julia Grosse and Yvette Mutumba, who selected her as the fair’s 2016 commissioned artist. Her site-specific installation, titled The Secretary’s Suite and created with Berlin’s Galerie Tanja Wagner and Paris’s Galerie Jérôme Poggi, investigates the lesser-explored history of “gift-giving” as a social and political phenomenon. The work features a single-channel video and a related viewing environment modeled after the office of the United Nations Secretary General in 1961, as well as a series of limited-edition prints depicting gifts given throughout history that are free for visitors to scoop up.

“When I visited the UN recently, I was struck by the interesting gifts that had been given by different countries as commemorations of some kind,” she tells me. “I got to thinking about how gifts are given, why they’re given, and particularly how gifts are and have been used to create political, social, and economic ties between people and communities across time.”

Kapwani Kiwanga, Flowers for Africa: Nigeria, 2014. Courtesy of the artist, Galerie Tanja Wagner, Berlin, and Galerie Jérôme Poggi, Paris. Photo by Aurelien Mole.

Beyond her commissioned installation, Kiwanga’s work is also being used as the basis for the fair’s visual identity, including an image from a series she started in 2011. The series, “Flowers for Africa,” was initiated around the idea of plants as observers of historical events, and specifically, the independence ceremonies of Africa’s 54 countries. Poring through visual archives, Kiwanga continues to seek cut-flower arrangements that were present at each celebration—eight have been located so far—and then reinterprets and reconstructs the perfumed assemblages. The arrangements are displayed individually on pedestals, standing symbolically for the communities they accompanied to liberation.

Left: Detail view of Kapwani Kiwanga’s Paris studio. Photo by Emily Johnston for Artsy. Right: Kapwani Kiwanga, Flowers for Africa: Uganda, 2014. Courtesy of the artist, Galerie Tanja Wagner, Berlin, and Galerie Jérôme Poggi, Paris. Photo by Aurelien Mole.

“I was trying to see these flowers as witnesses of a particular time and moment, offering a different perspective to the official discourses, videos, or radio newsreels that announced the independence of these countries,” she explains. “The images for the Armory will show one of the floral arrangements at the beginning of its life, and one with a time lapse of a few weeks. So the arrangements become a reactivation of a given time. But of course, we can’t hold onto that time—it fades away and morphs and decays, just like the flowers.”

Notions of impermanence, particularly when it comes to the subjectivity of historical memory, recur throughout Kiwanga’s practice. For her 2014 solo exhibition at the Jeu de Paume, “Maji Maji,” she examined the history of the Maji Maji War (1905–07), one of the African continent’s biggest uprisings in the 20th century. “Ultimately,” she says, “I hope we can see that questions of history, of objectivity and subjectivity, are actually not these dualistic and opposed things. I hope we can see that they all shift constantly, and questions of what is a fact at one point in history will change as well.”

Kapwani Kiwanga in her Paris studio. Photo by Emily Johnston for Artsy.

Emily Nathan