Goodman Gallery is pleased to present Cache, a new body of work by Kapwani Kiwanga. The exhibition marks Kiwanga’s first solo exhibition in the United Kingdom since her debut at South London Gallery in 2015. Considered one of the most acclaimed artists of her generation, Kiwanga was recently awarded the prestigious Prix Marcel Duchamp Prize for her sculptural series, Flowers for Africa.
For Cache, Kiwanga has created a series of formal sculptures and installations that continue her interrogation of history, power and resistance. By layering narratives and myths, Kiwanga considers how various natural materials become witnesses to history.
“It’s never a purely aesthetic response that will lead me to choose a particular material. I select a material for a number of different reasons. Firstly, a material is of interest because of the historic, political or geological history it points to. Secondly, the ability of a material to open up other ways of understanding complex issues is something I trust in.”
Kiwanga’s interest in the historical and symbolic affect of materials is demonstrated through an arrangement of steelworks covered in sisal fibre. The golden spun fibre, harvested from the botanical plant agave sisalana, is typically used for rope and twine. Kiwanga first encountered sisal whilst travelling through rural Tanzania where this flowering plant is a primary export commodity. Fascinated by the fibre’s colour (yellow and gold) as well as the rhythmic rows of the crop Kiwanga came to learn more about the plant in relation to Tanzania’s political, economic and social history.
“The agave cactus was first brought illegally to Tanzania by German plantation owners who began to develop the crop on large scale,” Kiwanga explains in an interview from her new book published by Kunsthaus Pasquart. “At the time of Tanzanian independence, plantations that had once been privately owned were nationalised, in an attempt to assure Tanzania would be economically self-sufficient. Sisal was meant to play an economic role in the country becoming an independent socialist state. Ujamaa socialism failed, for many different reasons, but when the price of sisal plummeted on the world market it contributed to this as it adversely affected prospects of financial resilience.”
Semence (2020) is a monumental installation that brings to the fore ideas of fecundity in plant life through rice grains. The work takes as its reference, the history of the movement of rice grains through the slave trade —particularly the introduction of red rice to the United States from West Africa. Rice grains are believed to have been hidden by enslaved people in clothing or braided into hair as a means of providing food security and self-sufficiency in the event of an escape from slavery upon reaching the Americas. By referencing this history, Kiwanga replicates rice grains in the form of fifteen thousand individual life-sized ceramic sculptures. The grains are arranged on a plot in a grid referencing planting techniques.
Kiwanga’s mixed-media works and wall-based reliefs explore cosmogonies detailing specific creation myths from Africa, Asia and South America. The series of works, The worlds we tell: Nü Gua, Xevioso and Dojity and Micha (2021), allude to how one creates and understands the world through language and storytelling. In this exhibition, the language of world-building and world-making is translated through the material —rendering an aesthetic experience while animating the artist’s desire to create new forms. In examining aesthetics and shifting perspectives in forms, Kiwanga considers how storytelling is used to form social and cultural structures.
The worlds we tell: Dojity and Micha (2021) evokes the Tsimane myth of two protagonists who are believed to have created the world. The gold leaf encrusted into the ceramic represents the sun while the vines revealed through the layering of wood behind ceramic, connects the earth and the sky. Kiwanga considers ceramic as a proxy material in its links to the earth, particularly because in some creation myths humans are believed to be created from the soil.
The worlds we tell: Nü Gua (2021) evokes the Chinese myth of the great mother goddess who created the earth. The red silk embroidery and coloured concrete allude to the establishment of class which is tied to the separation between the upper classes and the common people, crafted by a superior being. Notions of class difference are captured in the tales but also in the materials themselves, which embody opulence and affluence.
The worlds we tell: Xevioso (2021) alludes to Xevioso, who is the Fon god of thunder. Through the use of mirrors, painted steel, wood and embroidery, the work is a personification of the primordial storm which connects earth and sky and whose fucunding rains bring about vegetation. The work is three dimensional and engages geology through an interrogation of substances of the earth, their histories and their processes.
In a sequence of quilt works created out of cotton treated with pigment and saltwater from the Atlantic Ocean, Kiwanga extends the intangible components of her narrative compositions, continuing her investigation into the transatlantic slave trade. For the artist, the sea is an archive and witness of violent pasts.
The cloth works, Triangulation: 1, 2 and 3 (2021) combine and materialize her analysis of forced movement and liberatory strategies.
Kiwanga’s use of symbols on the textiles allude to the safe houses along the Underground Railroad which were often indicated by a quilt hanging from a clothesline or windowsill in order to help people escaping slavery to escape to Canada and freedom. These quilts were said to be embedded with a code, so that by reading the motifs sewn into the design, an enslaved person on the run could know the area’s immediate dangers or even where to head next.
The geometric shapes function as conceptual coordinates of flight, escape and safety —by reading the motifs sewn into the design, a person fleeing slavery could assess immediate dangers. The triangular motif indicates to head north towards safety whilst a black square, as in the one sewn in Harbour (2021), indicates a place of safety and rest.
A cache refers to a component that stores data, particularly through a layered network of memory. Similarly, through this exhibition, Kiwanga creates a space of storage for memory, stories, myths and histories where each layer reveals new connections.