Canadian-born artist Kapwani Kiwanga is having a moment. Along with recent shows at the Jeu de Paume and Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, she was arguably the artist with the most presence at the 2016 Armory show, which ran from 3 to 6 March in New York.
As the fair's commissioned artist, she was granted a booth on Pier 92, where she showed the immersive video installation The Secretary's Suite, a work based on a 1961 photograph of then Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld's office at the United Nations, which was filled with gifts including an animal skin rug, and the bust of an Indian deity. A translucent print of the photograph hung over a television screen, which showed a video of Kapwani sorting through photocopies of gifts given throughout history to the UN, while she narrated stories—some real, some entirely fabricated—as if she were an anthropologist going over a recent dig. A limited-edition screen print was also made available for sale to benefit the Museum of Modern Art. Photographs from her series Flowers for Africa, which recreates bouquets present at various African independence ceremonies in the past century, adorned the front cover of the Armory 2016 catalogue. Finally, Galerie Tanja Wagner from Berlin and Galerie Jérôme Poggi from Paris hosted an independent booth of Kapwani's recent sisal fibre works in the Focus section of the fair.
How were you first approached to participate in the Armory? Many prestigious artists have been chosen in the past, it must have been an honour?
Yeah, definitely, it was a great honour. It was the curators, Julia Grosse and Yvette Mutumba from Contemporary And, who contacted me. In fact, it was quite funny because Julia had written to me and said, 'Oh you know we've been elected as curators for the next Focus section at the Amory, etcetera.' I didn't quite understood the invitation, at first I thought that she wanted me to put in a proposition and then from there they would decide if they wanted to select me as their commissioned artist. I wrote back to that effect, 'Ok, great, I'd love to put in a proposition etc.' And she wrote back, 'No, no, no in fact you've already been chosen we want to know if you accept.' For me it was unexpected.
What Yvette and Julia hoped to achieve was quite interesting in terms of really challenging that idea of African art—really pushing people to accept a kind of acceptance of Africa within a global exchange, and I found that was an intelligent way to approach the Focus section.
For your dedicated installation, you chose to feature The Secretary's Suite, which is based on a 1961 photograph you saw on a tour of the United Nations. How did you first become interested in the United Nations? And why did you specifically choose that project for your presentation?
Basically this happens a lot in my work. I come across anecdotes or subject matter, something that interests me, and I'll kind of file it away in this to-do list of projects. There was something that related to the UN specifically that interested me, not about the gift economy per se but more about a visit of a diplomat to the UN and his experience.
I try to go to the place or to the country or whatever the appropriate space I'm interested in. So I did the very basic tour of the UN and I was lucky enough to have somebody who worked within the UN who gave me a bit of a privileged tour, as well as showed me different parts of the UN. And then of course my focus shifted completely, and I became attracted to these gifts that were given, particularly at the moment these countries were admitted into the UN. I thought they would tell interesting stories about the different political and diplomatic configurations throughout the history of the UN, but also diplomatic relations generally.
As I thought about it, the question of the gift came up more and more, and it really shifted when I came across that image which was taken in 1961 of the secretary's suite. Then the narrative really focused in on that, and the circumstances of Dag Hammarskjöld's death, the fact that he'd gone to the Congo to negotiate a ceasefire at the time that his plane crashed. The image I came across was taken only two weeks before he died. I didn't know that when I chose the image. I was drawn to it partially because there were diplomatic gifts present in the image, and I found it quite aesthetically interesting. It seemed to lend itself to a kind of stage scene. I could imagine stories being played out in this scene. It was really that image that ended up becoming the starting point of everything. Had I not been able to visit the UN I might have done a completely different project in the end.
Do you see any connection between the gift-giving economy and the UN itself as an institution of cultural and social exchange, and the Armory, which is about commercial sales, but also about bringing all these people from all these different countries together in one space?
I think there's more contrast, but maybe I'm wrong. I think the idea, the fact that at the Armory it is an art market and things are bought and sold is an exchange which is very much monetary. On the other hand, these gift economies or these gift exchanges at the UN are more about mutual bonds and creating things that are much more abstract, although our monetary economy is also quite abstract ... So yes I guess you could say there's a parallel because what value do you place on an object because it's made by one artist and not another? The act of assigning value may be similar, but I think they're really expressed in different ways. I think the UN is one example but of course there are many examples throughout history and also geographically that look at exchange in a way that is more encompassing than just, 'I give you something or you give me something back.' Gifts can make you obliged or indebted to somebody, and then you create these relationships that can even go beyond the person and go into generations or communities or families of relationships because of the exchange.
What were some of the most surprising gifts you saw when you were in the UN on these tours?
It ranged so much: beautiful artworks, things made of precious metals. But there was also something that I found reoccurred a lot in my research, not just at the UN but generally looking at diplomatic gifts. There was this tendency to offer gifts that are artefacts or replicas of artefacts from one's own cultural past. It's a way of proudly asserting one's cultural history and sharing that with whomever you're going to meet to show your cultural heritage and cultural legacy. I found a couple of elements like that in the general display of the UN gifts. For example, a replica of a 6th-century-BC urn from Slovenia.
It's interesting considering what kinds of objects people choose to display, and who they assume will pass through the UN to see them.
Not everything is displayed. They have so many objects. When I was doing my research, I was in contact with the arts committee which kind of shepherds this all; oversees the inventories of the objects. I think they're trying to make the collection more accessible. So many things are not shown to the public. They must just have so many gifts because every time someone comes they give something. Some other things I really found striking were the portrait rugs offered by Iran, for example, which showed just intricate craftsmanship, and the portraits of the past Secretary-Generals.
In some ways, the collection is like a museum. A museum also has so many objects the curators can't show because they don't have the room. It's really only the tip of the iceberg that you see when you go as a visitor. Were the flowers you used for the Armory catalogue design also from the UN?
No its actually a different project called Flowers for Africa. I started it in 2011 when I was on a residency in Dakar, Senegal. I was looking at archives related to African independence, and I'd gone through the national archives there and pulled out images that showed ceremonies or negotiations between different parties that led to independence. In the series, I focus on the floral arrangements that are present in the images I found. To recreate them, I brought the images to a florist, and we reconstructed them to the best of our ability, taking into account that of course most of the images are black and white. The flowers were not the centrepiece or the focus point of the image per se, so they're sometimes partially out of frame, or not completely in focus. It's a bit of a meticulous project to try and find images that are discernible so that we can see the bouquets.
Up until now, I've been able to do eight different countries. What is displayed on the Armory catalogue is a section of a floral arrangement that covered the whole podium in the centre of a stadium during the Uganda independence ceremony, when the British handed over independence to Uganda. On the cover is a photograph of a floral arrangement that was reconstructed with the help of a Parisian florist when it was just finished. Then, on the back cover, you see the bouquet five weeks later, when it has begun to decompose. The idea is that I allow the flowers to fade, wilt and to dry up.
If one of these works was to be acquired by an institution or a collector, it should be reactivated every year. The idea's not to make it a kind of mausoleum, or to preserve the vestiges of these floral arrangements, but more to underscore this action of reactivating to re-examine this moment in history. Of course history is fleeting, and you cannot go back to a time past, you can only observe it from your present.
And did the curators choose that project or did you?
Well the process was more of a sort of brainstorming. I just laid out all of the images that I found interesting to the Armory team, they selected ones that they found the most interesting, and then we came to the decision about which image would be the best. It's also a project that I'm still working on, and feel quite excited and passionate about, so I thought it made sense to also share that with the public.
You grew up in Canada, and you work in Paris now, how did you begin to explore Africa as a theme in your work?
My father is from Tanzania, and a part of my family still lives in Tanzania. Africa, and the African diaspora, are present in my work quite a bit but I wouldn't say it's the only thing that I work on. Of course it often gets kind of repeated that that's my main theme. I'd say it's more my starting point. I look at historical, social, political events or phenomena that come out of the diaspora, or from Africa itself, and then from there it always becomes an entangled web of relationships. But I've also worked in different places. It really just depends on where my interests take me. Even though the Tanzanian part of my background influences the things I've been exposed to in my life, I would say that my upbringing generally, being brought up in Canada in quite a multicultural environment, has really informed me even more, I think, than simply my African background. I grew up with people from South Asian, or Chinese backgrounds, very good family friends ... Ugandans. It informed my idea of multiple perspectives, and challenged a hegemonic, Eurocentric kind of discourse. I think it's more my experience and contact with people throughout life that has really informed my work more than my father's birthplace.
Arguably, Africa is a place that is rife with unwritten or forgotten histories just because the dominant narrative was, for so long, Eurocentric. As an artist, being able to go back and look at a continent with fresh eyes must be really interesting.
As an artist or as an individual I think what's always important is that you own your subjective take on things. Of course I'm working in different countries with which I don't have any particular genealogical tie. I also don't believe that I have any more authority or authenticity than somebody else to speak about Tanzanian history because I might've had some stake which is historic, familial or whatever else. I think someone's personal or subjective contribution can give a history a particular hue, you contribute to looking at a particular subject in your particular way, although this might be faulty, and you try your best to avoid reproducing those power dynamics that you may have found problematic in the past. Everyone is a visitor somehow. Even if it's your own town, the way you talk about it is always going to be your point of view. I think as long as you're honest or clear about that, or transparent about that, then I think it allows you to say this is one among many ways that we can look at the same thing.
My family is Irish, and we talk so much about being Irish, but I was just in the UK last week and I realised how much of my history, being born and raised in America, is really American. How quickly you become the place where you live as opposed to the place where you think you're from. When do you let go of this idea of yourself having a certain kind of history when it really has no connection to the way you've lived or the things that you know?
It's a question I think also of diaspora because you're talking about the Irish diaspora. Diaspora augments questions of identity. You feel the identity strongly, but when you go back, there are these funny shifts. I also have an Irish background, and Scottish, and a lot of other things. I lived in Scotland for three years. When my mother came over to visit we went—which everybody does when they come from North America—to the National Library to try to find our family or clan on the map. I'd spoken to my grandmother about more or less where she thought we're from, and there were two possibilities. I'd already spent some time on the Isle of Skye, one of the possibilities. There was never a question of belonging because of my physical appearance. People would never say, 'Oh, you have some heritage here.' But I felt that heritage from my upbringing, and just being there in Scotland, I began to notice little things that I didn't know where they came from before, but being in Scotland, I was like, 'Ah ok, now I get where these habits come from.'
Will you display The Secretary's Suite somewhere else? And if not, what is coming next for you?
Not so far. The Secretary's Suite is a project that I'd like to continue somehow, maybe more around the idea of gifting more generally. But I am opening a number of group shows this spring. There's a biennial in Limerick, curated by Koyo Kouoh. I'll be showing a work there, A Memory Palace, which is an installation, sound and still, projector images and some objects. I'll also be doing a collective four-person show in Köln at Temporary Gallery, where I'll be showing a work that is more based on a longer-term project. It's a project around the Afro-tunnel that hypothetically would link the African and European continents from Morocco to Spain. It's an engineering project which, of course, up until now has not materialised. I'm also opening a solo show, Ujamaa, at the end of April at a place called La Ferme du Buisson which is an art centre in France, and that will look more at the question of a particular socialism which was developed in Tanzania by the then President Julius Nyerere. It really looks at collective living and collective farming because the country was, and still is, primarily rural and agricultural. Those are the next things coming up. As for The Secretary's Suite itself, no dates to show it per se, but these things end up coming back. It might turn into a lecture performance, for example, or something more ambitious with multiple chapters. It depends on how lucky I am with invitations, I guess ... —[O]