Canadian-born Kapwani Kiwanga was the Commissioned Artist for this year’s Armory Show in New York. Her on-site installation, The Secretary’s Suite, is an interactive installation that investigates the complexities of gift economies. The artist’s visit to the United Nations’ art collection last year inspired the piece.
The Secretary’s Suite is composed of a single-channel video and a viewing environment inspired by the 1961 office of the United Nations Secretary General. Through the installation, Kiwanga played with concepts of fact and fiction to explore the practice of gift giving found in popular culture, religious ritual, and global relations.
Kiwanga was born 1978 in Hamilton, Ontario and is now based in Paris. Trained as an anthropologist and social scientist, her unconventional artistic practice is characterised by the idea of herself as a ‘researcher’ in her own projects. Her varied practice takes the form of videos, sound and performance.
Research areas that have informed her practice include Afrofuturism, the anti-colonial struggle, collective memory, belief systems, vernacular and popular culture. The artist’s work is characterised by a documentary mode of representation, which she combines with various material sources, and testimonies.
In one of her best-known works, the Afrogalactica trilogy project (2011 – ongoing), she assumes the role of an anthropologist from the future who explores across vast fields of knowledge relating to Afrofuturism, hybrid genders and African astronomy. The Kurios spoke to the artist about her most recent work and her artistic practice in general.
What inspired The Secretary’s Suite?
Usually in my work I do something that is linked to the space I’m invited to work in. I’m interested in doing “field work” on the ground. Also my work isn’t really medium-specific.
When I visited the UN I was really taken by the display of gifts, of artistic gestures made on the part of a country to the UN. That started a kind of snowball effect into larger questions of what it is to give and receive and link us together in ways which are of course sometimes completely altruistic but often are ways in which we almost engage obligation through someone else to create social ties.
Some of your work like the Afrogalactica trilogy is on-going. Is The Secretary’s Suite likely to continue?
I seem to work in projects so there are things that I like to build upon in chapters, and I researched a lot for this project so there’s the strong possibility that it could continue.
It has been said that belief informs your work. How so?
Belief is something that motivates my work a lot but belief in a larger sense – political, ideological, spiritual and religious as well. This anthropological foundation also is often present – often in methodology, in terms of reading articles and books.
What was your journey to becoming an artist?
I knew that I wasn’t going to be an anthropologist quite quickly before I finished my studies but I was still really interested in the subject.
I moved to the UK and was doing work in television – working in documentaries – because I was interested in it being a more accessible terrain than academia for example, but that felt a bit too constraining for me because there’s a format for television of course, time-wise but also because you have a lot of people involved in the final edits.
So that wasn’t really something that I was comfortable with in terms of the work that I had done and I started looking into different places in which I could express and transmit my ideas, and contemporary art seemed to be the place.
I came to France and I did a postgraduate programme here then I followed on with another postgraduate programme, and it became clear that this is how I like to work.
A lot of your work seems concerned with African themes? Is that because of your African heritage?
Africa and the diaspora come up a lot in my work, simply because I think that it’s an area geographically, historically that is very, very rich and has these resources of things to explore, which I haven’t seen in discussions enough.
African heritage plays into it, but I think it’s more one’s upbringing. I grew up in Canada where it’s a very multicultural society. I was lucky enough to have very close friends who are from Africa but also different parts of Asia so I think it’s also this multicultural mix that influences my work and this idea that there are multiple perspectives – not just one way of doing things.
Photo: Kapwani Kiwanga photographed for the Armory Show, 2016. Photo courtesy of Brunswick Arts.