To look at Kapwani Kiwanga’s work is to become an accomplice. Whether you bathe in the foggy hues of pink-blue, 2017, or peer through the reflecting slats of Jalousie, 2018, you are drawn into the culpability of aesthetics itself. Every shade and form is steeped in histories of discipline and colonialism. An innocent encounter becomes a reckoning, not in the sense of a judgment but in the weighing of competing stories. How insistent is the history in a given form? Which have we unwittingly internalized or rendered silent? Is there a thread of liberation and resistance to be found as well? We can’t escape history, Kiwanga’s work insists, but we can recuperate its forms.
It is thus appropriate that Kiwanga’s “new work” opened on September 20, 2020, at the institute formerly known as Witte de With in Rotterdam, then acting under its interim name, FKA (“formerly known as”). The artist’s practice parallels the institution’s current examination of its own culpability. Kiwanga presented an audio remix and replicas of innocuous objects harbouring histories of colonial violence. Though her generic title might seem casually dismissive, evoking commercial gallery connotations for those to whom such naming is commonplace, in this case it mirrored the liminal state of the venue, which, on June 27, 2020, dropped its name in a public acknowledgment of its identity crisis. Originally named after the street on which it stands, the institution was, in 2017, confronted with an open letter questioning its unmindful designation. The street, after all, is named after a 17th-century naval officer, later captain, finally promoted admiral who took an active part in colonial wars and the slave trade. How can this be reconciled with the museum’s mission? ask the writers of the letter. In this context, empty titles like FKA and new work bear a paradoxical weight. They act like gags that lodge an inevitable burden on all names, words, even syllables. These tentative labels emphasize that all of us who live in global cultures—which is to say, each and every one of us—have to find new vocabularies through which we can communicate not only with each other but also with ourselves.
On January 27, 2021, after a process of extensive community consultation, Witte de With formally rechristened itself as Kunstinstituut Melly. Under its new moniker, which refers back to the permanent billboard Melly Shum Hates Her Job, 1989, that Ken Lum made for the museum’s inauguration in 1990, the venue is set to, in its own words, “intrepidly” comment on “our shared cultural predicament.” While this is perhaps a welcome, if presumptuously worded, gesture, it does beg the questions: To what extent can a museum, itself grounded as a national and colonial tool, be decolonized, and what does this mean in a European context? As stated in the letter, penned by Egbert Alejandro Martina and four colleagues, but co-signed by many more, cultural institutions have become “increasingly adept at using the critical language and concepts developed by Black and non-Black people of colour to fortify and maintain their own position of power.” Decolonization is not simply a matter of sharing power but of dismantling the hierarchical structures that inhibit a polyvocal society while paying symbolic lip service to it.
That an institution could be progressive in spirit but in practice maintain the status quo is a position with which Kiwanga is familiar. She studied anthropology, which, as she notes in a 2018 frieze interview, “is a partner of colonialism—an enabler or forerunner of colonialism—but it was also a place where I could get closer to people and histories that were of interest to me.” In this sense Kiwanga is an optimist. She believes that airing “less-heard histories” can “circumnavigate certain structures which are not healthy for an individual or for a community.” Arguably, she does more than circumnavigate. She engages these histories head on. Take one of her pieces in “new work.” @!!?@!@!!?@!, 2020, a two-channel sound installation, is a minimal and melancholy rearrangement of Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam.” The paradoxically upbeat original was written just a few hours after the 1963 bombing of an African-American Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, which resulted in the death of four girls, none older than 14. The title of Kiwanga’s piece refers to the censorship of the song due to the word “Goddam.” Either radio stations refused to play it or bleeped out the offensive term. Kiwanga’s version, performed by musicians connected to Rotterdam, alludes to the fetter of language itself. The subjects of colonialism often lost their native tongues and were forced to find themselves through the voice of their oppressor. @!!?@!@!!?@! lacks a human voice; it is a purely instrumental version. Its tones are solemn, warped and ominous. Its voicelessness traces back to the crux of the problem, which is that the legacy of inherited colonial structures simply cannot be circumnavigated.
In The Marias, 2020, Kiwanga commissioned Anouk Böhmer, a local Rotterdam “paper flower artist,” whose works are more at home at weddings than in exhibition halls, to reproduce the peacock flower in two of its growing phases. The graceful but toxic plant was once used as an abortifacient by enslaved African women in the US. Its ingestion was one of their few means of resistance against the exploitation of their bodies and that of their possible children. At Kunstinstituut Melly the flowers are presented in a bright yellow room on two tearshaped pedestals. The atmosphere wavers between sensory overload and a minimal luxury boutique—it both overwhelms and entices. The layers in the work are manifold: Who and what belong in a museum? To what extent is our appreciation of Böhmer’s craft grounded in and elevated through the institution? After institutional critique was absorbed by the museum, can an artwork still challenge and change the institution’s role?
In his book The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics, British sociologist Tony Bennett writes that museum artifacts become facsimiles of themselves, a phenomenon that can be extended to non-collecting institutions. Exhibited objects do not fulfill a function, they represent it and, depending on how they are displayed, redefine it. Kiwanga takes advantage of this effect in the hope of endowing things with weight but also with flexibility. In many interviews she highlights the importance of agency, and she seems to understand the museum as a place where agency can be fostered. This is also the hope of Kunstinstituut Melly, which has symbolically taken responsibility for its own agency within a history to which it was previously blind. Though Bennett believes art is always institutionally complicit, perhaps a change at the institutional level can make the barriers between the inside and outside more porous, both for art and for the museum. Agency, after all, is not just what the museum can foster in the viewer but, as recent events are showing, is also what the viewer can offer back. ❚
“new work” was exhibited at Kunstinstituut Melly, Rotterdam, from September 20, 2020, to March 21, 2021.
Dagmara Genda is an artist and writer living in Berlin.