News & Ideas

Informed by the Archives

Photo of Kiwanga Kapwani
Photo by Tony Rinaldo

When deciding the direction of new works, the artist Kapwani Kiwanga lets the past speak to her.

Kapwani Kiwanga, a Canadian and French visual and conceptual artist, seamlessly blends rigorous research with diverse artistic mediums to shed light on marginalized narratives and forgotten histories. With a background in anthropology and comparative religion from McGill University in Montreal, as well as training in art from Beaux-Arts de Paris, Kiwanga has cultivated a unique artistic language. Driven by a profound curiosity about the world and its origins, her work delves into such diverse domains as legal documents, natural history, and archival data, a multidisciplinary approach that seeks to unravel the complexities of our existence as a society and understand the factors that shaped it.

“You can read about one thing,” she said in her interview, “but experiencing that in a physical way (through different forms of art) could have a different effect.”

Kiwanga’s artistic process generates unique insights and perspectives. Her ideas materialize from this exploration, giving rise to fresh and innovative forms and expressions—from her series Afrogalactica, which delved into gender, race, and Afrofuturism, to Flowers for Africa, in which she recreates floral sculptures to activate and reinterpret moments of independence. Through her practice, Kiwanga continues to interrogate culture, society, and power and the intersection of nature and human history to challenge traditional construction.

Kiwanga’s commitment to the field has earned her recognition and numerous prestigious awards, including the 2022 Zurich Art Prize and the 2020 Marcel Duchamp Prize, among many others. She is also the 2022–2023 Elizabeth S. and Richard M. Cashin Fellow at Radcliffe, where she has delved into a fascinating project focused on botany, legislation, and historic files documenting cases of poisoning. Through her research, Kiwanga explores the complex of power imbalances and seeks to uncover narratives of liberation within unjust structures.

Kiwanga’s practice challenges conventional boundaries and invites viewers to contemplate the intricate relationships among nature, history, and human interactions. Through her artistic endeavors, she offers thought-provoking insights into the complex tapestry of our world and encourages us to question the foundation upon which our societies are built.

Radcliffe Magazine: How did your early engagement with anthropology shape your current path and inspire your chosen field? Was it always part of your plan to explore alternative forms of intelligence beyond traditional academic methods?

Kapwani Kiwanga: I suppose it was just really about trying to think about different ways of feeling and understanding information. You can write essays and write papers, and that’s one way to understand our world. But I thought I wanted to spark other types of intelligence and open different ways of understanding a topic.

What I hope my work is doing or contributing is complexifying and enriching different conversations and allowing a broader view of history and our present time. This as opposed to relying on the dominant, hegemonic narratives and seeing the world through that lens. The world that is given visibility and that some people live and talk about is not necessarily the reality that other people live. I hope to broaden discourse and visions on histories and societies.

RM: Can you describe your artistic process when creating your artwork? You have done plenty of pieces on forgotten histories. What approach do you take to emphasize these narratives in your work?

KK: It really starts with conservations, or a newspaper article that just grabs my attention. [It’s usually about] things that speak about the moment we are in now as a society. That’s how it starts. Then depending on what the question is, I look into information from different archives and disciplines and understand how we were led to where we are now.

What I often do is to also try to imagine different ways of being, either very near or maybe far off into the future, in which we can shift how we relate to one another or to the environment. I meet with experts, get a sense of the core of their research (that relates to my interest), and translate all this information and represent it in a different way to the public through art.

RM: How do you navigate the variety of artistic mediums available to you to effectively convey your intended messages? Can you discuss your decision-making process when choosing an art form for a particular project?

KK: The material will come out from the research. That is why with this [Radcliffe] project, the plants [I will feature] will come out of the archive or the historic document, and I will identify which ones I would like to work with. The historic archive will put in place a zone of thinking. Within that, a material will emerge, and it will determine what my project can be. Its characteristics—what it is used for and what can be done with it—will inform and shape the final product. It can be a video; it can be a sculpture; it can be a pigment. And I can always use other parts of the material for another project.

With The Marias (2020), a precursor to her current work seen here in an installation view, Kiwanga used paper copies of the peacock flower (Caesalpinia pulcherrima) to highlight a natural abortifacient. At a time when Victorian women in Europe were making paper flowers as a pastime, abducted and enslaved African women were using flowers as a form of embodied resistance. © 2023 Artists Rights Society, New York/ADAGP, Paris. Photo by Kristien Daem

RM: It sounds like a laborious process that requires an added layer of technical skill—doing the research first and then trying to come up with what to do with the materials after. Where do you get the patience and endurance, not just to conduct archival review but also to learn how to work with the pieces and develop them into a project?

KK: It’s a lot of teamwork. I know a little bit about everything, but I don’t have all the skill sets. Collaborating with experts in one domain has been very helpful.

But the endurance and the tediousness of it—I believe it’s similar with anyone who does research. It’s just that my outcome is making artwork. There’s something I must like about the rigor if it still pulls me in. It’s satisfying when the form, the shape, and the material balance well with the concept and themes you’re working on. When you let the material guide you and you allow yourself to be flexible about what’s going to come out instead of predetermining what it must be, it’s always surprising and interesting. You don’t always know what you’re going to get, but it’s rewarding to not have to do the same thing twice. That I do appreciate.

RM: What has been most challenging for you, especially in this particular project?

KK: I think being such a novice in research in legal databases was a challenge. Had I studied law, I would have gone deeper. It is frustrating because sometimes you want to go quicker than what your competence or skills will allow you to. But having accepted that I can be a novice in something is fine. It pushes me to maximize the resources [here at Radcliffe], meet with librarians and experts, and nourish myself with as much information and material. And when the time is right, I formulate and produce something physical out of that, find space to be a bit messier, and get into the nitty gritty of it.

RM: How do you determine the completion of your projects, and what indicators do you use to gauge success in your work?

KK: My projects are never really finished. There are a lot of chapters to [the work]. I also think there is always a part of you that’s never completely satisfied with the work that you do. But there is a moment where I think the shape or form informs what you’re trying to do. Achieving that balance and seeing that the audience resonates with them, through observing how they move in space and how it’s touching them in a profound way, is something you always hope for. That slight shifting or opening, without saying the perspective has to go a particular way. It’s not always speakable, but you can feel it. When that happens, that’s when I consider it successful.

RM: How can you inspire and empower young artists, or artists at any stage of their career, to embrace experimentation and embrace the unpredictable aspects of their creative process?

KK: In retrospect, it’s really giving yourself the time and space to develop. Your person develops over time. You become yourself little by little.

It’s the same with one’s artistic language. Make bad artworks. Make artworks that are unsuccessful and ones that you don’t like. Not needing perfection and resolution all the time but being able to stick to a process and to care and believe enough in your voice in the larger conversation then refine that little by little,—that takes time, but there’s nothing else to be done but to do.

This conversation was edited and condensed.

Janine Robredo is a practicing medical doctor, a master’s candidate in global health delivery at
Harvard Medical School, and an editorial intern at Harvard Radcliffe Institute.

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