PARIS — Though Frieze London was only a few short weeks away and Kapwani Kiwanga still had tweaking to do on some of her works that would be featured there, she bounded into a cafe near the Bibliothèque Nationale de France with a vivacious smile and relaxed demeanor.
But the almost instant impression upon meeting Ms. Kiwanga, 41, an Ontario-born Paris-based artist — who last year won the inaugural Frieze Artist Award in New York — is that little seems to get her riled up, anyway.
“It is busy now, getting everything out there in time,” she said with a chuckle when describing a sculpture edition project she was working on for the German-based African art magazine Contemporary And (C&) that will be displayed at the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, an off-Frieze event at London’s Somerset House. “I am like, ‘It is coming, it is on its way.’”
Ms. Kiwanga’s work will also be shown at Frieze by two galleries — South Africa’s Goodman Gallery and the Berlin-based Galerie Tanja Wagner. At Goodman, her works will include “Desire Paths: District Six” and “Desire Paths: Langa,” both done on printed cotton fabric and steel mesh, that are conceptual pieces based on aerial photographs of townships taken during the apartheid era highlighting the shortcuts that residents used to travel across their districts.
During Frieze, Goodman will also be opening its new London outpost, and Ms. Kiwanga’s “Rumours That Maji Was a Lie” (2014) will be part of the group show “I’ve Grown Roses in This Garden of Mine.” That work by Ms. Kiwanga — who will participate in a number of group shows this fall, including in Barcelona, Spain; Paris; Toronto; and Rabat, Morocco — looks at the colonial resistance during Tanzania’s Maji Maji War from 1905 to 1907. The piece, based on ubiquitous shelving units found in storage spaces at ethnographic museums, holds reproduced amulets that were taken out of the country; there are also video and sound components. Liza Essers, the owner and director of Goodman, said that Ms. Kiwanga’s work was “socially engaging without being didactic and is quietly very visually compelling.”
Galerie Tanja Wagner will also be showing several works by Ms. Kiwanga that were part of her show “Safe Passage” at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology earlier this year. “Greenbook (1961)” is a series of framed pieces of paper on a green background that display typed addresses of restaurants, motels and gas stations that were deemed safe for African-American travelers during the time of the Jim Crow laws.
“Glow,” newly made for Frieze, features three sculptures of human height with an LED light source. That installation is based on the 1713 law enacted in New York City titled A Law for Regulating Negro and Indian Slaves in the Night Time, requiring black and indigenous slaves to carry torches after dark if a white person did not accompany them.
“She is touching on very relevant topics in our society today,” said Ms. Wagner, who met Ms. Kiwanga in Rio de Janeiro in 2014. “There is never a sense of knowing better or a sense of hierarchy in her work. She is opening up a dialogue and creating an exchange that leads to a new perspective that is very inspiring.”
Ms. Kiwanga did not initially set out to be an artist when she was studying for her degree in anthropology and comparative religions at McGill University in Montreal. Academia was of interest, but she found it to be too constricting, so she headed to Britain to work in experimental filmmaking.“But it did not respond to the rigor and interest and complexity of storytelling I wanted to tell,” she said. “So I thought, ‘That is not going to work for me, so let’s see what else I can do.’ And I felt like perhaps art could do that.”
She spent two years doing postgraduate work at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and two more years at Le Fresnoy, a French art and audiovisual research center. It was in her second year in that program where her research skills came back into play, and that cemented what kind of work she wanted to do.
“I am interested in pedaling back and saying, ‘O.K., we all know where we are now more or less; we do not know where we are going in the future, but also do not always know how we got where we are now,” she said. “So for me to be able to ask questions and try and share with others is quite rewarding. So that is how I see what I do.”
Inspiration for projects, she said, comes from a variety of things. “It is really questioning what I see around me or what I am reading,” she said, “often about the asymmetries of power and questions of resistance, which is often implicated in these works.”
Hans-Ulrich Obrist, the artistic director of Serpentine Galleries in London, which showed her “Flowers for Africa” installation at a group show this year, said that there were many dimensions to her work.“Anthropology, history, science, research, writing, poetry,” he said. “Her incredible curiosity to connect disciplines, the link to Afrofuturism, sci-fi and anti-colonialism, yet at the same time the incredibly precise way of finding forms to channel these many fields seems always urgent and surprising.”
But her works also have a very strong aesthetic appeal, creating an easy entry point for viewers who may not be well versed in some of Ms. Kiwanga’s headier topics.
“She is interested in histories that are not as well known, that are smaller narratives,” said Yvette Mutumba, editor in chief of C&. “It is one thing to work with archival materials to somehow show that, but actually to also put that into a work that feels very contemporary at the same time is very interesting.”
Photo 1: Kapwani Kiwanga courtesy Goodman Gallery
Photo 2: Kapwani Kiwanga/Galerie Tanja Wagner, Berlin; Photo by Peter Harris Studio