It’s going to take a bit more than that – Interview with Kiluanji Kia Henda

Daniel Peres, Luísa Cardoso, João Gaspar (Galerias Municipais); Kiluanji Kia Henda

[Galerias Municipais]
Most of the works that make up Something Happened on the Way to Heaven were produced during artist residencies in Arles (France) and Sardinia (Italy), the former promoted by the LUMA Foundation, the latter by the MAN Museum in Nuoro, with the support of the Fondazione Sardegna Film Commission. The crisis of the migrants who risk their lives in the Mediterranean Sea is a central issue in several of these works. Some of them highlight how this human calamity is situated between the present day and deep historical roots, recalling how the phenomenon of often forced and violent migration has marked diasporas since ancient times. The desire for this negative reality of the Mediterranean to be reversed, for it to fulfil the myths surrounding it of intercultural exchange and reciprocity, based on the equality and freedom of those who transit it, pervades works from your oeuvre such as The Geometric Ballad of Fear [2019], Migrants Who Don’t Give a Fuck [2019], Melilla Fence – Module IV (Hotel Flamingo) [2019] and Mare Nostrum [2019].
All of this alerts us to age-old symptoms of injustice that remain unresolved. Besides problematizing these issues, what agency can contemporary art enact in the pursuit of effective and urgent change?

[Kiluanji Kia Henda]
Well, first of all, I don’t believe that effective change can come from art. What we can do through art is keep debate alive on a subject that is often forgotten, whether by the mainstream media or by other spaces of discussion. Art has the potential to examine certain phenomena, certain tragedies such as the case of the migration crisis in the Mediterranean Sea, through questions which are not limited to the current crisis but reflect on different temporalities, from a historical perspective but also towards a possible future. And that, for me, is the most important thing, to be able to continue to raise certain issues; to continue to open spaces for reflection on these themes. In the end, though, we know we need more than poetry to develop effective solutions in the face of a crisis like this one.

[GM]
Of course. Perhaps when art is blended with the field of activism, perhaps then its power of agency becomes more “effective”, more “practical”? But “solutions” will always depend on something coming to a head… 

[Kiluanji]
I don’t feel that I am an activist at all. I am fully aware that activism is a serious commitment, and that it depends on mechanisms that are different to those that move the art world. My commitment is to poetry, to metaphor. It is trying to find different readings through language, through different artistic languages. And there are themes that I think are important to address, that create a certain discomfort. Deep down, a lot of what I express are concerns and discontentments that I feel on a more personal, intimate level. But I wouldn’t consider it activism, though it may provide some elements that could be useful for the struggles of activists.

[GM]
An important issue here is the fact that while poetry does not have that “effective” action that we were talking about, it can still play a transformative role, especially on a subjective level. Its effective role works on subjectivity, on people’s mentality even. And in the end, this is a kind of action, an agency of contemporary art.

[Kiluanji]
There is that influence you just mentioned, that moment of social transformation. But sometimes… For a lot of my experience, in my personal history, in the place where I come from, changing a tragic reality required concrete actions. Of course, there will always be poetry as something that inspires, which can create a much broader space for thought than practical discourse. But for me, more concrete attitudes are also necessary, attitudes related to political will. That said, I am aware that we often give vent to a collective feeling in the work we do as artists, which can be seen as a way of activating mentalities, of carrying certain causes forward, but it’s going to take a bit more than that…

[GM]
Like other works of yours, many of the works being exhibited now at the Galeria Avenida da Índia seem to be concerned with something concealed, with the false appearances of reality and history. These works penetrate directly into the visible to uncover “mirages” or hidden truths. In this exhibition, several pieces focus on how Sardinia, a territory of idyllic landscapes but also a highly militarized one, encapsulates a history of disputes, armed conflicts and geostrategic brinkmanship. This duplicity is very salient in photographs such as Bullet Proof Glass – Mappa Mundi (Caprera Island) [2019] and Ludic Island Map [2019]. Can we assume that this desire to “unmask” the real is an almost constant keynote in your work?

[Kiluanji]
Yes, because questioning our reality is important; questioning what we have been taught as the truth when we are confronted with various omissions and silences that make it difficult to have a proper idea of the dimensions of what is real. For me, this concern springs from the history of my country [Angola], a country that went through almost thirty years of civil war, another fourteen years of colonial war, and other processes that were extremely violent, such as slavery and colonisation and forced labour. I think that all these processes of violence create certain silences and omissions, and sometimes it is necessary for us to rethink these facts. This often happens when talking about Angola today, for example, when we realize that several cycles of violence remain open, that they have not been closed, precisely because this debate was always absent. All that history I mention often has an effect on how the Angolan conflict was understood. It was seen as a “tribal war”, even when there were more than ten other countries involved, including the two great powers, the Soviet Union and the United States. Even then some people still called it a “tribal conflict”. So for me, art also serves as a way to be able to address and confront certain narratives that have been presented to us as legitimate. It’s almost like a mission in the various works I’m doing, to have that commitment. But as I say, I am not a historian. I am fascinated by history, but I’m not a historian, and I like the idea of being able to enjoy the freedom that the fields of fiction give me, the freedom of fiction for me is vital. More than trying to create a faithful account of events, for me it’s also important that there’s a way of confronting people with a new reality, as utopian as that might be. Confronting people with utopia is sometimes the only antidote we have left to tolerate the harsh reality we are trying to change. And I think this is always important, because it’s like creating that bridge between past and future, almost like rejecting the present. In the case of this exhibition and these works, the central issue was not to take a simplistic and figurative approach to the tragedy itself, about the lives that are lost every week in the Mediterranean, but to think about what causes it, the different causes behind the tragedy. And sometimes we don’t have that leeway to think more deeply because we are fed information that simply doesn’t give us the scope to rethink global geostrategic politics and their consequences. Art also offers a space that enables us to dissect the time in which we live, in the sense of being able to make those connections. The Mediterranean is spoken of as an emergency and a crisis but it’s been happening for decades. How can you treat something that has been happening for more than two, three decades as an emerging crisis? It’s become more evident now, true, more and more people are trying to cross the sea… But these are the fundamental questions for me: to create this relationship with history, to think about the policies themselves, or the warmongering culture, the western culture of war, and to what extent all of this also influences this tragedy that has been taking place in the Mediterranean.

[GM]
You spoke about fiction and the next question concerns its place in your work. You question narratives that are very Eurocentric, or that reflect discourses filtered through a long Western historiographical tradition […]. Several of your projects interrogate dominant historical and cultural narratives, especially on issues such as racial prejudice, colonialism and its consequences, war and political power, ultimately unveiling the fictional side of historiography and its discourses. In your artistic practice, what role does fiction itself play in denouncing and ironizing the chimeras of history and the way they impact on the present day?

[Kiluanji]
We have to question how the media, which is supposed to be committed to reality and facts, has used fiction. I’ve said for a while now that the biggest competitors to artists nowadays are the journalists, the way they manipulate facts—and how we watch on as they do so. Such as the invasion of Iraq, the fiction that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and then they found a golden Kalashnikov, right? All these narratives, which are deeply manipulated by the media, by journalists, make the work of an artist even more challenging. As for the role of fiction in artistic work, it is legitimate to lie, it is legitimate to fantasize. That is the freedom granted to us as artists. We have to understand that often our commitment is not directly to what is real, to the facts. And this opens up certain pathways that help question things, to use fiction as a means to confront reality itself, to confront certain conflicts we have been experiencing. For me it has been important, in terms of the situation in Africa in particular, because there are certain exercises in temporality that are necessary for progress, and people, in their daily lives, don’t have that freedom, that possibility of projecting the future and accessing the legacy of the past. These are still vital issues. So I see in fiction this possibility to invent possible futures. And of course, it is always an important weapon for emancipation.

[GM]
And the interesting thing is how the fictions of history are unmasked through artistic fiction. There is this paradox of fiction within the field of art as a promoter of truth, the promoter of the questioning of the fictions of official hegemonic, historical discourses… It is a fiction that is unmasking fiction, and perhaps it has always been so. Art is problematic, yes, and it is emancipating, as you said, precisely because it has this power of “lies unmasking lies”, of “fiction unmasking fiction”. Your work seems animated by this idea. And one can also feel in several of your projects that your relationship with the past is not limited to a critical review of “what happened”; rather it’s a relationship with an eye to the future. Because, sometimes, we think it is necessary to “repair history”, and we get trapped in that convulsion, stuck denouncing ad aeternum, trying to repair, but always in a dynamic of the past. And we sometimes forget about the future. Your work pushes that demand for the future and for today, telling us how this exercise has to be done today for the benefit of tomorrow.

[Kiluanji]
That’s it completely. Sometimes there is a certain resistance to us bringing the past back into the debate, putting it back on the table. And this has caused great problems, in the sense that, as with any issue related to reconciliation, to various historical episodes that were extremely violent, the first step is to acknowledge their existence. Only from there can we find a moment of redemption and reconciliation. And we have lived through dangerous moments in which even an event like the Holocaust is questioned. Photography, film cameras and everything already existed at the time, and yet its very existence is still questioned – I think this is extremely dangerous. And of course, using fiction to raise all these questions about these periods, these tragic episodes of humanity, surely, rather than trying to incite violence, hatred, or promote racial hatred, or…—no! It’s to ensure that we don’t repeat the same nonsense in the future. Because I think there is a big problem today in thinking about history. I feel this in Angola: people are very angry about what has happened in the last ten years but deny everything that happened further back in history; things which continue to have an influence on today, but which nobody wants to take the trouble to think about. Nobody wants to think about how much slavery itself and colonisation have influenced what the country is today. Of course, we are more than aware that the corruption scandals that took place are very relevant to the situation today, there was a missed opportunity there. But at the same time, this does not invalidate thinking about those periods of the past, which are actually quite recent – we are talking about a country that has been independent for less than half a century; about a history of slavery that ended a century ago. And I feel that there is no such openness, no will to think about how this has affected and continues to affect society. So all these historical narratives continue to have their influence. Somehow, we still haven’t freed ourselves from them, and we won’t be free of them any time soon.

[GM]
Going back to the exhibition at Galeria Avenida da Índia, and even to the fact that you are bringing your work to Lisbon again, one of the works on show is much older than the others: the series of five photographs Othello’s Fate (Acts I, II, III, IV and V) from 2013, part of the project Self-Portrait As a White Man. With reference to Shakespeare’s Othello (The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice) [c.1603-04], these photographs are driven by an incisive sense of cultural criticism and were taken in one of the iconic ballrooms of the Casa do Alentejo (Alverca Palace), in Lisbon. In the context of this exhibition, this work expands into the city fabric, on posters distributed in train carriages on the Sintra Line. What specific scope do you see for these images in the city of Lisbon, which is where they were photographed and where they are now exhibited in this solo show and in an urban context?

[Kiluanji]
I started working on this series in 2010 in Venice. I was there for six months for an artist residency, and I was really struck by what I saw happening with the presence of the African community in Italy. And from there began my interest in researching that presence in Italian history. It was important, for example, to discover how the construction of the city of Venice involved many enslaved Africans, which they called the “black moors”. There was this concern with trying to interfere with these narratives from the past to talk about the current migration crisis. In my research there were very few references to this presence in the fine arts, for example. There were some sculptures, like the popular sculptures of the “black moor”, but in painting we saw less, and in literature even less again. So for me it was about thinking how an African presence was so important but at the same time so silenced, sort of omitted. I made reference to Shakespeare’s Othello as the source of inspiration for one of the series in the exhibition.

A lot of what I wanted to represent involved bringing individuals from the African community in European cities into palaces – buildings that in many cases were built with enslaved African labour – like I did at the Venice Institute of Science with the picture The Merchant of Venice [2010].

[GM]
Which is another work by Shakespeare that you reference.

[Kiluanji]
So this series at Casa do Alentejo is basically like legitimising the presence of that community on European territory. And of course, for me, this was very much related not only to the issue of physical presence, but also to a cultural, religious and western influence that was “injected” into peoples in the southern hemisphere. Christianity is an example, which functions almost as a system of education, a comprehensive cultural and religious influence. And that’s where the title, Self-Portrait As a White Man, comes from. It’s not exactly a question of “colourism”, but of talking about cultural aspects that are common elements in our education. From there came the idea of exhibiting that piece, Othello’s Fate, and my request for Galerias Municipais to also have those images displayed in public spaces. In several European cities, African communities do not have access to this discourse and to the work that I and other African artists have been doing. If we look at exhibition spaces, museums and visitors, there are still very few people of African origin in cultural spaces. Somehow they don’t feel represented in those structures. I think it’s important for institutions themselves to create mechanisms for greater interaction with these communities, with these minorities. That’s why we came up with the idea of intervening on the trains of the Sintra Line, which is where most of the African community in Lisbon lives. All this has to do with the issue of representativity, which we can see in the image itself – bringing that individual into a palace and all the rest of it –, but also bringing the work itself into a space where there is little interaction with the world of art.

[GM]
You just touched on the issue of religion, of religious education, and this is also related to our last question. Several of the pieces exhibited at Galeria Avenida da Índia bring with them strong premises of spirituality, which are called upon to participate in a reflection on social and political issues. This is very evident in the installation Reliquary of a Shipwrecked Dream[1] [2019] and the new work The Cloak of the Presentation (After Arthur Bispo do Rosário)[2] [2020].
In what way are the magical-religious underpinnings of cultures central to thinking about political and social issues in history and contemporary times? Because it often seems that the question of spirituality and religious culture, on the one hand, all the syncretism that colonialism brought about, for example, that education that was often forced on to people and so on. This is juxtaposed with a discourse on political, social and ideological questions – even when, deep down, the dialogue between the two is so present. These human planes are so united and it seems particularly relevant that you invoke them with such frequency in your work.

[Kiluanji]
As I was working in Italy, I somehow couldn’t avoid the issue of religiosity. We are talking about a country with a whole other country within it, the Vatican, the epicentre of the whole Catholic religion and of Christianity, as we know it in many African countries. When I was in Sardinia, there was something that really caught my attention, related to the paradisiacal aspect of the island, the views, the beaches and the mountains, and that made me think a lot about the issue of the expectations that exist inside the heads of many migrants. Among all the issues I try to discuss in the exhibition, sometimes there is this attempt not to focus simply on the tragedy. As I said before, aspects of politics, global geostrategic and military issues start to emerge, but another thing that is important to talk about is the expectations and the ideas that many Africans create before embarking on this journey. Because nobody crosses a desert and then a sea, risking their own life and the lives of their loved ones, if they don’t have high expectations about the place where they want to go. And I often try to question the way in which this migrant community is dealt with once they arrive at the gates of the old continent, a treatment that clashes completely with certain religious values, preached by the European missionaries themselves during the colonisation period as inalienable values of Christianity; the idea of benevolence and altruism, of accepting the other, of love for one’s neighbour. For me these are issues that I could not avoid when talking about the Mediterranean. The religious issue also becomes important as a cultural factor – religious, but also cultural. And it was from this idea that these pieces emerged, the Reliquary, the Cloak. The Cloak of the Presentation, made from the wool of black sheep, is an allusion to the pejorative and almost always negative sense of the word “black”. And being in Sardinia, where there are more than three million sheep – twice as many as there are people – this question of the paradisiacal landscape came to me. And seeing some black sheep among the white sheep, I decided then to create the cloak. I wanted to use this idea of the “black sheep”, the negative side, the side of rebellion, of anger, and wear this cloak to enter Paradise as a “black sheep”, just like the artist Arthur Bispo do Rosário idealized his moment of entering Paradise and meeting God. The work also went through the process of making the cloak itself, from the hands of a craftsman in Sardinia, and then here in Lisbon, with a group of Angolan women who decorated the Cloak with more than 10,000 beads. I don’t feel that I am a religious person, but I am fully aware that my upbringing had a Christian influence. And it is good that this also becomes part of how we think about the way Europe deals with this emigration crisis.

Kiluanji Kia Henda; The Cloak of the Presentation (After Arthur Bispo do Rosário); 2020; Cloak of black sheep’s wool and coat hanger. ©Teresa Santos
[1] An installation that features a plinth covered in Mediterranean salt displaying a bronze head with the face of the Angolan actor Orlando Sérgio, the first black immigrant actor to star in Shakespeare’s Othello in Lisbon. The sculpture is lit by a single light bulb and presented within an iron fence. The surrounding environment includes a low background noise sometimes punctuated by a melody.

[2] Garment inspired by Manto da Apresentação by Afro-Brazilian artist Arthur Bispo do Rosário (c.1909/11 – 1989), which he designed to present himself before God. It was created in a psychiatric hospital where he lived for about 50 years and to which he was committed partly due to racial prejudice. The cloak by Kia Henda is made of black sheep wool, taking over the connotation associated with this animal to reflect upon racial ostracization. The piece is the result of the collaboration with artisans from Sardinia and is decorated by Angolan women in Lisbon.

Related Jornal

Date
Title
Author
22.12.2020
Is God a Communist?
Ana Sophie Salazar

Related Exhibition

Date
Title
Artists
Curatorship
Gallery
03.11.2020
– 10.01.2021
Something Happened on the Way to Heaven
Kiluanji Kia Henda
Luigi Fassi
Avenida da Índia Gallery