Kapwani Kiwanga’s recent exhibition featured three installations and a hanging cloth work—all addressing strategies of resistance, from historical slavery to the American civil rights era, to today’s anti-racist movements and demonstrations. Botany played an unexpected, and key, role in all but one of these new works, as Kiwanga drew out the histories of various plants smuggled into America by enslaved Africans. Medication (and poison), subsistence, and self-protection, these plants became witnesses to human events, and even protagonists, their associations and uses coalescing in protest. The works visually and aurally pulled viewers in, while insightful wall texts provided nuanced context.
Seed bank (2020), consisting of woven wool and glazed ceramic forms based on seeds, referenced histories of exploitation and the slave-based textile industry. It also introduced Kiwanga’s theme of the “opacity of resistance.” The theorist Édouard Glissant discusses opacity as denying to be visible, understood, or categorized; African American writer Saidiya Hartman takes the concept further, identifying opacity as obscurity and calling for “the right of obscurity to be respected.” Kiwanga’s work seeks to construct “a symbolic and literal place for facilitating the right to opacity.” This proposition actively resists visibility, control, domination, and classification—ideas that have enabled systems of oppression, as well as Western science, including the field of botany. Resistance through plants doubles as resistance to the “structures of racial enclosure.”
In The Marias (2020), Kiwanga exhibited two paper plant sculptures on matching bright yellow plinths in a bright yellow room. Within the predominantly yellow space, the greens and oranges of the small plant forms optically popped in contrast and isolation. The strong visuals, however, only began to hint at the intensity of the piece, which was elucidated by the wall text: “The botanical story of slavery and the plants that were brought to the ‘New World’ by Africans and their captors, is one way to trace acts of resistance during the transatlantic slave trade…Women were even more vulnerable than men, not only to abduction from their homeland, but also to rape and torture.” It turns out that Kiwanga’s two plant forms are based on different stages of the peacock flower, an abortifacient.
Semence (Seed, 2020) unnervingly constrained its content within the confines of a Modernist grid. Small groups of glazed ceramic pieces based on African rice were positioned in rows of small, equidistant groups on a 360-by-360-centimeter plinth just above the floor. As the text explains: “There are many testimonies about how those kidnapped from the African continent and sold as slaves carried on them during the long and violent crossing of the Atlantic their heritage and sustenance in the form of seeds and plants. Testimonies describe how people hid grains of rice in their hair, transporting them to other continents—mainly America—proof of how the transatlantic slave trade has also changed the biodiversity of the locus of colonialism.”
One word could describe a first impression of the last installation: gray. The cloth panels on three sides of the large room were gray; the curtains were the same color. At first, the experience of *@!!?*@! (2020), a two-channel sound installation, seemed underwhelming, particularly in its visual aspects. But soon the sound took over, and with it, the emotion. The otherwise muted and darkened surroundings intensified that emotion even more. Kiwanga used a new arrangement of “Mississippi Goddam,” by Nina Simone, performed by musicians who had studied in Rotterdam. This protest song was first recorded in 1963 after four Black girls were killed by white supremacists in a dynamite blast at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Wanting to bridge past and present acts of resistance, Kiwanga created an encounter that began in doubt and ended in a too-rare experience of awe and empathy.
The show’s venue, formerly known as the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, was renamed during the exhibition run. Witte de With referred not only to the street address of the art center, Witte de Withstraat, but also to a Dutch colonialist figure. Kunstinstituut Melly, in contrast, adopts the name of Ken Lum’s female, working-class “anti-hero” in Melly Shum hates her job (1990), which is permanently installed on the building’s façade.