Tenth Anniversary

Best of 2016 – Kapwani Kiwanga: Ujamaa

As we look back over a decade of the best in arts writing, our final selection comes from our communication manager, Jackie Clay: “This year I would estimate that I’ve read nearly 90% of Daily Serving‘s articles from beginning to end. This one stuck with me. As deftly described by Marisol Rodriguez, artist Kapwani Kiwanga’s solo exhibition, Ujamaa was an open-ended, but not opaque love letter to imagining different presents, futures, and the arguable productivity of failed resistance. As many of us gird ourselves for war–real, imagined or metaphorical–Kiwanga’s work and by extension Rodriguez’s review remind us that the path to now wasn’t linear, direct or uncomplicated.” This article was originally published on September 22, 2016.

Kapwani Kiwanga. White Gold: Morogoro, 2016; installation; 236 x 196 x 157 in. Courtesy of La Ferme du Buisson. Photo: Emile Ouroumov.

Kapwani Kiwanga. White Gold: Morogoro, 2016; installation; 236 x 196 x 157 in. Courtesy of La Ferme du Buisson. Photo: Emile Ouroumov.

In a major solo exhibition, Ujamaa, at La Ferme du Buisson in the Parisian suburb of Noisiel, Kapwani Kiwanga addresses Tanzania’s uprisings. Known for using methodologies from the social sciences without being didactic, the artist draws on two significant moments in the history of the eastern African country to remember and question the ideals of pan-Africanism. The first is the 1905 revolt of Kinjeketile Ngwale, who—believing in the magic powers of a herbal potion of his creation called maji-maji, meaning “water of life and immortality”—led the first revolt against colonial rule, known as the Maji Maji Rebellion. The second is Julius Nyerere’s post-independence introduction of a socialist program of collective farming, called ujamaa (a Swahili term for familyhood, extended family, brotherhood).

A monumental installation, White Gold: Morogoro (2016), welcomes the viewer and acts as the show’s contextual and museological heart. The evocative work is composed of a generous amount of sisal suspended from steel strings. Originating from southeast Mexico, the resistant fiber has been successfully cultivated since the late 19th century in the region of present-day Tanzania, once part of the colony of German East Africa.[1] Its production has played a major role in the country’s economy, from the colonial era through independence.

Kapwani Kiwanga. Kinjeketile Suite (detail), 2015–16; installation; variable dimensions. Courtesy of La Ferme du Buisson. Photo: Emile Ouroumov.

Kapwani Kiwanga. Kinjeketile Suite (detail), 2015–16; installation; variable dimensions. Courtesy of La Ferme du Buisson. Photo: Emile Ouroumov.

The installation grounds the artist’s explored narratives in material relations of production; even when Kiwanga refers to alchemy or explores the interplays of politics and culture, specters of exploitation and struggle linger in the background. Next to White Gold: Morogoro, which appears like an innocent white cloud, Kinjeketile Suite (2015–16) occupies two facing rooms in which archival materials related to Nyerere’s efforts are arranged to create symbolic interplays with references to Kinjeketile’s revolution. For instance, photographs of monuments and street murals reminiscent in style of the art that Emory Douglas produced for the Black Panther Party are positioned next to a copy of the Arusha Declaration, in which Nyerere originally presented his policies of self-reliance. In the same room stand twelve pots of castor bean, one of the deadliest plants in the world and an important ingredient of Kinjeketile’s maji-maji.

Invocations of the shaman-turned-national-hero run throughout the exhibition: in the plants he used to create a magic potion that would transform German bullets into water; in the distinctively patterned Kanga fabrics worn to signify tacit support for the Maji Maji rebels; and in the Swahili song that Kiwanga sings (“This man, Kinjeketile, he is courageous! In the mountains he defeated the colonizer!”). The artist’s voice is heard around the ground floor of the exhibition, recounting stories of liberation and unrest, successfully connecting the otherwise awkward architecture while elevating orality over the hegemonic texts of history to keep alive memories of power conflicts.

Kapwani Kiwanga. Uhuru ni Kazi, 2016; video installation. Courtesy of La Ferme du Buisson. Photo: Emile Ouroumov.

Kapwani Kiwanga. Uhuru ni Kazi, 2016; video installation. Courtesy of La Ferme du Buisson. Photo: Emile Ouroumov.

Upstairs, Uhuru ni Kazi (2016)­ offers a fascinating window into the thoughts of regular farmers trying to make sense of ujamaa during Nyerere’s presidency. Here, six short black-and-white films made by Gerald Belkin during the 1960s document discussions and candid exchanges among men, some of whom are reluctant to accept the ujamaa principles (“Everybody likes exploiting—I like exploiting, you like exploiting—everybody!”) while others point to the practical paradoxes that the introduction of development brings to the socialist project: “Do you believe in living together, or do you believe in building an economy?” a young man asks straightforwardly in one of the films.[2] In the background, wallpaper patterned with alternating phrases—“Uhuru ni kazi” (meaning “freedom is work”) and “Uhuru ni jasho” ­(“freedom is sweat”)—creates a clear contrast between these once-official slogans and the substantial complications that come from their application.

Somewhere between idealism and pragmatism stands Ujamaa (2016), a three-channel video installation placed in an adjacent darkened room, where a montage of documentaries produced in 1976 and 1977 by Yves Billon and Jean-François Schiano show smiling women, children, and men plowing the Tanzanian land with melodic rhythm, telling with their physical gestures a story of joy and solidarity beyond the grip of propaganda.

Kapwani Kiwanga. Ujamaa, 2016; video installation. Courtesy of La Ferme du Buisson. Photo: Emile Ouroumov.

Kapwani Kiwanga. Ujamaa, 2016; video installation. Courtesy of La Ferme du Buisson. Photo: Emile Ouroumov.

Kiwanga neither celebrates nor judges the objects of her examinations, and although the works presented rely heavily on archival material, the attention of the artist is clearly on the future, an idea she elegantly conveys in Nursery (2016), which occupies the last room of the show. There, a gallery assistant gracefully explains the plants’ healing and subversive properties and their roles in diverse uprisings around the world and across the ages: some are hallucinogenic, some produce or heal rashes or even provoke abortions. Insisting again on the power of orality (and the lack of it in most museums and galleries), Nursery hints at something growing and perhaps eventually maturing into a renewed rebellion.

Neither Kinjeketile’s revolt nor Nyerere’s regime were entirely successful. The warrior was beheaded in 1905 and his movement crushed in 1907 after heavy human losses, and Tanzania was independent until 1964; the statesman stepped down after twenty-one years in power, having decreased infant mortality, increased life expectancy, and increased literacy to eighty-five percent while failing to achieve any long-term economic stability. Still, the exhibition conveys hope that, as articulated by Franco Berardi, “Revolt against power is necessary even if we may not know how to win.”[3]

Ujamaa will be on view through October 9, 2016.

Notes:

[1] In Mexico, sisal has its own history of political conflict, war, and systematic human exploitation. A history of the haciendas offers an introduction to the industry of sisal (or henequen, “Yucatan’s green gold”): https://www.jstor.org/stable/25119171?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents.

[2] Afrotopia, by the Senegalese economist and thinker Felwine Sarr, provides a current take on the neocolonial weight of development for African countries. Sarr’s views are conveyed in an interview (in French): http://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2016/03/29/l-utopie-africaine-selon-felwine-sarr_4891657_3212.html.

[3] Franco Berardi, Heroes, Mass Murder and Suicide (London: Verso, 2015).

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