Kiluanji Kia Henda: Modern Monuments
Kiluanji Kia Henda is an Angolan photographer, performer and multimedia artist who works between Luanda, Angola and Lisbon, Portugal. The colonial history of Angola along with the subsequent Civil War and modernization of its capital, Luanda, is a pertinent narrative of his work. He is the 2017 Freize Artist Award winner, the first African artist to be awarded, and currently has a solo exhibition at Goodman Gallery, Cape Town.
The subjects of his current solo exhibition, are two photographic series titled, In the Days of a Dark Safari and The Last Journey of the Dictator Mussunda N’Zombo Before the Great Extinction. Both series are set against a backdrop of artificial “African scenery,” much like those used in ethnographic displays in natural history museums. Fittingly, the two series explore the contradictory narratives of colonial-era “noble-savagery” and post-colonial populism, both of which the artist claims, “forge artificial images of nature, the hiding place of the state’s violence.” While Kia Hende expresses his condemnation of the colonizer, he is not ready to dismiss the African populist discourse which aims to, “hide the destruction by people who colonize themselves;” the Dictator, Mussunda N’Zombo, is based off of the former president, Mobutu Sese Seko and the series explores the end of dictatorship.
Another series, Redefining the Power, uses performance, photography and video to explore postcolonial identity and challenge the formation of a national consciousness. This series of portraits of some of the artist’s own “cultural heroes,” including a poet and a gay rights activist, posing and performing on the empty pedestals that monuments of Portuguese colonists once occupied. The pedestals, which remained mostly empty, serve as a metaphor, for the artist, of the country’s inability for self-reflection during the violence of the Civil War which spanned from the start of Independence in 1975 to 2002. The intentions of these performances, along with the Rhodes Must Fall movement in South Africa, share some similarities with recent calls in the United States to remove Confederate monuments and flags from public places in order to address the legacy of racism and violence in the country’s history. Many of these actions take on performance qualities, for example, Bree Newsome who was arrested after physically removed a Confederate flag from a flagpole at the South Carolina state capitol prior to a pro-flag rally. Kia Henda’s portraits not only address modern Angolan identity, but the global history intertwined with the country’s formation, from Portugal's colonial presence to the Brazilian slave trade system and the relationships with Russia and the United States during the Cold War, among others. Photography, Kia Henda’s primary medium, was discovered to be “a weapon of intervention and denunciation,” in his efforts to scrutinize Angola from a political, social and personal perspective.
In a recent show at ISCP, the artist’s first solo show in NYC, Kia Henda exhibited A City Called Mirage, a four-channel video installation and three photographic series that examines the conceptual underpinnings of building a city in the desert. He examines the influence that Dubai has had on recent building in Luanda, or “Dubaization,” and the changing landscape of the city. The exhibition also features traditional African Sona drawings, or sand drawings used in oral history, to draw connections to the ephemerality of such efforts of homogenized modernization. The artist states, “I look at those cities like Luanda, with the need to be modern like everywhere else, and think how homogeneity was a violent process that we need to be aware of when we’re discussing things like identity and culture.” Kia Henda’s work examines a hyper self-awareness in Angola’s attempts to construct a national identity, one that is both cognisant of its tumultuous past in a global context and of the ever-evolving possibility of its present reality.