Something Happened on the Way to Heaven

An Exhibition by Kiluanji Kia Henda
Curated by Luigi Fassi at Galeria Municipais-
Galeria Avenida Da India in Lisbon Portugal
03. 11 2020 – 10. 01 2021

Last week I was in Lisbon for some brainstorming sessions with Kiluanji as we are working together on a project for 2021, and I was serendipitously present for the opening of his solo exhibition Something Happened on the Way to Heaven.

Kiluanji Kia Henda’s solo exhibition curated by Luigi Fassi is comprised of works predominantly executed in 2019. This eclectic and consistent group of works maintains a dynamic flow that investigates subjects in the regions that Kiluanji is generally known to mine:

Here he invites us to reflect on diverse subjects such as migration, beauty and a re-examination of the Cold War from a no-holds-barred Angolan perspective.

The exhibition is a well thought out cartographic exercise that connects the dots between the two continents of Africa and Europe. In the case of Angola, the historical connection stretches as far back as 1483. Kiluanji collapses that gap to our present 2020s by presenting the centuries-old-subject of human migrations, both forced, as in enslavement and volunteered, as in the current quest for economical stability. In both cases the ocean is the carrier and we are duly reminded that both modes of migration have tallied drastic death tolls. The exhibition addresses the obduracies and weight of disenfranchisement and racial tensions, with a succinctly balanced dose of trickster humour, as in his tongue-in-cheek Migrants Who Don’t Give A Fuck. This work is a six panel suite of enlarged vintage post cards of pink flamingoes, un-seasonal birds who migrate without restrictions wherever and whenever they so desire, unlike the draconian regulations imposed on humans by national governments.

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Migrants Who Don’t Give A Fuck, 2019. Photo: care of the artist

The panels are installed in tandem with another work titled Mellila Fence- Module IV (Hotel Flamingo) which, we are informed, is similar to the fence that surrounds the community of Melila, a Spanish enclave on Moroccan soil and a highly militarised transitional territory that is a coveted point of entry into the European Union for African migrants. This installation structurally resembles a claustrophobic maize of cages and critiques the oft illegal and violent incarceration compounds for African migrants in Europe, from Calais to Athens and else where. This work immediately brings to mind the history of mass incarceration of Black people from Plantations throughout the Caribbean basin and the Americas. Twenty-five percent of the worlds prison population is in the United States. The percentage of incarcerated African Americans to date, is higher than the enslavement period.

Hotel Flamingo, 2019. Photo: care of the artist

Othello’s Fate, part of the Self Portrait as a White Man series, is five large scale photographs executed in 2013. These works unpack the complex subject of Africans in Europe and vice versa, with Venice as the European historical location in which the series was photographed. To quote Kiluanji,  “This series is an attempt to rediscover myself as a White man to rediscover the traces of western legacy that had marked Africa and what of Africa had marked Europe in this ancient relationship.”[1]

A Black man is pictured in various poses; one exudes supreme knowledge; another captures a calm luxurious pose as a classic, reclining nude trope; another lays stomach down on five tables exuding motionless subjugation. The series is viscerally layered and comments on various roles the Black body has and is still compelled to endure. Subjects such as disembodiment, Black racial role reversal, racial profiling and police brutality, and the ongoing state of affairs of being an African person in an ever-escalating and extreme right wing Europe.

Othello’s Fate, 2013. Photo: care of the artist
Othello’s Fate, 2013. Photo: care of the artist

The Cloak of the Presentation (According to Arthur Bispo do Rosario) is a work that encapsulates multiple narratives. Initially this work is inspired by The Sacred Cloak a work that self-taught Brazilian artist Arthur Bispo do Rosario (1909-1989) executed for the day of his death, believing it would ensure him entry into heaven and facilitate a meeting with God. For this particular work four black sheep were sacrificed on a farm in Sardinia. The actual cloak was produced by local artisans. Angolan women in Lisbon did a wonderful job of adding over 10,000 beads to the black wool cloak. Installed in the exhibition, it is draped in a majestic manner and holds court on its palette plinth. The cloak is a loaded object of attire and,  in the case of The Cloak of the Presentation as an art object, is both epistemologically and spiritually highly charged. In this particular iteration it is a motionless, statuesque garment sans persona, yet in its broody stillness, it vibrates. I would say it almost haunts the viewer, reminiscent of African and European ecclesiastical dignitaries ritualistic paraphernalia, which are ambiguously both positive and negative. It is a frequent costume accessory for super heroes, and is often adopted in Transnational African Diaspora carnivals, Mardi Gras and various music cultures. Noteworthy in the latter trope are Jazz giant Duke Ellington and the King of Soul, James Brown with his famous on stage cape routine.

The Cloak of the Presentation, 2019. Photo: Satch Hoyt

Kiluandji was, and to all intents and purposes still is, at heart a musician. His research-based practice resonates on multiple sonic levels encompassing his individual Angolan African experience and his Portuguese European experience. His comprehension of the socio-political narratives played out on the ever-evolving Transnational African Diasporian stage, both past and present, is refreshingly investigated and present in this solo exhibition, Something Happened on the Way to Heaven during this current Pandemic time.

To give my Brother further props Kiluanji’s work Plantation-Prosperity and Nightmare was recently selected for the construction of a memorial to the enslaved Africans of Portugal’s extremely long and traumatic colonial narrative. The memorial, which is comprised of 540 black metal sugar canes, will be placed on a site in Lisbon that overlooks the Atlantic. Last week whilst in Lisbon he showed me the site and took time to confer his ever-expanding, progressive vision.

[1] Kiluanji Kia Henda, Travelling to the Sun through the Night, Steidl, Goethe- Institut,  p. 102

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