Johannesburg - How should artists be representing Africa? We’re a continent steeped in diversity in not only our people, art and history, but also in our collective memories. Our shared history of colonialism makes such a discussion in art a difficult one to engage with. It’s one that speaks to a shared pain, but also to a shared beauty in the multiplicities of expression on our continent.
For me, Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Henda is someone doing such work. In his first solo exhibition at the Goodman Gallery, he opens with the series In the Dark Days of a Dark Safari. This contentious title is reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness. Like the novel, Henda wants to take us on a perilous trip into the darkest recess of our continent. His title alone suggests a country outside of the light, where those who venture in do so at their own risk.
Yet, within this safari, Henda is guiding us along a path different to the colonial predecessors’. It seeks to break away from their pessimistic view of our continent. What makes this exhibition so poignant is the familiarity within the works. They mimic natural museum displays: paper and plastic trees and grass with painted skies. Under colonialism the museum was used to show just how different (read inferior) those displayed were to “white society”.
Henda’s exhibition is taken from the vantage point where the oppressors are arguing for their imagined supremacy. His work seeks to challenge this narrative by noticeably excluding certain images. In the titular series we see a scene interrupted by figures covered in black shrouds. It’s here that the artist tells the viewer that this exhibition is closed. We see what look like stuffed animals with their horns poking through the veil, no longer available to the public. The viewer is denied the pleasure of engaging in their own colonial wet dreams. Yet the works beg the question of what it means to go through an exhibition that is supposed to be closed yet still exists “post-closure”.
In the series The Last Journey of the Dictator, the safari is back on display with the animals and bush. We are introduced to the image of the dictator. There he stands, in contrast to the natural scenery. His clothes are tailored, his eyes hidden behind shades, he’s holding a cane and gazing into the distance. He stands in stark contrast to the colonial landscape. He is living, while the animals and the backgrounds are stuffed and painted. Yet he participates in the theatre for our viewing pleasure. Standing in front of the animals, gazing through binoculars and, in one scene, lying on the ground with what looks like a crime scene and a river of blackness.
(All images courtesy of Goodman Gallery)
Henda disrupts a legacy but does nothing more. There is no serious challenge to the gaze he perpetuates. The artist only explains a narrative, but does very little to dismantle it. Where is the perspective of those who were colonised?
His works speak only of the coloniser's narrative about the continent, and it’s one that even to this day gets too much attention. Yet his work is also a means by which we as “post-colonised” subjects can better understand ourselves in seeing what we are not.
Henda’s exhibit is on at the Goodman Gallery, Cape Town, until Saturday, 28 October.