The 2016 Armory Show is in full swing, and this year’s Focus section offers an insightful look at contemporary African art with 14 featured, international galleries, curated by Julia Grosse and Yvette Mutumba, founders of the online magazine Contemporary And (C&).
In alignment with the focus on contemporary African art, fair organizers appointed Kapwani Kiwanga as this year’s Armory Artist Commission. Born in Hamilton, Ontario, and based in Paris, Kiwanga explores Afrofuturism, collective memory, anti-colonialism, and popular culture in her work. She approaches these themes using video, sound, and performances, which she often chooses not to document — Kiwanga is more interested in the fleeting and ever-changing nature of moments and living beings.
A preexisting work by the artist, her ongoing Flowers from Africa series, inspired the visual identity of this year’s fair. The series presents recreated floral arrangements found in archival images of ceremonies commemorating the independence of African nations. Kapwani highlights the ephemerality of these floral arrangements by juxtaposing photos of the fresh, recreated bouquets with pictures of the same bouquets two to three weeks later, when they have wilted. An image from this series covers the 2016 Armory Show catalogue, and the yellow, green, and red tones of the flowers are represented on the fair’s signage, maps, and program guides.
For her Armory commission, Kiwanga produced “The Secretary’s Suite,” which is composed of a single-channel video amid a viewing environment. The work was inspired by the 1961 office of the United Nations Secretary General. That year, Dag Hammarskjöld (Sweden), the Secretary General who had served in the position since April 1953, died in a plane crash in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). He had been on a peacekeeping mission to Congo. He was succeeded by U Thant (Burma), who served from November 1961 to December 1971. It was a time of volatile international relations, as the African colonies fought for independence and the war raged between Communism and capitalism.
In the installation, a narrated video plays on loop in front of a green bench. The video examines a range of gifts presented from one international state to another, with historical background on each narrated by Kiwanga in the monotone, somewhat robotic style of an old-fashioned radio reporter. Behind the viewer is a transparent screen printed with a photo of that 1961 Secretary General’s office. To the left side is a table with postcards of some the gifts, all of which are featured in a presentation in the United Nations Art Collection.
One of the postcards shows a wedding dress gifted by Americans in response to the “Merci Train” from France — itself filled with presents, in appreciation of American support after World War II. The dress was intended to be borrowed by brides who could not afford wedding attire. Another postcard portrays a group of 300,000 flowers given from the Netherlands to France in 1923. The most puzzling, to me, was a dagger and sheath gifted from Turkey to Russia. Though it may have been a gesture symbolizing honor, I found it ironic that a dagger would be presented as a gift of goodwill. It’s an example of how ambiguous presents can be based on shifting perceptions.
“In general, I find it interesting to ask at which point people give gifts and create relationships in which we are indebted to someone else,” Kiwanga told Hyperallergic. “We may have romanticized views of these relationships. The gift may seem completely benevolent but then you may want something in return.”
Kiwanga’s anthropological approach to dissecting the backgrounds and implications of political gifts is eye-opening. It begs the question of why we really give gifts to others: out of obligation, generosity, or to gain an advantage in the future? And in doing so, how do we determine what the receiver will appreciate? “The Secretary’s Suite” challenges the viewer to consider this from a political perspective, to understand the potential overlap of personal intentions and international relations.
The 2016 Armory Show continues at Piers 92 and 94 (West 55th Street and Twelfth Avenue, Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan) through March 6.