It’s almost uncanny to see a museum with its lights turned off. When the dazzle of the lights goes, so does the sense of spectacle: it is as if we are no longer meant to look at the art. But on the fourth floor of the New Museum, the Canadian-born, Paris-based artist Kapwani Kiwanga invites viewers to look with only the quiet glow of natural light seeping in through the skylights. In so doing, she illuminates a nuanced way of seeing race.
Titled Off-Grid, Kiwanga’s exhibition is comprised of two monumental sculptures that offer complementary critiques of sight and visibility. The installation is based on years of the artist’s own research on the politics of light, visibility, and race. While calls to resist the racist mechanisms that erase and make invisible Blackness remain pressing, Kiwanga points to the perniciousness of being seen by connecting “lantern laws,” 18th-century statutes requiring enslaved people to carry lanterns after dark when unaccompanied by a White person, and floodlights used in contemporary police surveillance.
“Cloak” (2022) is a towering sculpture composed of two intersecting parts, both of which are fashioned from aluminum once used to make police floodlights. Kiwanga has seemingly emptied the floodlights of their power, having subjected them to a series of painstaking transformations: melting the aluminum down, shaping it into wires, loading it into a spray gun, and spray painting it onto steel. Though the floodlights are rendered unrecognizable by the artist’s alchemy, their task of surveillance continues to loom large. One of the sculpture’s two parts consists of a beaded partition, a device that simultaneously conceals and reveals what’s on the other side; any effort to hide behind it only heightens a person’s awareness of their partial visibility. The sense of being watched is redoubled by the other part of the sculpture, where a zigzagging pattern of mirrors coaxes you to confront your own reflection. Though the sculpture is titled “Cloak,” nothing can hide underneath it.
On the opposite side of the room, “Maya Bantu” (2019) beckons with the possibility of opacity, a welcome retort to the cool transparency of “Cloak.” The labyrinthine sculpture is made from sisal fiber, a plant Kiwanga began to research after she was introduced to it at plantations in Tanzania. Sisal is indigenous to Mexico, but German colonizers brought it to Tanzania in the 19th century. Despite the insidious histories that underlay the material, “Maya Bantu” feels like an embrace, a shroud that protects against an intrusive gaze. In the dense folds of its wooly and light absorbent-texture, secrecy seems possible.
The exhibition’s title, Off-Grid, can be interpreted in multiple overlapping ways. It hints at the absence of electric illumination. It also alludes to the artist’s practice of removing materials from the power structures — both physical and political — that they usually require to function. But most of all, Kiwanga’s exhibition reflects a yearning for a way of being that is off the grid: a fugitive life where people — in particular those of us who are racially othered — can slip beneath the glaring gaze of authority.
Kapwani Kiwanga: Off-Grid continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through October 16. The exhibition was curated by Massimiliano Gioni, Edlis Neeson Artistic Director at the New Museum, and Madeline Weisburg, curatorial assistant.