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Canadian artist Kapwani Kiwanga won the 2020 Marcel Duchamp Prize.Manuel Braun/Handout

When Kapwani Kiwanga won France’s top art prize this month, it was another feather in a well-decorated cap. Canada had already decided she was the country’s best young artist when she was awarded the Sobey Art Award in 2018, and in the same year she won the inaugural award that Frieze, the art fair in New York and London, now bestows annually on an international emerging artist.

Her deceptively simple installations of billowing curtains, false walls or fading flowers pry small openings into colonial and authoritarian histories. Both poetic and political, these works are in high demand from New York to London to Paris, where she lives, to Munich. As soon as she had finished installing the exhibition associated with the Prix Marcel Duchamp, France’s answer to Britain’s Turner Prize, she began working on a project in Munich at the Haus der Kunst. The contemporary art centre has chosen to feature her as part of Germany’s Canadian cultural push in 2020, the year that Canada had been scheduled to be guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair. The young woman with an African name who grew up in Brantford, Ont. is now the world’s rising art star.

Those international juxtapositions seem unlikely – Africa, Southern Ontario and Paris – but perhaps they best explain Kiwanga’s steady rise.

“I’m an outsider all the time,” she said in a phone call from Paris. “It’s not a negative thing, it’s about being detached … to be able to look at things anew, a fresh look.”

Kiwanga uses that observational perspective to drive her art. She was born in Hamilton, Ont., and her ancestry is part Tanzanian – that’s where her father was born – and part Scottish. Her family moved to nearby Brantford when she was still in grade school and as a teenager there she noted the misunderstandings, the complexities and the vibrancy created by the presence of the neighbouring Six Nations. Today, in her adopted home, she is also aware of cultural tensions in Paris, relishing the city’s commitment to the arts yet deploring its inequities.

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Kiwanga's Flowers for Africa, installed at Paris's Centre Pompidou, won her the Duchamp prize.Handout

Often her work deals with postcolonialism: her contribution to the Duchamp exhibition is a gorgeous selection from her Flowers for Africa series, which reproduces the floral arrangements from key moments in African independence. Other times she probes cultural collisions or coercive systems. Her work in the Sobey Award exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, an architectural installation featuring a false wall and painted panels, is part of a project that investigated the wall colours and lighting that are supposed to calm and control inmates in prisons.

“She’s referring to complex systems in a subtle way but the work is formal too, very beautiful,” said curator November Paynter, the juror who nominated Kiwanga to represent Ontario in the Sobey competition. “She’s not trying to correct the past, but expose moments to think anew as we move forward.”

At New York’s Armory Show in 2016, Kiwanga produced an installation that included a video in which she enacted a fictionalized anthropological investigation of diplomatic gift-giving through history. It was inspired by an archival photograph of Dag Hammarskjold’s office decorated with a Nigerian rug and an Indian bust, which the United Nations secretary-general had received as official gifts.

That’s a piece that reveals most directly the route Kiwanga took to art. After graduating high school in Brantford, she studied anthropology at McGill University. Her area of interest was medical anthropology, studying the social aspects of medical systems. She thought she would become a documentary filmmaker and began freelancing for television in Britain, but journalism felt a bit too narrow.

“I just wonder where I am and where we are. That’s the biggest question,” she said, explaining that filmmaking “seemed too limited for the things I wanted to explore. I thought maybe visual art was the way to do it … and that question brought me to France.”

She studied at the École normale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, partly because she was offered a bursary and partly because she welcomed the opportunity to improve her French. (Today, she’s perfectly bilingual.) As her career has blossomed in Paris, where the Duchamp prize is intended to bring international attention to contemporary French art, her work remains rooted in that initial documentary research. But then it proceeds to offer what she calls “exit strategies” from the history, sociology and geopolitics she is investigating. Since Hammarskjold’s office, Kiwanga’s art has become subtler and increasingly lyrical – as the progress of the Flowers for Africa project suggests.

That series began in 2013 when she did an artist’s residency in Senegal and went to the archives in Dakar. There, she discovered photographs from 1960 when the country obtained independence from France.

“It came to me that maybe it was interesting to look at the flower arrangements rather than at political figures or events,” she said. “Part of me was weary of monuments, of finite statements.”

Senegal thus launched a continuing series for which Kiwanga travels to an African country or finds collaborators to hunt out photographic evidence for her and then, with the help of florists, reproduces the arrangements that sat on the table where a declaration of independence was signed or decorated the stands on a military parade ground. As the project has progressed, Kiwanga has codified the protocols: Once assembled, the arrangements are left without being tended or watered. Gradually, during the course of an exhibition, the flowers wilt and shrivel until the show is over and they are composted. So, there is both a social implication to the work – something about looking sideways into the odd corners of history – and a natural one as the flowers poignantly fade.

So far Kiwanga has done 16 countries, but she wants to do all 54 African countries.

“I call it the work of my career,” she said, explaining that unless she were to devote herself to it full time it will take years to complete.

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Kiwanga created this installation, Plot, for the central hall of Munich’s Haus der Kunst.Jens Weber/Courtesy of House of Art

But she’s got other projects on the go. In Plot, the work created for the soaring central hall of Munich’s Haus der Kunst, she has installed some transparent inflatable sculptures and engaged painters to air brush subtle gradients of natural colours on huge semi-transparent curtains. Thus the space is transformed into a mysterious labyrinth with references to the formal English gardens and large parklands at the museum’s doors. She similarly used gauze curtains in a smaller work at the Toronto Biennial last year, but here (to judge from images of the piece) the curtains are fabulously gigantic because the space is so high.

They delicately but decisively transform a place with a leaden past: The Haus der Kunst was built by the Nazis in the 1930s to celebrate German art as nationalistic folk propaganda. Two subsequent chapters of Plot will go further, and bring the outdoors into the building as Kiwanga’s art goes beyond its political themes to suggest climactic or geological forces over-running history and humanity.

“Monuments can be marble, monuments can be granite,” Kiwanga says in a video about the piece “but there is something to fluidity and flexibility …”

Fluid and flexible herself, Kiwanga will return to Munich in coming months to install the next two chapters of the work, exporting her own particularly Canadian exit strategies just in the nick of time.

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