If you visit the Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto these days, you’ll discover a dramatic curtain of sisal in the lobby, a hanging of tangled blond fibre. It’s tempting to reach out to feel it, but visitors who try to will be politely directed to a “touch table” where a sample is available. (Turns out it’s surprisingly soft.)
The art of Kapwani Kiwanga, creator of the sisal installation, often feels remote, as though the artist were wary of the viewer’s embrace. Kiwanga has been chosen to represent Canada at the 2024 Venice Biennale but her work is not often seen in these parts. She grew up in Brantford, Ont., lives in France and often looks to her father’s native Tanzania for inspiration. This is her first major survey exhibition in Canada.
Kiwanga, creator of research-based sculptural and installation art, is interested in the intersection of colonialism and environmentalism, often using materials that refer to traditional crops, such as sisal or bananas, that exploit labour or damage the earth – or conversely to plants that might fix it. This exhibition continues on MOCA’s second floor, where a metal water trough in a keyhole formation contains plants in various stages of growth, aided by dangling lightbulbs to replace the missing sun.
The keyhole planter is a gentle example of the artist at work. The viewer naturally follows its curved path and admires the greenery – but also reflects on the intervention it takes to make these plants grow indoors. Intrigued, they may proceed to read the wall text to identify the plants as species that, they will then learn, act as air or water filters.
However, the only way the viewer is going to understand or appreciate another work, featuring a sequence of hard-edged wall-mounted frames covered in some kind of heavy screen, is by turning to the text immediately. The material is shade cloth, used to cover great swathes of agricultural landscapes in commercial farming; it’s a larger and less benign intervention than the keyhole planter. Similarly, Kiwanga’s vivariums, great bobbing plastic covers for plants that aren’t there, do have a faintly sci-fi quality, but the notion of them as habitats for future growth isn’t evident without explanation.
On the one hand, this is an art that, although clearly based in political judgements, is refreshingly free of the didacticism that plagues so much of today’s research-driven installation art. On the other hand, while it has indisputable visual impact, it has little import unless you resort to those explanatory wall texts – known in the museum business as didactics.
In the exhibition’s final room is a more delicate piece: two handmade paper flowers that reproduce the peacock flower, a medicinal plant that enslaved women once used to bring about miscarriages. Here, some emotions begin to hover in what is otherwise a rather cerebral show. Alongside is a video, dating to 2012, showing a younger Kiwanga in Tanzania, standing by a dusty roadside, gently wiping the dirt off leaves to expose a tree’s greenery. The humility and patience strike an unusually touching chord.
It would be hard to think of a larger stylistic contrast to Kiwanga’s cool work than the sculptures of the Greek-Canadian artist Athena Papadopoulos, showing simultaneously at MOCA. Stuck at home early in the pandemic and uncertain whether her work would ever be seen publicly, Papadopoulos made sculptures from household goods and coated them in unconventional materials including hair dye, lipstick and tanning agents. Piles of toys, kitchen utensils and clothing become grotesques, each one in a single strong colour.
There are two series here: one of trees or flower-like forms with titles full of mythical or biblical references, the other an alphabet where each pile vaguely suggests the outline of a letter (a body suit is spread out in the form of an X; a circle of undecipherable stuffed grey fabric takes the rough shape of an O). These three dozen sculptures, roughly fashioned from detritus, exude a sense of desperation and even disgust, yet also a wicked sense of humour.
Kapwani Kiwanga Remediation continues to July 23; Athena Papadopoulos the New Alphabet continues to April 30, both at MOCA Toronto.