An artist who spent much of her childhood in Brantford has won France’s top art prize.
Kapwani Kiwanga received the 2020 Marcel Duchamp Prize, along with a $41,000 cash award, for her sculptural series, Flowers for Africa, centred on the presence of flowers at diplomatic events celebrating the independence of African nations.
“These key political moments in history, I will take an image from the archive and hone in on the floral arrangements which are present,” explained Kiwanga, who is based in Paris. “I bring that photo to a florist and then reinterpret that floral arrangement, that is then left in the exhibition space to fade away and dry out. There’s no intention to preserve it or keep the flowers fresh.”
Kiwanga said it’s an ongoing project, having so far completed sculptures for 16 of African’s 54 countries.
“The richness and complexity of Kapwani Kiwanga’s project, bordering on a reflection between anthropology and art, opens up a vast poetic and political program, a true laboratory of today’s thought on memory and archives as sources of the world’s transfiguration,” said Bernard Blistene, director of the Musee National d’Art Modern, and one of seven jurors for the Marcel Duchamp Prize.
The 42-year-old artist, who also won the $100,000 Sobey Art Award in 2018 says being awarded different prizes allows her to reflect and appreciate “all the people that have helped with research, people that helped you in your life in different ways, and those art professionals who have been courageous enough to invite you to do a show or support you to make new work.”
Born in Hamilton, Kiwanga lived in Brantford from the age of eight until she was 17. While she had no formal art education locally, she did attend summer art camps at Glenhyrst Art Gallery of Brant.
Kiwanga studied anthropology and comparative religion at McGill University in Montreal before enrolling at Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
“I wasn’t really sensitive or involved in art until I came to Europe” said the artist. “I was living in Scotland, working as a film maker of documentaries for television, and I was interested in going to museums and seeing different cultural propositions.”
Kiwanga has achieved widespread recognition with exhibitions in a number of prestigious galleries and museums throughout North America and Europe.
“Kapwani is one of the most important artists from Brantford and, like many of her generation, received critical recognition outside of Canada first,” said Glenhyrst curator Matthew Ryan Smith. “The Marcel Duchamp Prize is one of the most important awards in the world for a contemporary artist.”
Smith said that, beyond the art world’s system of awards and prizes, Kiwanga’s work is important for many other reasons.
“One of these is because it shapes a cultural philosophy or esthetic known as Afrofuturism,” he explained. “In short, Afrofuturism is formed from a desire to recover historical injustices facing Black people and redress them in meaningful ways that can benefit future generations. So, while the past may have been one of injustice, the future can be one of hope.”
Kiwanga said she hopes her works permit people to look at the past from a different perspective and work towards a future that could be better for everyone.
“My works don’t have a particular message apart from looking at the diversity of history, to put all these little pieces together to try to form a more complete story,” the artist observed.
Smith said Brantford is and has been home to artists of national and international importance.
“We need to celebrate that fact, to make it better known,” he said. “Kapwani Kiwanga and Wayne Gretzky should be spoken in the same breath.”