Autograph's curator, Bindi Vora, speaks with UK-based visual artist Wanja Kimani about her work, considering embodied knowledge, black ecologies and the significance of seeing black women's bodies in rural landscapes.
This conversation is part of a series supported by the British Council, sharing the work of women artists with ties to East Africa, and addressing issues of climate justice and the politics of representation. Find out more about the project here.
Bindi Vora (BV): Tell me about yourself.
Wanja Kimani (WK): I’m a visual artist, curator and researcher based in rural Northamptonshire in the UK. I’m currently developing work around ecology and storytelling. This body of work has been inspired by two early 19th century children’s books by Alfred Mills: Costumes of Different Nations in Miniature (1814) and Natural History of Forty-Eight Quadrupeds (1815). They are beautiful objects that sit in the palm of one’s hand, but their content is, unsurprisingly, problematic. I’m also writing up my practice-led PhD research which uses the idea of ‘queering’ as a method to situate the black female body in rural space. This method allows me the space to increase the possibilities for how I think with and through my body.
I’m interested in ways that certain bodies are hyper-visible within rural landscapes; how they relate to the land, how they make these spaces habitable both individually and collectively to nurture communities of care. The chapter I am writing is a reflection on a gathering that I attended last year, The Loophole of Retreat: Venice, which was convened by Simone Leigh, Rashida Bumbray, Saidiya Hartman and Tina Campt. The presentations and performances which took place during the retreat helped me to centre my body in my work – both intellectually and creatively – in ways that I hadn’t previously considered. I’m reading books by Chelsea M. Frazier, Holly Graham, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Christina Sharpe and Keguro Macharia among others who generously give us so much to think through in regards to ideas of blackness, ecology, the body and memory.
BV: You often turn towards language and the body as materials for storytelling in your work – to gesture towards, implicate and think through the complexities of histories and the residues that remain. How do you settle on a text or provocation to begin that process?
WK: I’ve always loved writing. I kept journals as a teenager so writing has always felt like the most immediate way to reflect on and collect stray thoughts. Whilst I don’t journal so much now, I usually have a sketchbook or Post-it notes close by. Failing that, I record voice notes. My work usually grows out of these everyday thoughts and conversations, and my note taking methods help me to assemble fragments of ideas into one whole. I find language so rich and I’m intrigued by environments which call for different uses and understandings of words. In particular, I’m interested in how code-switching (and other forms of shrinking to fit a default mould) impacts our individual bodies as well as the communal spaces that facilitate care and repair. In the book In The Wake: On Blackness and Being, Christina Sharpe refers to this communal care as “wake work”, acknowledging the impact of chattel slavery on black lived experience today. “Wake work” is enlivened through art, rest, joy, tenderness, resistance and imagination. I try to embed this in theory and practice.
BV: I had the pleasure of encountering your work Exercises in Conversation at the Kenya Pavilion in 2022, curated by Jimmy Ogonga. What was this process like, bringing the work to – and displaying it within – the context of Venice and the pavilion?
WK: Thank you so much for visiting! I presented one work in two parts, which I had been developing for some time and completed during a residency facilitated by Fermynwoods Contemporary Art at Sudborough Green Lodge, a remote artist residency set in the Northamptonshire countryside. During the residency I was able to let my mind wander in silence. I read and re-read, sketched, dyed fabrics and watched spring arrive. Within this idyll, was the awareness that a hunter also wandered in the same woods, which is close to publicly accessible land. The juxtaposition of these two realities is reminiscent of 19th century fairy tales written by the Grimm Brothers; the presence of a threat within an otherwise ideal setting, the uncomfortable proximity between violence and innocence. These fragments allowed me to piece together a story that in itself is a compilation of sensorial narratives, both real and imagined, belonging to myself and to others.
Weathering Bodies (2022) is a short film, which opens with a rural landscape where birds are playing in a field. Alongside the sounds of the birds is the sound of children reciting a passage from the book Things You Never Knew About Dinosaurs (2013) by Giles Paley-Phillips, which tells us that dinosaurs are still alive today, engaging in ordinary activities and showcasing extraordinary talent. The film then shows me walking through a field and towards a tree. I am dressed in a ‘safety orange’ jumpsuit, which provides visibility to humans, but not animals. It is usually worn whilst hunting as a vest on top of clothing. By wearing it from head to toe, I am ensuring I am undeniably present – hyper-visible.
I narrate the film, travelling through memories of a tree that is planted outside my late great-grandmothers’ house, the groundcherries we picked in her garden and the ways that scent, taste and emotion are so intertwined with the idea of home and belonging for those living in the diaspora. I draw on this feeling of rootedness to counter the factors that contribute to the weathering of the body.
In Weathering Landscapes (2022), the second part of the work I presented at the Kenya Pavilion, I used natural pigments to paint self-portraits on second-hand photographic frames. I removed the back of the frames so that the portraits can be seen through and I suspended them to cause the viewer to have to gaze up at them. In the paintings, I am in various positions that suggest rest, which in itself is an act of resistance as Tricia Hersey reminds us in Rest is Resistance: A Manifesto.
When the work was installed in Venice, I loved how the light shone through the paintings, which cast shadows on the floor in front of the screen where the film was playing. The two parts of the work spoke to each other in these shadows. Together, the works look at factors that wear down the body and how we recoup what has been lost, or pruned, through rest and play among other things. For me, access to land is important and I am fortunate to be able to access green spaces, but 92% of the countryside and 97% of rivers in England are not publicly accessible. When you add race and class into that mix, so many people are excluded from the simple pleasure of roaming freely.
Bringing the work to Venice was important. Showing the work alongside artists I’ve long admired was such an honour. The opening night was an emotional triumph and we felt incredibly supported. I hope it’s the first of many.
BV: Your works and ideas extend into multiple realms. Could you tell us about some of the threads of your discourse?
WK: My practice is a way for me to make sense of things within and around me, so it shifts and sometimes circles back. One thing that remains constant is the idea of storytelling. As children, we learn to name and create through stories. Some of our earliest encounters with difference are often in the form of stories and how these differences are presented and explained (or not) contribute to how we view the world. As we grow, story books may be replaced with textbooks, and now we have the internet and AI too. I am interested in the ways in which knowledge is produced, shared and consumed, in how we can draw on the knowledge within us (embodied knowledge) to counter some of what is presented as truth. The body remembers and these memories are rich in meaning as they travel through time and in and out of different spaces. I often use video to document performances and overlay the visual with a text I have written and recorded to embody the knowledge I am articulating. I also often use found objects connected to domesticity in the presentation of my work. Objects such as second-hand doilies, photographic frames and textiles reflect my interest in the symbolism of everyday objects, which carry their own stories before I add my own.
BV: Your practices are similar to mine, they move between making as an artist and making as a curator, working with artists within a public space – how do you negotiate between these different making modes?
WK: My journey into curating began with a desire to see how different works spoke to each other. Initially I did this alongside friends who are artists, who entrusted me with their work and together we were able to see what new connections could be made when considering their work in relation to the work of others. Working in this way was intimate and collaborative and allowed me to develop new strands of research. I am currently working at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge as an Associate Curator on an exhibition titled Black Atlantic: People, Power Resistance, which is open until 7 January 2024. Here the context of making and curating is different from my own practices, and largely led by research that has been developed by a brilliant historian, Dr Jake Subryan Richards and co-curator Dr Victoria Avery. The exhibition explores the museum’s connection to enslavement with historical pieces from the museum’s collections in dialogue with works by modern and contemporary artists.
My role has been to integrate the contemporary work and I’ve made it a priority to embed care for the artists' work and for black audiences as much as I can. I am keen to develop independent curatorial projects alongside this role, as there are so many artists I’d like to work with. By visiting exhibitions and undertaking studio visits with artists is refreshing as I’m always curious about the process of making. In my own practice, I tend to have ideas bubbling away constantly, but the making comes together when I’ve gathered all the fragments in a way that I feel is coherent. Sometimes that can happen quickly, other times, it’s a slow process. I’ve learnt to trust that the process can dictate the outcome.
BV: I am interested in how your work concurrently deals with the idea of being perceived alongside questions of identity, but also raises important questions around notions of ecology and difference. Can you tell me a bit more about how these subjects play into your work?
WK: In my PhD research, I’ve been exploring black ecologies, looking at the economic vulnerability faced by black bodies globally; from the extent of how our current climate emergency disproportionally affects women and girls in the global south to the ways that gender, race and class can limit access to land. Tongues (2021) was a film I made as a documentation of a performance, enacted in woodland, which responds to Maud Sulter’s photo collage series Syrcas (1993). Sulter used vintage postcards depicting vast rural landscapes in Europe combined with images from books on African art and European painting. The resulting images represent the presence of Africa in Europe, often highlighting the contributions of black women.
Tongues and the accompanying publication that I produced of the same title, created a space to reflect on my own experience of unlearning. In the film, I wear a white dress and carry the leather strap of a kiondo, a handwoven bag made from sisal that is often gifted to a bride on her wedding day. Walking across the woods, seemingly in search of somewhere or someone, I narrate a story about a princess who is looking for an alternative happy ever after. I explore how fairy tales provide children with ideas of who belongs where, who is worthy of protecting and at what cost. I disrupt this with my shaved head, carrying a kiondo, which instead of containing items that may help in my presumed domestic duties, carries items that enable me to enact a cleansing and re-rooting. By placing my body within this rural setting and using objects as symbols that connect me within myself rather than a place, I am able to carve out an intimate, liminal space of my own.
BV: We have touched upon some of the contextual experiences in your practice, but I wanted to delve into the piece Our Feet So Tangled In The Sheets Of Failed Redemption – a deeply resonant work exploring the invisible / visible labour women’s bodies go through. Would you be able to talk about what inspired this work and in particular the use of the barkcloth?
WK: I made this work shortly after my divorce. It was a way to help me make sense of what had happened. I used barkcloth because it’s such a beautiful and tactile material. This particular type of barkcloth is from Uganda and is made from the inner bark of the Mutuba tree, which is beaten with different types of wooden mallets, stretching it into a fine texture and sensuous brown colour. From a distance, it looks rigid, but the closer you get to it, you can see how fragile it is. It looks like skin, with parts of it sewn together, which resembles scars. I made prints on the material using my body and my hair, which I had cut in a previous work The Body Remembers (2016) to create the silhouette of myself. This earlier work reflected on the way the body reacts and responds to remembering events and reliving them. After I applied paint and embroidered my hair into the barkcloth, I used charcoal to write thoughts that I had written. As I unravel emotionally, the words emerge:
“The stars that faithfully align and try to teach me how to walk in line out of the door.
One foot in front of the other and try not to direct the steps of others.
In line with what came before and whatever lies ahead.
The lies that fill the head and the bed that wishes they were true.”
It’s not so much about women’s labour, but about the loss of an imagined life and the shaping of another. I’m drawn to materials that signal a sense of renewal, because we are always evolving. I’m open to experiences and interactions that change me for the better and sometimes they only become apparent in retrospect.
Wanja Kimani is a visual artist, writer and curator based in rural Northamptonshire, UK. Her research interests lie in the intersection of art, evolutionary ecology and the politics of gender and sexuality. Through performance, film, text and textiles, she explores memory through the body and fluidity within social structures that are designed to care and protect, but mutate into coercive forces within society.
In 2021, she was commissioned by the Women’s Art Collection to respond to their exhibition, Maud Sulter: The Centre of the Frame for which she created the film and publication, Tongues, which explores fairytales, language and black girlhood. In 2022, she represented Kenya at the 59th Venice Biennale. In her current body of work, she is playing with words, landscape and the body.
She has engaged in international curatorial projects with a range of artists including Ephrem Solomon, Acaye Kerunen, Osborne Macharia, Robel Temesgen and Kirubel Melke. She is currently Associate Curator for Black Atlantic: People, Power, Resistance at Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge and is a PhD candidate in Fine Art at Chelsea College of Arts, University of the Arts London.
Autograph's curator, Bindi Vora, shares a series of conversations with women artists addressing issues of climate justice and the politics of representation in their work.Find out more
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