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Issue 217

Kiluanji Kia Henda and the Untold Stories of Europe’s Border Crisis

At Galerias Municipais de Lisboa, the artist brings to the fore the conflicts and chances of migration 

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BY Cristina Sanchez-Kozyreva in Reviews | 28 JAN 21

The most gripping attribute of Kiluanji Kia Henda’s exhibition ‘Something Happened on the Way to Heaven’, curated by Luigi Fassi at Galerias Municipais de Lisboa, is the gravitas of its composite subject matter. In conflict are the stunning natural landscape of Sardinia and the geopolitical nightmare of asylum seekers from the African continent in Europe since the exacerbation of the European border crisis. With added hints to the inconspicuous omnipresence of the military on the island, and the poignant image of an idyllic tourist destination hiding sombre realities is complete.

Having worked on the exhibition during a residency at the MAN Museo d’Arte Provincia di Nuoro in Sardinia, Kia Henda included commentaries on the Italian and NATO military zones. Bullet Proof Glass – Mappa Mundi (Caprera Island) (2019), a photograph of a touristy shoreline taken through bullet-ridden glass, and Ludic Island Map (2019), an aerial photograph with blanks and Tetris video game tile-shaped military spots, stress the weaponization of Sardinia.

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Kiluanji Kia Henda, Migrants Who Don’t Give a Fuck, 2019, six framed images on silk screen. Courtesy: the artist, Galerias Municipais de Lisboa, Galleria Fonti, Naples, and Galeria Filomena Soares, Lisbon;
photograph: Teresa Santos

Migrants Who Don’t Give a Fuck (2019) spells out its provocative sentence over six silk screen prints of pink flamingos. These birds are not only common in Sardinian lagoons but also seen by the artist as an allegory for migrating without restrictions. The bird’s name also makes an appearance in Melilla Fence – Module IV (Hotel Flamingo) (2019), a double-wired construction topped by a pink ‘Hotel Flamingo’ neon sign – cheerful and eerie at the same time – that references the eponymous Spanish enclave in Morocco, which boasts both fences and overcrowded refugee centres.

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Kiluanji Kia Henda, Melilla Fence – Module IV (Hotel Flamingo), 2019, installation view, Galerias Municipais de Lisboa. Courtesy: the artist, Galerias Municipais de Lisboa, Galleria Fonti, Naples, and Galeria Filomena Soares, Lisbon; photograph: Teresa Santos

While the plea of migrants is a very relevant subject, the premise of the show, that they have paradisiac illusions about Europe – as indicated by the exhibition title – seems slightly outdated. In 2021, we know that they are fleeing hell-like situations in their homelands (according to Amnesty International, two-thirds of all refugees today come from war zones) while risking drowning or being deferred in the process. Meanwhile, heavenly landscapes such as the Greek and Pacific islands and the Bahamas –  all hosting refugee camps – have become some of the world’s permanent in-limbo territories, turning turquoise waters and white sands into grim destinations for people of colour. Scenic and severe are what emanate from two black-and-white series of photographs across the gallery: ‘The Geometric Ballad of Fear’ (2019) depicts inaccessible, idyllic coastlines seen through elegant grids while ‘Mare Nostrum’ (Our Sea, 2019) shows glistening salt reserves in Arles covered by flying and contrasting shadow-like black sheets. Extracted from the Mediterranean Sea, the salt piles also speak to the tears of migration, which forever mix with the waters of the sea.  

Elsewhere, Kia Henda pays homage to notable historical artists. His black sheep cape The Cloak of the Presentation (According to Arthur Bispo do Rosário) (2020), for instance, is a tribute to the spiritual embroidery and resourcefulness of this late outsider Brazilian artist. On the opposite wall, the 2013 photographic series ‘Othello’s Fate (Act I, II, II, IV, V)’ shows a naked Black figure posing in the heavily decorated rooms of Lisbon’s Casa do Alentejo, as William Shakespeare’s Moor general whose rise from slavery to Venetian elite tragically ended amid jealousy and internalized racism.

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Kiluanji Kia Henda, Mare Nostrum (Our Sea), 2019, installation view, Galerias Municipais de Lisboa. Courtesy: the artist, Galerias Municipais de Lisboa, Galleria Fonti, Naples, and Galeria Filomena Soares, Lisbon; photograph: Teresa Santos

Some inaccuracies in the presentations (the wall text incorrectly places Arles on the French Riviera) cultivate an oversimplifying campaigning tone. Yet, Kia Henda’s subtle strategies highlighting contemporary and historical injustices are powerful. His choices of Shakespearean champion, alluring abstract landscapes and humorous narratives denounce the image of the Black man as a pariah, yet suggest that it should be natural for all humanity to roam free like pink flamingos.

Main image: Kiluanji Kia Henda, Bullet Proof Glass – Mappa Mundi (Capera Island), 2019, inkjet print on fine art paper. Courtesy: the artist, Galerias Municipais de Lisboa, Galleria Fonti, Naples, and Galeria Filomena Soares, Lisbon; photograph: Teresa Santos

Cristina Sanchez-Kozyreva is an art writer based in Hong Kong. She is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Pipeline magazine.

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