Interview with Kiluanji Kia Henda

Kiluanji Kia Henda (Angola, 1979) belongs to a generation of young Angolan artists that live and work in a country that has suffered a long term civil war, where history was overshadowed by the everyday battles.

Redefining The Power I (with Shunnuz Fiel), from the series Homem Novo, 2011 © Kiluanji Kia Henda, courtesy of the artist and  Galeria Fonti

His practice creates, in a deliberate manner, evidences that locate new elements to interpret society. Using art as method to forge history and more than putting together the pieces of a complex puzzle, Kiluanji explores performance, photography and video to materialize fictitious narrative images, by speculating the heritage of the past and suggesting a possible imaginary future. Using humour and irony, he interferes on such subjects as identity, politics, perceptions of post-colonial and modernism in Africa. Henda was longlisted for the Foam Paul Huf Award in 2013. Since that day his worked had stayed with Foam curator Kim Knoppers. She talked with him about his work and his multidisciplinary approach.

Kim Knoppers: I might not have understood the full implications when I first experienced your work but I found your work immediately intriguing. In your work themes like identity and perceptions of post-colonial Africa are important. Can you tell a bit about what your project Redefining The Power is about?

Kiluanji Kia Henda: "I used to visit very often the Fortaleza de São Miguel (a fort built by the Portuguese in the 15th century) in Luanda where all the Portuguese monuments were taken after being removed from their pedestal. After doing some works around those monuments, I decided to search for the empty pedestals that belonged to those monuments and to occupy this void with representations of the optimistic era we were living in, as an opposition to the glorious colonial past. It was exactly ten years after the war had ended in Angola. The city was starting to witness a cultural re-birth, that I sought to express in the form of living monuments. The idea was to invite some crazy friends who live in a kind of constant performance to climb on the pedestals that were empty for more than thirty years, and have the freedom to perform whatever they want.

The emptiness of those pedestals was also a metaphor of the absence of a reflection about the history and the society we were living in during the turbulent years of the civil war. One of the pedestals had a tank on it during the eighties, this tank was for me the perfect representation of the violent period we were living in, it was the most contemporary monument I had ever seen. In Redefining The Power, I aimed to replace the colonial heroes and the war symbols with something extremely alive, people that I would consider as my cultural heroes, from a poet to a gay rights defender. I think every city should have empty pedestals that could be customized regarding our passions, instead of having representations in cold stone of dead people that no one really cares about today and most of them are connected with wars or political power."

Redefining The Power (with Didi Fernandes), from the series Homem Novo, 2012 © Kiluanji Kia Henda, courtesy of the artist and Galleria Fonti

Redefining the Power is part of a bigger ongoing project, Homem Novo. How did this come into being?

The creation of Homem Novo (New Man), was one of the aims during the socialist period in Angola just after the independence. Today in South Africa there is a popular new movement called Rhodes Must Fall, and  it basically consists in taking down all the monuments and changing the names of streets that are somehow still a celebration of the colonial period. This happened in Angola as well, mainly in Luanda, in the first years of the independence.

This project does not intend to deal with post-colonialism, because it’s not a revivalism of the colonial period, but yes, it is the new philosophy and political posture of the post-independence society, in opposition of what was proposed and inherited by the colonial power. There's always been a discussion on ‘what the hell are we going to do with those colonial monuments?’. I consider those monuments clandestine citizens with expired visas: they should be deported to their place of origin after paying the fine for illegal permanence. Or it would be a more clever decision to do an exchange with some important objects of art stolen from Africa and kept by many western museums. That would be fair.

Redefining The Power IV (with Miguel Prince), from the series Homem Novo, 2011 © Kiluanji Kia Henda, courtesy of the artist and Galeria Fonti

You explore performance, video, installation, sculpture and photography.  Can you explain what role photography plays in your artistic practice?

In my family photography has been always a passion, even though none of us has worked with it professionally. I had the luck to have a studio at home when I was a teenager, that belonged to my older brother Cassiano Bamba, with equipment that he bought in Moscow when he was studying there. I had some curiosity but I was not into the visual art universe. As an artist, at the beginning I was more connected with music and I also worked in theatre, but when I had the opportunity to hang out with the visual artists from downtown Luanda, it brought me back to the field of photography.

At the beginning I was more busy doing spontaneous portraits of the city, but very slowly it became one of my favourite media to express some of my ideas and concerns. It became the perfect medium to document performances I had in mind, but I don't consider myself ‘the photographer’, please don't ask me about technical stuff. I am just surfing in the new blessed technology from Japan. Make it simple, make it beautiful!

Redefining The Power IV (with Miguel Prince), from the series Homem Novo, 2011 © Kiluanji Kia Henda, courtesy of the artist and  Galleria Fonti

Your work raises important and critical questions about building national consciousness and constructing history. Still, it feels light-hearted. Why is it important to use humour as a tool in your practice?

I grew up in country where the generation of my parents were busy drawing a new flag, composing a new anthem, creating an identity for a brand new country, and this is very exciting for someone who aims to be an artist. The fact of not having the cruel weight of history on my back, gave me the huge freedom to invent my own history. Is important to say that my work is not limited on ‘building national consciousness’. Firstly, I don´t believe in those borders from the pink map, and secondly it is impossible to talk about Angola without talking about Brazil, Cuba, US, Russia or China, to name a few. It’s a country that played an important role from the demonic days of slavery to the extremely violent period of the Cold War, and even for the end of the apartheid in South Africa. It definitely goes beyond the national consciousness, we have to be aware of the global impact of those events in the modern history. It will maybe help to shorten the distances and improve the communication in this planet.

The humour appears in some of my works as a delicate way to talk about things that can be seen as painful or disgusting, but we cannot divert our look from it. It’s a kind of a trap to bring people to a healthy confrontation with our conflictual existence. At the other hand, I really love the way people in Luanda tell the stories of their daily life, it’s a very playful and humourist performance, it really contaminated the person that I am, and of course my practice too.

Can you give us a glimpse on your future plans? When will your book at Steidl be published?

I am starting a new research on the Cold War and its roots and effects in Africa, specifically in Angola. It will take some years but I am not in hurry, it’s a long term project. Besides that, I am still developing an ongoing project called A City Called Mirage which is more connected with the problem of the architecture and housing of today, the ability to build a city but at same time to create a desert within. If we add up all the squares meters of the empty cities and neighbourhoods worldwide, we are in a presence of gigantic concrete desert that can compete with the Sahara. Regarding the book there isn´t any date for the publication, only Gerhard Steidl can give an exact date, but I believe it will be very soon.

About Kiluanji Kia Henda

Kiluanji Kia Henda (1979) is a photographer and visual artist. His photographs grapple with colonial history and perceptions of modernism in Angola. He lives and works in Luanda, Angola, and Lisbon, Portugal. Henda has participated in several residency programs and exhibitions. In 2012 he won the National Award for Culture and the Arts from the Angolan Ministry of Culture. 

Other interviews

Wang Nan: Radiant in Darkness

Wang Nan: Radiant in Darkness

Interviews, posted on 8 November 2017
Justyna Wierzchowiecka: Taking back the museum

Justyna Wierzchowiecka: Taking back the museum

Interviews, posted on 23 February 2017
Harley Weir: Integral beauty

Harley Weir: Integral beauty

Interviews, posted on 16 February 2017
Tom Callemin: It's all theatre

Tom Callemin: It's all theatre

Interviews, posted on 9 December 2016