Artist: Sandra Mujinga
Venue: Bergen Kunsthall
Exhibition Title: SONW – Shadow of New Worlds
Date: November 22, 2019 – January 19, 2020
Full gallery of images, press release and link available after the jump.
Sandra Mujinga, Stretched Delays 1, HD video (13 mins. loop) Danced by Marquet K. Lee, 2017
Sandra Mujinga, Stretched Delays 2, HD video (13 mins. loop) Danced by Nasheeka Nedsreal, 2017
Sandra Mujinga, Stretched Delays 3, HD video (19 mins. loop) Danced by La’Mel Clarke, 2017
Sandra Mujinga, Stretched Delays 4, HD video (15 mins. loop) Danced by Adrian Blount, 2017
Images courtesy of the artist, Croy Nielsen, Vienna, and The Approach, London. Photos by Thor Brødreskift.
Sandra Mujinga’s exhibition SONW – Shadow of New Worlds presents a hologram, video installations, sculptural works and photographs by the artist in her largest solo presentation to date. Her work is concerned with mechanisms of representation: the social agency of images and their use in the creation of identities. As part of a generation of artists who seamlessly operate between online and physical spaces, Mujinga uses the exhibition space as one possible arena for artistic work, in addition to Internet and social media, the immaterial networks of music distribution, the social spaces of nightclubs, and activist organisational forms. The exhibition draws on Afro-futurist strategies to propose invisibility as a survival strategy, both as a speculative gaze to the future and in relation to the political reality of our time.
In Bergen Kunsthall’s largest gallery, a figure with vaguely human features hovers in mid-air in a darkened space without clear boundaries. The protagonist of Sandra Mujinga’s new hologram video Flo (2019) appears like a video game avatar or a science fiction superhero, and is inspired by Ann-Marie Crooks, a Jamaican-American former bodybuilder and wrestler; better known in the 1990s by the stage name Midnight. The work is projected through a large-scale hologram screen, a simple but highly effective technique that creates a three-dimensional illusion. The soundtrack is composed with digitally processed strings that are used to create an emotionally charged atmosphere. The figure, that may at first glance appear as a digital animation, is in fact one of Mujinga’s regular collaborators, the actor and DJ Adrian Blount (GodXXX Noirphiles), dressed in one of the artist’s wearable sculptures. The outfit is both artwork and costume, affecting the actor’s mobility with its inflated muscles and superhuman proportions. The hologram technology is frequently used in spectacular stage settings to resurrect dead performers or celebrities, such as Tupac Shakur, seemingly alive on stage. Throughout history, new media technologies have often been used in attempts to connect with the afterworld or to revive the past. In this work, named after the artist’s mother, technology acts as a bridge between our own world and an imagined world beyond ourselves, linked to both science fiction and technological performance.
In the adjoining spaces, sculptural works and video images form part of an integrated installation in which visitors navigate among oversized, hollow human figures made from textiles. Seven hooded figures loom high above average human size, in ambiguous constellations of guarding, gathering or confronting. With a starting point in the science fiction genre’s idea of “world-building”, Mujinga outlines alternative worlds where the interplay between visibility and invisibility, the transparent and the opaque, reflection and camouflage, renders new modes of existence and identity. Mujinga’s work is inspired by writers of speculative fiction (for example Nnedi Okorafor, N. K. Jemisin and Octavia Butler), as well as posthumanist thinkers such as Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing. In a world that was not made equal for all bodies, and which is threatened with destruction, survival strategies for the future cannot build on the maintenance of an existing order but must reach out towards something else. Science fiction functions here as a template for exploring imaginary worlds where humans are not necessarily at the centre. Some of the sculptures evoke elephants or octopuses, with elements resembling trunks and tentacles. Mujinga is interested in how animals develop survival strategies and adapt to hostile surroundings, for example when elephants stop growing tusks or change from diurnal into nocturnal animals to avoid human poachers.
Despite their large formats, the presence of the works in the exhibition is also fragile and uncertain. What on the one hand occupies space and appears confidently present, is quickly balanced out by simultaneous invisibility. The hologram arises from thin air and disappears quickly in the deep darkness. The muscular body is barely able to move and appears trapped in its own self. The textile sculptures are similarly intangible as hollow shells of skin or clothing, without individuals supporting the outfits. In Lovely Hosts (2016), a series of works based on pictures from one of the artist’s journeys to Kisangani, the images are threatened with total dissolution into pixels and digital noise caused by a computer virus attack. In other works, figures appear as camouflaged shadows, partly transparent against the walls of the gallery space (Camouflage Waves, 2018); and elsewhere the sculptural forms suggest being in a hiding position, as in the newly produced sculpture Coiling (2019) which is positioned in a corner of the Kunsthall, stretching eight metres from floor to ceiling.
Clothing has its own active “agency” to which the body must adapt, and in Mujinga’s sculptures and performances the clothing often constitutes a body in its own right. The sculptures occupy the exhibition space as operative agents, rather than static objects. In the artist’s many performance works, similar costumes are worn by actors. When exhibited as sculptures the suits still appear as if on a stage, or as performing in direct interaction with their immediate surroundings. By using textiles as a sculptural material, the objects become changeable, malleable and adaptable. In the exhibition, screens, clothing and skin are treated as interfaces to the world, constantly subject to negotiation and adaptation in an ongoing power dynamic.
The exhibition spaces are thus installed in accordance with what could be called a “screen logic”, where the spatial presence of an artwork is considered on a par with the same work’s appearance in digital images. Many of us view more artworks on screen, via websites and social media, than we do in a physical space, and both the art object and the medium of the exhibition today always act on several “platforms” simultaneously; in a physical and spatial encounter with a bodily present viewer, and also “intangibly”, on larger and smaller screens, often within the viewer’s own private environment. Mujinga is actively using this double presence among other things, by playing out doubles within the exhibition itself. Two of the rooms in Bergen Kunsthall are fitted out almost as a doubling of themselves, where a similar situation or “tableau” is repeated in two different versions, as echoes of each other. The exhibition space is used as an adaptable and changeable space, comparable to how a digital image can be subjected to endless edits and changes, without losing its essence. On the web one can find Mujinga’s sculptures acting in radically different situations, from illuminated white gallery spaces to darkened stages. Or as here: bathed in a green light, as a filter added to the appearance of the artworks. The ambient lighting colours and connects the rooms in the exhibition, with a green shade reminiscent of the green screen known from video production, where a green background is superimposed with other images, making the relationship between figure and background fundamentally unstable and interchangeable. At the end of the fourth exhibition space, the green light blends with the sculptural material of Coiling, made out of a similarly coloured textile.
The black darkness and the green light are opposites, but also two sides of the same coin in Mujinga’s work. In an interview with Olamiju Fajemisin, made for the upcoming publication for the exhibition, Mujinga explains how she has worked actively with green screens for a long time, both as a conceptual and material starting point: “… and it’s ‘black’ for me. (…) In my videos, when you see a black background, it’s green screen. It allows me to host ideas and alternative spaces. Green is ultimately Black.” The question of what it means to exist in the dark is a recurring topic within the exhibition. The darkness here refers both to invisibility based on hierarchies and exclusion in society, and at the same time to visibility and invisibility in the face of an increasing (often commercially motivated) surveillance. On the one hand, it is about the productive aspects for rebellion or peace of mind that invisibility brings – on the other hand, about invisible stories, collective amnesia and about who writes the history versus who gets written out and overlooked. Mujinga addresses the heteronormative, largely white hegemony that still dominates the art institution with a questioning and acute awareness, by maintaining the complexity of questions about representation and participation within the same institutional frameworks.
As an artist, DJ and musician, Mujinga works with a broad spectra of media and art forms, in a variety of arenas. However, this is not just evidence of a restless creativity that is expressed through various outputs, but also about a critical examination of the structures, institutions and contexts for communication and negotiation. Operating from within the exhibition space and the nightclub, the Internet and the stage, Mujinga acts as both artist and organiser; observer and critical voice.
Self-presentation in digital space and the effect of migration on identity both play out in the works, as an experience of belonging in several places at the same time. Mujinga’s own presence in social media is an example of the power that lies in taking control of one’s own identity as it is produced and negotiated in digital media. Mujinga maintains both an active presence and a self-conscious distance between the real and the virtual world. As a follower of the artist’s Instagram profile, you never know what is staged and what is “real” in the endless series of selfies. Avoiding visibility in full view becomes a productive strategy. Shadows and darkness transform into a space of agency. Going under the radar also generates strength.
Sandra Mujinga (b. 1989, Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo) is a Norwegian artist and musician who lives and works in Oslo and Berlin.