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To Illuminate History, an Artist Turns Out the Lights

An installation view of Kapwani Kiwanga: Off-Grid at the New Museum in New York. (Dario Lasagni/New Museum via The New York Times)
An installation view of Kapwani Kiwanga: Off-Grid at the New Museum in New York. (Dario Lasagni/New Museum via The New York Times)

When you first alight on the fourth floor of the New Museum, where Canadian-born, Paris-based artist Kapwani Kiwanga has her first solo museum exhibition in New York, it may take you a second to realize what’s different. But start to walk around the soaring gallery of “Off-Grid” and it will dawn on you: There is no familiar electrical brightness here, only whatever light streams through distant windows.

Massimiliano Gioni, the museum’s artistic director, began discussing the idea for an exhibition with Kiwanga in January 2021. It was to include a commissioned work that would be developed over the following year and a half. But from the very beginning, one thing was certain, Gioni said in a recent conversation: “Removing the lights was probably the first decision she made.”

Kiwanga’s photography, film, installation and sculpture are research-driven and intensely concerned with the materials she uses. This installation consists of a beaded curtain that hangs from the gallery’s 24-foot ceiling, running perpendicular to a succession of tall, wedge-shaped mirrors across a long, deep purple wall — a subtle, shifting play of reflection and refraction.

Having worked in experimental filmmaking before becoming an artist, she has often played with ideas of transparency and opacity. But for “Cloak,” the newly commissioned work, the material she chose to explore was light itself — which brings with it physical, historical, sociological and ethical dimensions.

Kiwanga’s interest in light is connected to her investigations into colonial U.S. history — in particular, 18th-century “lantern laws” in New York and other parts of New England that mandated that enslaved Black, mixed-race and Indigenous people as young as age 14 carry lanterns at night so they could be watched, and anyone without one could be arrested. Simone Browne, a scholar whose book “Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness” was a cornerstone of Kiwanga’s research, considers the laws to be a precursor for more recent stop-and-frisk approaches to policing.

The history Browne traces allowed Kiwanga to “think about light and all the different ways that it’s used and how it can be weaponized,” she said in a recent Zoom call from Paris.

She had explored this history of forced illumination in a 2019 exhibition, “Safe Passage,” at the MIT List Center, focusing on artificial light. Now, in New York, she comes at things from a perspective rooted in a new sense of place.

“I started asking, ‘What is the contemporary technology that connects to those lantern laws?’ And the floodlights used by the NYPD in public space, in spaces that are deemed to need more light — more surveillance — really fit in with that.”

The high-intensity mobile floodlights to which Kiwanga refers were introduced in 2014 by then-Mayor Bill de Blasio to reduce crime; 150 of them were set up outside public housing developments in predominantly low-income communities of color. The practice has been criticized by some residents for the machinery’s brightness, noise and relentlessness, and was the subject of a 2021 documentary short, “Omnipresence.” It continues to be used under the administration of Mayor Eric Adams, a spokesperson for the New York Police Department confirmed.

In addition to avoiding artificial illumination, Kiwanga’s strategy included upending the function of one of these police floodlights — short-circuiting its usefulness as an object of surveillance. With the assistance of the New Museum, she purchased one from the same manufacturer that supplies them to the Police Department.

“What was so interesting to me was the idea of taking the aluminum from the floodlights, which is used to reflect and augment the light, and completely inverting its intended effect and making it opaque,” Kiwanga said.--nyt

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