It is unexpected to find amusement dominating an exhibition that tackles views of Africa as either monstrous, or a Paradise Lost. But Frieze 2017 winner Kiluanji Kia Henda’s show In the Days of a Dark Safari disarms history by poking ample fun at any desire to catalogue and brand life on the continent.
The Angolan-born artist says irony helps him to communicate and tell his stories.
"If you want to find a space for your argument, you also have to get some humour in your voice," Kia Henda says.
"Humour, irony is a way to destabilise things, like making people think, to provoke people rather than call them names."
Among his photographs and film on show at the Goodman Gallery in Cape Town is a peculiar tour through the Museum of Natural History in Luanda. In one series of prints, Kia Henda draped stuffed animals with black cloth, protecting them from any categorising gaze, and making them unknowable, mutable, mythic objects.
In a second series, The Last Journey of the Dictator Mussunda N’zombo Before the Great Extinction, a nattily attired character reminiscent of Mobutu Sese Seko is seen in various dioramas, alive and "exploring", but also, in one piece, toppled to the ground like a statue.
The series, the gallery explains, portrays the end of dictatorships, where "the dead corpse of power undergoes taxidermy while animal objects come to life". Mocking typical safaris in the process is part of the visual enjoyment.
Kia Henda has been visiting the Luanda Natural History Museum for a long time. The Hall of Mammals boasts about 37 dioramas, while the Hall of Birds has 13, online sources say.
There is a Fish Hall, and a collection of molluscs. A star attraction is the giant sable antelope, or palanca — a species thought to have been wiped out during the civil war but rediscovered in 2004. The palanca appears in Kia Henda’s film Havemos de Voltar (We Shall Return), an exploration of the ideals imposed on the animal.
"For me [the museum] became like a magical place, because this idea of embalming [stuffing] a dead body, it’s not common in Angolan society; it comes from colonial times," says Kia Henda.
He finds this a metaphor for how people can read or approach history: "a dead body that we pretend is alive".
Kia Henda, who divides his time between Lisbon and Luanda, is concerned with complicating official historical narratives. The critique of colonial "collectors" is easily read, but placing a mock dictator in a similar diorama links to the artist’s views on African populism.
As the Goodman says, Kia Henda sees populism as "the discourse of those looking from the inside, claiming that the expulsion from paradise is the fault of those who came from the outside. They … hide the destruction by people who colonise themselves, pinning the blame for Africa’s failures on an external phantom."
Kia Henda’s past work also employs irony and delves into the construction of histories, notably the sci-fi Icarus 13 (2013), a photo series of a space ship built to visit the sun. An article on Frieze.com describes the hoax — the green cast of the sky created by fireworks at the local football stadium; the spaceship itself an incomplete Russian-built mausoleum in Luanda.
Other work explores the Cold War’s influence in Africa. Fantasy and science fiction were important in Cold War times, says Kia Hendra, who as a child read Superman and Marvel comics, and saw the Russian movie classic Solaris, about scientists aboard a space station, orbiting a fictional planet.
In Russia, "science fiction was also important for social-political interventions: [intellectuals] would create another universe in order to criticise the life they were living", he says.
The artist points out parallels with Angolan witchcraft. "I am not saying sci-fi and witchcraft are the same thing. But the narratives manifest the same way," Kia Hendra says. "Like a man flying, or someone becoming invisible … in my examination of Angolan history, I saw that sci-fi could create a different, dissonant narrative of reality," he says. Spending time in Luanda remains important to Kia Hendra’s creative process. There, unlike in Lisbon, historical narratives are less fixed.
"I feel that everything is under construction and you don’t have this weight of history on your back. That gives you some kind of freedom to invent your own history," he says.
"As an artist, that is important to me, to invent my own history. What I really want is to invent my own narrative, to invent my life," he says.
In the Days of a Dark Safari is on show at the Goodman Gallery, Cape Town, from October 7-28.