Yield, 2016. Digital Photograph. Dimensions Variable
Interdisciplinary artist MIATTA KAWINZI gives thoughtful attention to
rhythm, cadence and metaphor, delving into human malleability and
responsiveness to time, language, physical space and sociopolitical
context. She isolates, repeats and remixes sounds, words, hand gestures
and whole body movements. In video, performance and photography,
she reveals a universal human condition—that we all must interface with
the surrounding world through our bodies—while also hinting that
every-body does not have the same experience in this world. Miatta
earned her BA in Interdisciplinary Art & Cultural Theory from
Hampshire in 2010, and went on to earn her MFA in Studio Art at Hunter
College of the City University of New York. She has been an
Artist-in-Residence at Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts (Omaha, NE), Beta-Local (San Juan, Puerto Rico), Greatmore Studios (Cape Town, South Africa) and International Exchange & Studio Program (Basel, Switzerland). This summer, Miatta will debut a new sound/text/video installation in Of Soil and Tongues,
a group show at the Hampshire College Art Gallery (Amherst,
Massachusetts). The show runs from June 1 – October 1, 2017. Miatta is
based in Brooklyn, NY, where she also works as a community teaching
artist and museum educator.
looking at your work in a variety of media—video, performance,
sculpture, installation, text and photography—all together, I would
describe it as poetic because of its attention to rhythm, cadence,
repetition and metaphor. What does that word mean to you? Is that how
you think about your own practice?
Miatta Kawinzi: I am
definitely working within a framework of poetics. I am interested in
poetics in terms of language, structure and conceptualization, which I
think you’re picking up on. Words are line, language is a dwelling
place, a phrase can be a journey with starts and stops. In my work, I
play with spatially orienting thought in new ways. Poet Nathaniel Mackey
wrote, "I tend to pursue resonance rather than resolution.” I have
always felt affinity with this idea: to not be naively in search of easy
answers to deal with the magnitude of the upside-down world, but to
instead be willing to follow various strains of thought and feeling down
different paths to perhaps uncover alternate ways of seeing and being. I
also think about Audre Lorde
stating that “poetry is not a luxury," and the ways in which,
throughout my experience, words have consistently been a balm and salve
for me in the face of sometimes harsh socioeconomic realities. The
poetic becomes the through-line, the way to string things together and
highlight points of connection.
In my work, I think about the
rhythms of life, the repetition of history, how one thing can become
something else. All of these notions for me are related to poetic
impulses and poetry's ability to allow us to re-imagine our selves and
Star Spangz, 2013. HD Color Video, Sound.16:9, 04:12 min.
OPP: I was really struck by the visual imagery of language in Clay
(2014), especially the (raffia?—not sure exactly what that is) dyed the
same color as your lipstick. The chewing of it, the casual tossing
away, the stuffing of it back into the mouth and then the spreading out
and offering of it toward the camera. And then of course the
connection—and disconnection—between language that comes directly from
the mouth and language that comes from the fingers. Can you talk about
language as it relates to sound and written text, both of which you use
in your work?
MK: The blue material is indeed raffia! One
thing I am invested in is tracing the way in which language can manifest
in both verbal and non-verbal forms. How can language be embedded into
other kinds of materiality, and how does communication take place
through means other than verbal speech? In Clay, I was really
interested in putting these different forms of communication alongside
one another, all on the same plane. The kalimba as a musical instrument
references a musical way of communicating, with roots in a certain
African diasporic tradition. The fingers texting on an iPhone represent
this other kind of digital communication, a way in which many people
around the globe keep in touch in the contemporary moment. And there is
spoken text in the video that is semi-audible and semi-obscured. Then
the raffia references this physical manifestation of verbal language,
making it tangible, able to be extended, able to become involved in a
kind of dance with the body emanating from the mouth. Here and elsewhere
I am constantly engaged in a dance between different forms of language
as they originate from the body, from words, from place, from material.
Clay, 2014. HD Color Video, Sound. 16:9, 03:25 min.
OPP: You made this video while in residence at Greatmore
Studios in Capetown, South Africa. How did the location, so far from
home, feed into this piece?
MK: There are eleven official languages of South Africa, and many people are
multilingual, so the location sparked new angles of consideration for
ideas I explored in this piece. Cape Town is a very beautiful, dynamic
and vibrant city, yet there are also these ongoing inequalities, and I
am thinking about that tension in placing myself in front of the barbed
wire in the video.
Regarding the audio, one of the ways through which I use sound in my
work—my own vocalization, improvisation, analog/digital instrumentation,
and remixing—has to do with my interest in the potency of wordlessness
that nonetheless carries an emotional import. Often my work in sound
goes in and out of legibility which relates to my interest in
illuminating different kinds of knowledge, some of which can be
mysterious or even unconscious, yet still resonant. I am also invested
in exploring the act of remixing as a way of enacting alternative
temporalities. . . to move beyond linear time, to stretch time, to hold
time in different ways. It’s a way of working with the materiality of
But I Dreamt We Was All Beautiful&Strong, 2015. Color Video Projection & Sound on Loop in Corner. Dimensions Variable.
OPP: Last year, at another residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, you created Push & Pull, a “performative photography series.” Tell us what inspired this work and how it directly responded to the space.
I was very excited to be granted a residency at Bemis. I went there
from Brooklyn at a moment in which I had no physical studio space and
very little space otherwise to make or think in. Upon arrival there, I
immediately felt a sense of bodily unfolding through my access to a
sizable private studio and large shared spaces, which directly inspired
that photography series. I was thinking also about how there is a
politic to all of this, to something as basic as having enough space to
stretch in, and I wanted to utilize this access—while I had it—to
explore the geometry of my body in relation to this open space. I was
reading a book by Michio Kaku called Physics of the Impossible,
and in the book Kaku was highlighting the ways in which things like
teleportation could become possible under the right conditions. From
there I began thinking about these ideas of possibility/impossibility
not only in relation to the laws of science and theoretical physics, but
also in terms of how they may relate conceptually to pushing against
sociopolitical limits. The performative actions in the series are meant
to embody this through bodily metaphor.
Rhombus, 2016. Digital Photograph. Dimensions Variable
OPP: Can you address the fact that this is a series of photographs, not a live performance and not a performative video?
I actually also created a live performance that explored these same
ideas and created the series afterwards based on that performance. For
me, it is quite difficult to capture the energy of live performance
through documentation, so the photographs were a way through which that
work could take on another life to be shared in a different way beyond
the initial audience.
OPP: I’ve been thinking about
the creation of these frozen movements as dance. . . but are they frozen
moments from a fluid action or poses? What’s your relationship to
dance, both in your art practice and in your life outside art?
They are a mixture of both. I don’t necessarily consider myself to be a
dancer because I never studied dance, but I do use terms like
‘embodiment’ and ‘movement’ to describe my approach to such work. I am
very conscious of how much can be expressed through the body both in my
art practice and daily life.
gatherin’ space, 2016. Color Video Projection & Sound on
Loop, Aluminum Foil; Acrylic Paint & Oil Pastel on Wood Panel. 128 x
163 x 249 in.
OPP: Could you talk about the variety of hand
gestures—reaching, drumming, climbing, worship and hands up, don’t
shoot, to name just a few—in gatherin’ space (2016)?
MK: gatherin’ space
is a meditation on ideas of containment and expansion as expressed
through the language of hand gesture. I am thinking about the hands as
bodily extensions through which we shape, make, feel, sense, probe,
praise, labor, surrender, assert, resist. I wanted to bring all of these
different connotations together on the same plane because they all
exist together in the lexicon of the body. So much of how I experience
the world emanates from the hands—to touch, to write, to grasp, to lift.
It’s also a way of abstracting the body, of resting in that place of
multiplicity. The hands have the potential to shape space and reality,
La Tercera Raíz, 2015. HD Color Video, Sound. 16:9, 9:22 min.
OPP: “the strength in yielding, in taking on the shape of that
which sits stoically, to then regain one’s form.” This text, which
comes from your video La Tercera Raíz (2015), is a beautiful
articulation of a range of themes that run through your work: the power
of fluidity, responsiveness, malleability, shape-shifting. How do these
themes and the metaphor of water relate to how you think about the
diasporic condition and cultural identity?
MK: I think
about diaspora as an active process of exchange, as a gesture, as a
reaching towards. My mom is Liberian and my father is Kenyan, and I grew
up in the U.S. South navigating multiple cultural and linguistic
worlds, which informs my work. I have found power in being adaptable. I
am also interested in how cultural identification is an ongoing,
shifting context-based negotiation. This is part of why travel is
important to me; it is a form of drawing in space, a mode through which
to find and explore connections between place and culture, and to try to
stretch the arms to skillfully balance both the similar and the
La Tercera Raíz arose out of my research into the history and presence of the African diaspora in Mexico during my participation in the 2015 SOMA Summer program in Mexico City.
Research often goes into my work, and then there is a process of
abstraction through which I generate writing that becomes another way of
considering an idea, of opening it up through poetics and finding a
more personal relationship to the topic at hand.
wrote about how water has a memory and I am interested in this idea of
material memory, in the sea as a bridge between worlds. I think we have
so much to learn from the elements and how they exist in and interact
with the world. Water bears so much, has such a consistent and deep
presence, yet the sea also teaches me that weight is conditional. I can
float in it and be suspended, held, weightless. Something becomes
To see more of Miatta's work, please visit mkawstudio.com
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based artist Stacia Yeapanis.
When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in
cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is
an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The
School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006,
and was a 2011-2012 Artist-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include shows at Siena Heights University (2013), Heaven Gallery (2014), the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (2014) and Witness,
an evolving, durational installation at The Stolbun Collection (Chicago
2017), that could only be viewed via a live broadcast through a
Nestcam. Now that the installation is complete, you can watch it via time lapse. Her upcoming solo show
Sacred Secular will open in August 2017 at Indianapolis Art Center.