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Moody Center’s immersive Kiwanga exhibition meditates on sand and time

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The Maya-Bantu installation seen at the Moody Center for the Arts, which is currently home to “The Sand Recalls the Moon’s Shadow” – the first solo exhibition in Houston for Paris-based, multidisciplinary artist Kapwani Kiwanga. The show revolves around issues like the cultivation of sisal in Tanzania and the impact of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in Texas.

Photo: Godofredo A. Vásquez, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

Two side-specific installations anchor Kapwani Kiwanga’s “The Sand Recalls the Moon’s Shadow,” a new exhibition at the Moody Center for the Arts at Rice University. Each piece presents an immersive environment: “Maya-Bantu” is a looming sculpture more than 25-feet high in which a crescent is bisected by a rectangular panel, and the entire piece is draped in sisal. “Dune” gives the feeling of some futuristic space colony. The lights along the perimeter bounce through glass lenses and orbs. For such an otherworldly vibe, “Dune” is quite serene.

Though the materials and overall appearance are wildly different, each piece offers faint echoes of the other. Lean into the sisal threads of “Maya-Bantu” and each fiber offers a unique twisting shape. And those shapes can be found in the orbs that play with the lights in “Dune.” Also connecting the two is a beige tone that emerges from the tufts of sisal, matching the color of the sand — 50 tons of it — that covers the sizable floor space in “Dune,” all of it from Texas, a product used in the process of hydraulic fracturing.

An award-winning artist from Canada based in Paris, Kiwanga presents these pieces in her first ever solo exhibition in Houston. Her materials — sand, glass, sisal — were selected not just because they interact so intricately with one another. But she also finds herself intrigued by organic materials: their histories, their applications, the evolution of their usage across time.

‘The Sand Recalls the Moon’s Shadow’

Who: Kapwani Kiwanga

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays through Dec. 19

Where: Moody Center for the Arts, Rice University, 6100 Main (near Entrance 8)

Details: free; moody.rice.edu

“With these materials, I find this way to work that is less sculptural and more like an archivist,” Kiwanga says. “I like to approach the material in the most broad way thinking about how we can open up the archives and make the archives more in phase with the world. That’s where the materials come in. These materials witness our past and the present as well. I try to allow the material to speak.”

‘Speaking witnesses’

The Moody Center’s Ylinka Barotto, who curated “The Sand Recalls the Moon’s Shadow,” describes Kiwanga’s method as “an anthropological approach to art.”

With “Maya-Bantu,” Kiwanga decided to work with a material that carries a long and fascinating history in Tanzania. The Agave sisalana plant was introduced by a German settler in the country nearly 130 years ago. Sisal’s long story as a cash crop runs through the nation’s 20th century and played a part through Tanzania’s colonization and independence. Befitting a complicated history, “Maya-Bantu” takes an intriguing shape: Parts of the sculpture serve almost as an embrace to visitors, who can be enveloped by the fibers. Travel 90 degrees around it and the piece becomes more forbidding and imposing.

“I think of these as speaking witnesses,” Kiwanga says. “It’s not just something like taking a pen and writing one’s own story. The material speaks for itself, which is something I am trying to wrestle with but in a very simple way. Sisal has this economic and social history in Tanzania. It was smuggled in by settlers, and they installed sisal plantations. And there’s a monocrop economy that survives today that has gone through all these phases of political power. Sisal hasn’t changed its structure, but it has witnessed all these changes.”

Forget for a moment its visual allure, just from a logistical perspective, “Dune” prompts deep reflection about time. The effort to pour so much sand into the gallery was formidable. The piece’s title suggests both a temporary structure as well as the millennia required to produce a singular grain.

The NASA connection

With Kiwanga in Paris and the materials in Houston, Barotto and others at the Moody Center had to use video through phones and tablets to install the works to the artist’s specifications.

“It was a challenge,” Barotto says, “but we were able to accomplish her vision.”

For all the textural intrigue of “Maya-Bantu,” “Dune” by contrast serves more as a scene to observe — a sight upon touch down to some other celestial space. That mood was also by design: Though the sand was deliberately selected from fracking operations, Kiwanga also wanted to touch on Houston’s connection to space travel.

“Houston, NASA, celestial bodies,” Barotto says, “she was thinking about all of those things.”

Though Kiwanga has a background in anthropology, her pieces are hardly simple condemnations of the past. Rather she hopes they prompt conversation about historical record: How we file and regard what happens. Ideally, they would prompt some heightened awareness of our smallness.

“I like to think of deep, deep history,” she says. “The formation and disappearance of lakes. Compression of granite and its erosion. We think of ideas, Atlas and myths, but even that — this ancient history — is just a small blip. The big, big, big history makes us more humble. . . . And I find things humbling are also healthy. I’m not a geologist, but imagine how that grain of sand got here. A mountain eroding into this little thing that gets stuck between your toes when you go to the beach.”

“The Sand Recalls the Moon’s Shadow” has a third component, though it’s neither new nor site-specific. But “Vumbi” nestles beautifully between the two installations. Early in her career, Kiwanga worked mostly with video, and “Vumbi” is a piece from 2012. The piece finds her in Tanzania on the side of the road as motorists, pedestrians and cyclists pass by. With her back to the camera Kiwanga gently washes the leaves of some vegetation. On first look, the vegetation simply appears a robust rust color. But Kiwanga’s work reveals a brilliant green beneath.

Hers is a Sisyphean task captured on film: With each vehicle that passes, the reddish dust will simply find its way back to the foliage. Still, she finds value in such a small, intimate act.

These things — sand, sisal, dust — they speak to a series of connections between people and the planet.

“All of these things were there before us,” she says. “They’ll be there after us. I think I’m just drawn to this idea of our smallness in a larger story.”

andrew.dansby@chron.com

  • Andrew Dansby

    Andrew Dansby covers culture and entertainment, both local and national, for the Houston Chronicle. He came to the Chronicle in 2004 from Rolling Stone, where he spent five years writing about music. He’d previously spent five years in book publishing, working with George R.R. Martin’s editor on the first two books in the series that would become TV’s “Game of Thrones. He misspent a year in the film industry, involved in three “major” motion pictures you’ve never seen. He’s written for Rolling Stone, American Songwriter, Texas Music, Playboy and other publications.

    Andrew dislikes monkeys, dolphins and the outdoors.

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