Critics’ Picks

View of “Kapwani Kiwanga: Linear,” 2017. From left: Linear Painting #4 Weyburn Mental Hospital (Weybrun, Saskatchewan), Linear Painting #5 Saint Laurent du Maroni prison (Guiana), both 2017.


Kapwani Kiwanga

Galerie Tanja Wagner
Pohlstraße 64
April 28–June 16

The saying “If these walls could talk” naturally implies that they can’t. But Kapwani Kiwanga is of a different mind. Her exhibition challenges the assumed neutrality of interiors in an investigation into the psychology of institutional architecture. A black line 160 centimeters from the floor traces the entire wall of the gallery. According to the hygiene standards of Europe, this marks the height below which walls should be washed in order to prevent the spread of illnesses. Consequently, hospital walls, much like society itself, have been divided into two colors: clean and infected.

Kiwanga’s “Linear Painting” series (all works 2017) on drywall curates a history of the two-tone wall colors prevalent in prisons, hospitals, and workplaces. Peach-terra-cotta and blue-green combinations, for instance, were developed by a dedicated color theorist for a Chicago factory to help bolster the efficiency of workers. A benign strategy perhaps, but one which, given the black and brown pairing used in a prison in French Guiana, quickly emerges as a form of social control. The black pigment for the lower half was chosen because it would rub off and thus mark anyone who got out of line. While the light turquoise of a Canadian mental hospital is said to have a calming effect, the transhistorical context established by the series installs “calm” as an ally of “staying in line,” with color as a solution to modernism’s intolerance of difference and liminality. In an intelligent translation of research to form, Kiwanga’s pastel hues emerge as powerful testimonies to division and struggle.