Kiluanji Kia Henda, Melilla Fence—Module IV (Hotel Flamingo), 2019, three square metal fences, neon sign. Installation view. Photo: Teresa Santos.

Kiluanji Kia Henda, Melilla Fence—Module IV (Hotel Flamingo), 2019, three square metal fences, neon sign. Installation view. Photo: Teresa Santos.

Kiluanji Kia Henda

Othello, Shakespeare’s tragic protagonist, suffers from epileptic seizures, one of which takes place when he is told that his wife has betrayed him. The event is a foreshadowing of things to come and of his downfall. In Kiluanji Kia Henda’s exhibition “Something Happened on the Way to Heaven” (curated by Luigi Fassi), the first work that greeted the viewer, Reliquary of a Shipwrecked Dream, 2019, centers a fallen bronze head, modeled after that of Orlando Sérgio, the first Black thespian to play Othello in a Portuguese theater. Though Othello has usually been described as a tale of jealousy, race is an overarching theme: It is because Othello is a Moor that he and Desdemona are forced to elope; it is because Othello has internalized the racial abuse to which he is constantly subjected that he falls for Iago’s intrigue; and it is, needless to say, race that motivates what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called Iago’s “motiveless Malignity,” a personification of the venomous rage Venetian society directs at interracial marriage. “Haply, for I am Black,” Othello reasons, sealing everyone’s fate, and, because misrecognition is one of the elements of tragedy, never realizing that it is he, not his wife, who looks at himself through the eyes of another. In Othello’s Fate, 2013, a suite of five photographs, part of the ongoing project Self-Portrait as a White Man, 2010–, Kia Henda stages a naked Othello against a late-Rococo backdrop: first encased in a wooden alcove and flanked by nude carved muses (Act I), then alone amid empty seats (Act II), reclining on a meadow-like blanket in front of a painting of ethereal young women and cherubic children (Act III), lying facedown on a row of tables (Act IV), and ultimately absent from the image (Act V). The Black male nude is Western art’s forbidden vision; his removal carries a force of unbelonging that ripples through the images.

Juxtaposed here with Othello’s Fate was O manto da apresentação (segundo Arthur Bispo do Rosário) (The Cloak of Presentation [According to Arthur Bispo do Rosário]), 2020, inspired by the cloak the titular Brazilian outsider artist made for himself to wear upon entering heaven. Shakespeare used epilepsy to signal that Othello’s mind, perhaps by virtue of his race, was not sound, that he lacked self-possession and was prone to irrational outbursts. Like Othello, because social stressors affect mental and physical health, Bispo do Rosário (1909–1989) was tormented by illness—in his case, schizophrenia. He was committed to a psychiatric institution, where he lived for fifty years.

Kia Henda’s cloak, made of Sardinian wool and decorated with Angolan beads, is an offering to those (mostly African) migrants perched at the threshold of an earthly paradise. Their plight, as they seek to enter the European Union, was also represented in another work on display, Melilla FenceModule IV (Hotel Flamingo), 2019, an impenetrable metal structure modeled on the barriers protecting the Spanish exclave of Melilla, located on the northwestern African coast. Decorated with a pink neon sign, the work’s retro-dystopian aesthetic evokes the bleakness of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) or George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), except this is not a tale about technocapitalist eschatology. Rather, Kia Henda seems to suggest that both capitalism and nationalism are organized by a colonial schema. The photographs Ludic Island Map and Bullet Proof GlassMappa Mundi (Caprera Island), and the suite The Geometric Ballad of Fear, all 2019, depict a heavily securitized and militarized Sardinia as an engine of oppression, not of prosperity. Something did happen on the way to heaven. Border regimes, processes of racial ascription, state-sanctioned terror, differential access to resources, and racial ordering of life outcomes are not regrettable by-products of the system but its content.