September 20, 2021

Miatta Kawinzi Illuminates Spaces of Connection and Possibility Across Place, Space, and Time

Lineage, cultural hybridity and multiplicity, the liberatory and regenerative potential of softness, and the deep and steady yearning for the reparative are fundamental to the Fall 2021 Teiger Mentor in the Arts.

By Patti Witten

Miatta Kawinzi, Untitled (Santo Domingo) (2019), digital photograph, dimensions variable. photo / provided

Brooklyn–based multi-disciplinary artist, writer, and educator Miatta Kawinzi is a Kenyan-Liberian-American raised in Tennessee and Kentucky. In her practice, she traces the various complexities of the global African diaspora, exploring questions around hierarchy, Indigeneity across continents, multiplicities and complexities of Blackness, cultural fragmentation, and what she calls "the deep and steady yearning for the reparative."

Kawinzi's recent work has taken the form of sculptural multi-media installation, analog and digital film/video, soundscape, and embodied photography. 

"My work is driven by questions and my process of making often involves embodied research, travel, and improvisation as I trace ideas through different forms, piecing together fragments into larger wholes," she says. "I see poetics, appearing as constellations of text and language across different media, as a connecting thread."

Installation views at CUE Art Foundation, New York City. Left: SHE GATHER ME (2021), HD color video and 16mm color film transferred to video with two-channel audio, three wooden rocking chairs, silver mylar floor. Right: SHE GATHER ME (2021), detail. The title is taken from a character and dialogue in Toni Morrison's 1987 novel, Beloved. images / provided

Kawinzi's Black U.S. Southern cultural background and familial influences from Liberia, West Africa, and Kenya are deeply evident as she engages an ongoing exploration around cultural hybridity and multiplicity. She finds radical possibility in what she calls an exploration of the liberatory and regenerative potential and language of softness, "illuminating and questioning structures of hardness, meditating on dual notions of fragility and strength."

The exploration of softness has roots in her personal life.

"Growing up I was always called 'sensitive,' sometimes dismissively," she says. "Yet I have come to embrace this attentiveness to the world around me as a rich place from which to reflect on connectivity. There are many restrictive societal tropes in the U.S. surrounding Black women and unflappable stoicism. I find it important to deliberately claim and expand on softness as well."

Detail from New Patterns (2021), colored pencil on paper transferred to digital print; inset The fragrance of our blooming (2021), archival pigment print, 20" x 24". image / provided

"Currently, I am turning to my maternal familial lineage to expand on research and creative interpretation that thinks through historical, contemporary, and speculative relationships between the U.S. and Liberia — the West African nation founded in the 1800s in part by the American Colonization Society and as a destination for Black people to return to the continent from the Americas," she says.

"As always, with this work, I am seeking to find and illuminate spaces of connection, renewal, and possibility across time, space, and geography."

"This contemporary moment feels incredibly fraught, and that makes the impulse to feel even more important to cultivating spaces from which to consider and enact alternative possibilities, together." Miatta Kawinzi, 2021 Teiger Mentor in the Arts

Libration (2019), HD color video projection, four-channel audio, elastic, thread, installation view from Resident Artist Exhibition at Red Bull Arts Detroit, Detroit, Michigan. photo / provided

"The Department of Art is pleased to invite Miatta Kawinzi's teachings and share her voice with our students and the Cornell community," says Paul Ramírez Jonas, department chair. "As an artist focused on radical possibility and reimagining, her mentorship and dialogue with graduate students in their studios this fall will bring unique insight into our current moment, both culturally and as it relates to art practice, and so immense value to the development of their creative practices."

Kawinzi also looks forward to thinking with and alongside M.F.A. students in both classroom and studio environments. Her graduate seminar is thematically centered around the idea of "imagining otherwise," after artist and scholar Ashon Crawley's concept of "otherwise" as a space of radical possibility.

"For me," she says, "teaching is always about a reciprocal exchange creating space within the classroom to consider and imagine things differently."

In addition to studio visits and her seminar, Kawinzi will present an artist talk titled Notes on Possibility, on September 30 at 5:15 p.m. 

Exhibition view of SHE GATHER ME and River City from Soft is Strong at CUE Art Foundation, New York City, 2021. photo / Adam Reich.

Kawinzi's work has been presented in New York City at CUE Art Foundation, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Museum of the Moving Image, as well as MoMA PopRally and Red Bull Arts Detroit, among other spaces. She is the recipient of the 2021–22 Jerome Hill Artist Fellowship, the 2021 New York Artadia Award, the 2019 Bemis Center Alumni Award, and the 2018 Barbara Hammer Lesbian Experimental Filmmaking Grant administered by Queer|Art. She has taught at Hampshire College and the University of Richmond, and her artist residencies include the Tulsa Artist Fellowship, P.O.V. Spark in partnership with the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History & Culture (New York City, Washington, DC, and Venice); and the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris.

The Teiger Mentor in the Arts is a program in AAP's Department of Art that hosts internationally acclaimed artists to work with fine art students.

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