Ashes to Ashes

The Second Life of Kiluanji Kia Henda’s Afrofuturist Critique

(This is the first bit of  a paper I wrote for my methods class in fall, 2013)

African artists born to a post-independence continent,[1] curiously placed in the temporal limbo engendered by their new nations’ violently dynamic notions of future and past, are socially empowered as image-makers to realign, reshape, and rename the world. The African artist’s process is an enactment of his nation’s negotiation with modernity; the artist is an “historical agent capable of representing the modern condition in which he is working.”[2] Using methods similar to Dadaist bricolage, Afrofuturism seizes upon this chronological purgatory as a site for uncanny cultural remixes. Science fiction narratives offer a compelling populist opening to such rewritten cultural autobiographies.

In Spaceship Icarus 13 (2008), Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Henda (born 1979, Luanda) harnesses Afrofuturist memes to present a vision of the future based on a reimagined past, channeling an unlikely combination of satire and utopianism, irony and hope. Spaceship Icarus 13—an architectural model, a story, and a series of eight photographs—”documents” the creation of Africa’s first space base and humanity’s first mission to the sun. Henda’s spaceship is a reappropriated item of totalitarian kitsch,[3] a late 1970s era Soviet-designed mausoleum for Agostinho Neto, Angola’s Marxist-leaning first president. Within this mausoleum-cum-spaceship, enhanced in Henda’s narrative by icons of American consumerism and Angolan devastation—Budweiser and diamonds—the artist sends Neto’s ashes up to burn. The violence of this second destruction, from ashes to ashes, is both piercing and poignant. It encapsulates Henda’s artistic critique of Angola’s long civil war, its lost human potential, and its current political and economic climate.

Yet the delicious humor of Spaceship Icarus 13, a glorious and impossible fantasy tht recalls the hubris of the mythical Greek Icarus and riffs on the Apollo 13 mission, softens the work into a readily palpable confection easily consumed by foreign audiences. Just as Henda’s project gives renewed life to Neto’s monument by reappointing it as a spaceship, Spaceship Icarus 13 has itself a second life as a representative of the larger Afrofuturist movement in Africa as it tours the global biennale circuit. This paper will trace the critical reception of Spaceship Icarus 13 as it has made its way around the world, discuss Henda’s role in presenting the diasporically-originating mode of Afrofuturism returned to the African continent, and explore the work’s potential vis à vis Angolan culture. If the narratives that build nations are based upon the control and containment of time, then the utopian time of Afrofuturist art breaks that to pieces, thus presenting a path towards cultural reinvention. Alongside the easy sci-fi iconography of Spaceship Icarus 13, Henda’s larger project may be in fact oneiric rather than futurist, encouraging Angolans to dream again their future and past. The melancholy entombed within the extravagance of Spaceship Icarus 13, its travel a paradox of hope in a very poor nation forced to “make everything new,”[4] is a continuing critique of both Angolan history and the surface reading of the work by its global audience.

[1] See image above. African national independence across the continent is concentrated in a 15-year time period. By 1966, all but six African nations had declared independence from colonial rule (not including Ethiopia and Liberia, which have never been formally colonized).

[2] Okwui Enwezor and Chika Okeke-Agulu, Contemporary African Art Since 1980. (Bologna: Damiani, 2009): 15.

[3] The term “totalitarian kitsch” originates with author Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but is used here in an aesthetic rather than socio-political context.

[4] Kiluanji Kia Henda, “Part 4: Kiluanji Kia Henda.” Lecture, After Post-Colonialism: Transnationalism or Essentialism? from Tate Modern, May 8, 2010., accessed October, 2013.