New works by Maliza Kiasuwa create totems of mixed meaning out of everyday objects

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New works by Maliza Kiasuwa create totems of mixed meaning out of everyday objects
Maliza Kiasuwa, Paradoxes 3, 2023. Paper and sand paper, 23 x 16.5 in. Courtesy of the artist and Morton Fine Art.

WASHINGTON, DC .- Morton Fine Art will be opening Art as a weapon, an exhibition of mixed-media collage and sculpture by artist Maliza Kiasuwa. Based between Brussels, Belgium and Naivasha, Kenya, Kiasuwa’s collage practice blends locally available materials with cultural referents. At once reflecting contemporary globalization and reinvesting in traditional object-based animism, Kiasuwa’s practice continues to expand in the years following her decisive move into paper-based collage. The artist’s second solo exhibition with the gallery, Art as a weapon will be on view from June 17 to July 18, 2023 at Morton Fine Art’s Washington, D.C. location.

An artist with a longstanding practice rooted in found objects and the histories that inscribe them, Kiasuwa uses thread to stitch disparate materials into an interlacing dialogue. Her works often simultaneously depict and simulate a vision of exchange between parties that—while surprising or possibly dissonant in material—are imbued with a sense of harmony and dignity in form.

Moving only recently into paper-based collage, Kiasuwa considers this new body of work a stylistic breakthrough in her career as an artist, unlocking new possibilities of implication and gesture.

Of Congolese-Romanian heritage, Kiasuwa’s formal collage arrangements are indebted to a fusion of Christianity and animism that inform African culture. Traveling and living between Africa and Europe, Kiasuwa has been inspired from a young age by this “mix of the sacred,” including the talismanic qualities of everyday objects, as well as the strong, sometimes shocking contrasts between natural beauty and human intervention in the region. Working with these influences, the artist’s compositions evoke stances of power while remaining culturally unfixed, allowing for multiple interpretations to exist within their totemic arrangements.

For example, in Kiasuwa’s “Talisman” series, approachable icons make for contradictory readings, thanks to the artist’s cunning arrangement of cut-outs resembling fish. Lake Naivasha, on which the eponymous city depends, has recently been a site of local conflict as pollution, overfishing and climate change are met with government and humanitarian intervention. The many Naivashans who depend on fishing for sustenance have grown frustrated by the decreasing size of available fish in the lake, and environmental restrictions have led to open conflict with the authorities. Kiasuwa invokes these recent issues in open dialogue with the more typically Western—and Biblical—interpretation of the iconography as a symbol for abundance.

The artist’s conjoining series “Intersection” and “Paradox” seem to enact this process of symbolic suggestion and conversation, in both its possibilities and limits, by utilizing another familiar yet charged visual typology: the African mask. With her deft use of simple shapes and subtle curves, Kiasuwa constructs arrangements that seem to evoke the entire sweep of art history associated with this mask design, from the traditional power figures of Central African statuary to the bold-faced appropriation of so-called “primitivist” European Modernism. Constructing stripped-back depictions of ambiguous encounters, again with fish imagery seemingly resting on each subject’s mind, the artist creates indicative works free from simple lessons. Her evocative tableaux simultaneously inspire association while provoking us to ponder what subjectivities may hide behind one another’s masks.

Maliza Kiasuwa (b. 1975, Democratic Republic of Congo), is a visual artist of European and African descent. She lives and works in Kenya, where she creates works with stimulating and eclectic elements celebrating Africa’s mystic power of nature by using raw materials and traditional symbols of energy that flow through the veins of the continent. She transforms everyday articles by combining reductive methods of shredding and twisting with constructive processes of tying, weaving, stitching and dyeing. The process is fluid, focused and meditative. Kiasuwa has exhibited in Kenya, Switzerland, Italy, England and the United States.

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