Art Nouveau reexamined by Kapwani Kiwanga's brand-new artwork at Bozar

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Art Nouveau reexamined by Kapwani Kiwanga's brand-new artwork at Bozar
Kapwani Kiwanga, Rootwork, 2023 (detail). Wool, Linen, Tencel. 360 cm x 640 cm. © SABAM 2023. Courtesy Centre for Fine Arts Brussels and the Artist. Photo: Bozar/Charles Schuermans.

BRUSSELS.- To coincide with the exhibition Victor Horta and the Grammar of Art Nouveau, the French and Canadian artist Kapwani Kiwanga has created a new work at Bozar’s invitation: a rug with an ornamental floral motif entitled Rootwork.

This monumental floor covering of more than 20m2 - with its floral motifs and curves - evokes the visual language of Horta, one of the founders of the Art Nouveau style and the architect of the Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels. But beyond these formal references, Kapwani Kiwanga’s work questions history. The history of plants and power relations.

“The invitation to Brussels led me to concentrate on plants or their products that were imported into Belgium. I wanted to understand the pharmacological and nutritional uses, but also how Europe was interested in them for their commercial potential.”

Kiwanga’s research-led practice often focuses on marginalised or forgotten histories. Her protean work explores the relationships between historical narratives and systems of power, and takes shape in materials charged with meaning. Kiwanga develops what she calls ‘exit strategies’, with works that invite visitors to see things from different perspectives and find ways of approaching the future differently. Her work is as much about looking to the future as it is about examining the past.

For Rootwork, Kiwanga drew from the archives of the Meise Botanic Garden, on the outskirts of Brussels. The plants depicted on the carpet were selected by the artist for their role in the history between Belgium and the Congolese region. The rubber vine is a reminder of the exploitation and commercialisation of plundered natural resources, while the baobab flower is a reminder, among other things, of the importance of social ties.

Through her creations, Kapwani Kiwanga questions our relationship with the environment and poetically makes forgotten stories and imbalances of power visible.

In this imposing carpet — made from wool, linen and tencel — the material, shapes and colours express a softness that contrasts with violence and stories of domination. “I’m trying to uncover the strategies for ‘normalising violence’ traces of which can also be found in the aesthetics of Art Nouveau,” explains Kiwanga.

Flowers steeped in history

In Rootwork, Kiwanga has chosen to highlight the following two varieties:

Adansonia digitata is the main species of African baobab, found throughout sub-Saharan Africa, but particularly in the Congo Basin. The baobab plays an important role in many sub-Saharan communities as a social gathering place.

Landolphia owariensis is a rubber vine that grows throughout West Africa, from Gambia to Angola, and is widespread in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Both species have pharmacological properties and are associated with Belgium and King Leopold II.

In recent decades, artists and researchers have explored the violence underlying the ornamental forms of Art Nouveau, such as the ‘whiplash’ motif.

“The starting point is a reflection on botany and how plants are partners in human history, either as witnesses to historical events or as allies in a quest for liberation.”


The title Rootwork refers to two concepts: it literally refers to the organic roots of a plant, or, metaphorically, to the source of an object or event. It is also a word used to describe the medicine developed by African-American communities in the United States, combining the pharmacopoeia, spiritual beliefs and herbal healing.

Rootwork is the result of an invitation issued in 2021 by Sophie Lauwers, the previous managing director of Bozar, and Claire le Restif, director of the Centre d'art contemporain d'Ivry - Le Crédac.

Kapwani Kiwanga studied anthropology and comparative religion at McGill University (Montreal, Canada). She attended the ‘La Seine’ programme at the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts in Paris, then Le Fresnoy - Studio national des arts contemporains in Tourcoing. Twice nominated for a BAFTA, her films have won several awards at international festivals.

Kapwani Kiwanga was the first winner of the Frieze Artist Award (USA, 2018), the Sobey Art Award (Canada, 2018), the Marcel Duchamp Prize (France, 2020) and the Zurich Art Prize (Switzerland, 2022).

Her solo exhibitions have been presented at MOCA, Toronto; Le Crédac, Ivry-sur-Seine; Museum Haus Konstruktiv, Zurich; New Museum, New York; State of Concept, Athens; Moody Center for the Arts, Houston; Haus der Kunst, Munich; Kunstinstituut Melly (Formerly known as Witte de With), Rotterdam; Kunsthaus Pasquart, Biel/Bienne; MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge (USA); Esker Foundation, Calgary; Power Plant, Toronto; Logan Center for the Arts, Chicago; South London Gallery, London, and Jeu de Paume, Paris.

Kapwani Kiwanga’s current schedule also includes exhibitions at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg (16. 09. 2023 - 07. 01. 2024), the Capc Musée d'art contemporain de Bordeaux (30.06.23 - 07.01.24), the Remai Modern Saskatoon (07.10.2023 - 06.04.2024) and the Fundação de Serralves (Porto, 24.11.23 - 02.06.24).

After several major solo exhibitions in Europe and North America, Kapwani Kiwanga will represent Canada at the Venice Biennale 2024.

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