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Ashes to Ashes: The Second Life of Kiluanji Kia Henda’s Afrofuturistic Critique

“Ashes to Ashes: The Second Life of Kiluanji Kia Henda’s Afrofuturistic Critique,” in Afrofuturism 2.0 The Black Speculative Arts Movement: Afrofuturism, Art+Design, Reynaldo Anderson and Charles E. Jones, eds. (n.p.: Lexington Books, forthcoming 2017).

Excerpt:

African artists born to a post-independence continent, 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.”1 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,2 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 the country’s current political and economic climate. 

1 Okwui Enwezor and Chika Okeke-Agulu, Contemporary African Art Since 1980 (Bologna: Damiani, 2009), 15.
2 The term “totalitarian kitsch” originates with author Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), but is used here in an aesthetic rather than socio-political context.