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  • “We all become aliens”: Sandra Mujinga at the Hamburger Bahnhof


“We all become aliens”: Sandra Mujinga at the Hamburger Bahnhof

We spoke to multidisciplinary artist Sandra Mujinga about her upcoming Hamburger Bahnhof show, 'I Build My Skin With Rocks'.

Photo: Gustave Muhozi

You are finally putting on your solo show, I Build My Skin With Rocks, at the Hamburger Bahnhof after winning the Preis der Nationalgalerie in 2021. What can we expect?

It will be a completely new video installation with a new soundtrack. It is about evading the gaze and becoming invisible through scale. Before I started working, I wrote a text imagining I was the last elephant, a kind of hybrid between elephant and human. And I was thinking: What would it mean to be the last of your kind? What would it mean to carry such history and have the responsibility of continuing to survive? So I’m imagining a body that is so big you cannot really capture it and that transforms into a landscape. The viewer will continuously have to think about how they position themselves in order to see the whole body. I’ve always been drawn to the idea of becoming unbeatable, evading surveillance by using the extreme zoom on the body and the abstraction that comes with it.

The world ends every day. We just have to reinvent it.

You’ve become recognised for your humanoid figures with their profound ethereal presence, like ‘Sentinels of Change’ and ‘Reworlding Remains’ from 2021. They appear to be survivors from an apocalyptic catastrophe, manifestations of global fears, like the climate emergency…

Some people have mentioned that they find the figures intimidating. I like the idea of viewers projecting fear onto the sculptures. I’ve always thought about the world somehow ending every day. I mean, for so many people it ends over and over. Like our experience of the climate crisis, which is very different depending on where you are geographically.

Sandra Mujinga, I Build My Skin with Rocks, 2022 [Videostill] © Sandra Mujinga. Courtesy die Künstlerin, Croy Nielsen, Wien und The Approach, London

Your work often explores the representation of Blackness and Black bodies. And your installations are often lit by this immersive green light. It evokes a sense of invisibility yet at the same time a hypervisibility that can be seen as an experience of being Black…

Early on, I was mainly working with blue screens. Then I travelled to Congo and visited the Virunga National Park, searching for a family of gorillas. I was surrounded by green and so began this slow transition into working with green, which became a space for interchangeability. There’s actually no depth, it’s almost like a desktop saver and anyone existing in it becomes interchangeable with the void. That’s also how I think about my sculptures: they are like hiding in plain sight. As we all enter the space, our skin colour changes, we all become aliens. In the same way, you don’t really know the colour of the sculptures.

As well as an artist you’re a garment maker, filmmaker and DJ. How have these experiences influenced your practice?

Music is a more diverse space, with different backgrounds and different people, while the art space is still predominantly white. And being involved in other fields affects the way you manoeuvre within art. I was reminded of this when I saw Angela Davis give a lecture in which she talked about Nina Simone and how music gives you the chance to exercise freedom. I think it’s so important to always be in spaces where you can exercise certain freedoms.

Photo: Chai Saeidi

In the video installation ‘Pervasive Light’ (2021) a blurred image of a cloaked Black figure walks in and out of the screens. It’s ungraspable, suggesting moving out of recognisable modes of identification. This is typical of your work, seeking to break out of societal structures and transcend boundaries.

There’s definitely a queering aspect. I’m drawn to unknown formats and try to expand on them. That is also definitely how music has influenced me. I started making music when genres were disappearing; everyone was using software and sharing music on SoundCloud and movements like Kuduro merged into other genres. That is something I bring into my art practice. It can be an installation but also activated by performance, that then becomes sculpture. I approach fabrics in the same way I think about sculptures: quite often what can look like a garment is also in opposition to a body. That’s tied up with my thoughts around the Anthropocene and decentring the human. With the figures, what may look like a jacket is actually working against the body.

As well as winning the Preis der Nationalgalerie, you also took part in the Venice Biennale. How do you explain this success?

For me it feels like a fairly steady flow but it’s hard to say. I think there’s a rising interest in ontology and in institutions talking about decolonisation and what that would look like. Maybe because I also belong to a generation that exists in different contexts.

I’m not pessimistic, it’s more the question of human survival that concerns me.

You have been vocal about a lack of ethnic representation in art institutions…

There’s always also a contradiction in how I insist on representation, because representation without power is meaningless. You need power to change the structures, especially when entering spaces that were not really made for you to begin with. On the one hand, I have a practice where I’m having panel discussions and inviting people to talk about these themes, and then on the other hand, I’m making sculptures and performances that exist out of the limelight and evade being seen. So both these elements exist tenuously together in my practice.

Sandra Mujinga, I Build My Skin with Rocks, 2022 [Videostill] © Sandra Mujinga. Courtesy die Künstlerin, Croy Nielsen, Wien und The Approach, London

You say these institutions are not necessarily made for people of colour. Can they be reformed? Or do we need something new?

Much of my work is about world building or reimagining completely new kinds of structures. I guess it has to be both: not to give up on those institutions but still also have the ability to start from scratch and reimagine different structures; pushing things further than our wildest dreams. I think science fiction can play a role in this because we need to stretch our imagination, and there’s also this challenge of unlearning. I like the idea of communities coming together – I want to take matters into my own hands, like organising a reading group where we can access text that I wished I was given when I was studying at an art academy.

The Berlin art scene is known for being international and inclusive. What has been your experience of it?

For me, Berlin is made up of several small art worlds. You have the institutions and galleries and then the artists that don’t necessarily work with galleries. But it’s all these different constellations, different ways of accessing art. I work with models that are Afro-Germans and they felt they didn’t really belong. If I mention a gallery opening, it’s not a natural thing for them to know about it. But they will know about poetry nights or more predominantly Black spaces.

Your work conjures up future contradictions where the digital world is a space for reinvention, but also of constant surveillance…

I’ve become increasingly aware of our handheld screens which are also windows into our own private worlds – on social media, we are always being seen by our neighbours, negotiating constantly how we go in and out of the frame. In my last photo series, Lack, I asked family members and friends to send me selfies. I patched together their faces, using their facial features to create new faces. And that was one way of thinking about using facial recognition technology as a way to evade surveillance.

Your work does tend to dwell on end-of-world, apocalyptic scenarios. Are you pessimistic about the future?

No. I’m not pessimistic, it’s more the question of human survival that concerns me. Because the planet will survive either way. I focus more on if there will be space for us. Anyway, I don’t think I can afford to be pessimistic. I think of that James Baldwin quote: hope is something that as humans must be invented every day, and in the same way the world ends every day. We just have to reinvent it.

  • Sandra Mujinga’s exhibition I Build My Skin With Rocks is on show at the Hamburger Bahnhof (Invalidenstr. 50-51, Mitte) from 9.12.22 – 1.5.23. Visit the museum’s website here for more information.
Sandra Mujinga was born in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo in 1989 and grew up in Oslo. The musician and artist’s practice spans video, sculpture, installation and textile. Earlier this year, she had an exhibition at Malmö Konsthall, Sweden and contributed to The Milk of Dreams, the 59th Venice Biennale. Her solo exhibition, I Build My Skin With Rocks, opens on December 9 at the Hamburger Bahnhof.