Her work irritates – and that’s what she’s supposed to do. This has already been shown at this year’s Biennale. Sandra Mujinga’s primitive-looking sculptures fit perfectly into the weather-textured walls of Venice’s Arsenale – a historic shipyard site now used for exhibitions. The Congolese-Norwegian artist illuminated the rooms and her sculptures in neon green, creating the feeling that she could see into a future that was already crumbling. And so the visitors shuddered, stayed fascinated – or fled quickly.
Sandra Mujinga is now performing at the Hamburger Bahnhof, a central location for great discoveries in contemporary art in Berlin. In 2021 she won the National Gallery Prize, which is accompanied by a solo show that now opens on December 9th. Here, too, the artist remains irritating.
Sandra Mujinga in the middle of her work “Sentinels of Change & Reworlding Remains”, which was also shown at the Venice Biennale in 2022
Between Oslo and Berlin
The young woman is quite approachable. “I’m very honest with myself, and it’s through this sincerity that I can touch people,” says the artist. She is used to different audiences, she needs that, Mujinga told DW. She has performed a lot as a DJ, likes direct contact, the clubs, dancing.
Born in Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1989, Mujinga grew up in Norway and knows the pitfalls of the white majority society. Her works also deal with aspects of racism and colonialism. “Of course you grow up with the experience of being made a stranger, and that’s really bad. But the older I get, the more I see being a stranger as a kind of gift. If you really want to belong in a world, which is bad?”
art and science fiction
“Worldbuilding” – the creation of imaginary worlds, as is common in science fiction and fantasy – plays a major role in Mujinga’s work. “We’re so focused on the human experience. But science fiction gives us the opportunity to think about other worlds,” says Mujinga. “I like to rethink existing structures, to think differently about how we live together as humans, how we live on this planet, also together with non-human beings.”
Their beings act like a kind of portal into these worlds. In the large hall of the Hamburger Bahnhof it manifests itself in the form of a ceiling-high “black box”, a black object covered with media works that enclose it like skin. In the projections, Mujinga works with textures of leather and imitation leather, relating them to human skin, dark skin.
skin as a symbol
“I also use the dark to emphasize the space of agency,” says Mujinga. “Skin color is very political, it’s coded and used as a weapon.” The exhibition title “I Built My Skin with Rocks” refers to a quote by the French poet, writer and philosopher Édouard Glissant from Martinique. He wrote “Je batis a roches mon langages” (in English “I build my language out of stones”) in 1969. Glissant was a pioneer of postcolonial identity and cultural theory.
The elephant in the room
For the current media sculpture, the idea of an elephant, with its thick, sturdy skin, was a key linchpin, Mujinga says. She thought about extinction and what a responsibility it is to be the last of your kind, the last elephant. In her sculpture, the human and the animal increasingly mix. Shapeshifting is another central element in Mujinga’s work, perhaps also because she herself – like many others – experiences the world as volatile, complex and vulnerable.
It matters a lot whether you look at her objects from close up or from a distance. And that’s what Mujinga is playing with. “The body becomes invisible through scale when you zoom in extremely. In a way, the closer we get, the harder it is to see the big picture.” The elephant in the room that’s hard to grab. It is also about questions that you have already dealt with in your work “World View” from 2021: “What is real?” and “Who is watching whom?”
boundaries and permeability
“We all have developed survival mechanisms, coping strategies,” says Mujinga. “Having thick skin is one thing, but skin is also a reminder of our vulnerability. What scares me is the numbness, the rigidity.” With her art she hopes to open up a space to activate something. The irritating aspect of Mujunga’s work remains powerful: Her new work gets under your skin with its mysterious complexity – or maybe even bounces off it.