Kapwani Kiwanga
Famakan Magassa: Witness of My Time

Gallery 9

24 August 2023 – 25 January 2024


In this exhibition, Famakan Magassa, the winner of the Norval Sovereign African Art Prize 2023, reflects on the complexities and persistent struggles that migrant bodies encounter in their movements across transnational borders. 

The artist’s deeply personal and thought-provoking exploration of the phenomenon of global travel was catalysed by the challenges that he faced during his visa application process to travel to the United Sates to participate in an artist residency program. Famakan’s experience of being denied a visa, and then having to undergo a protracted vetting process before being granted the official document, provided him with an in-depth understanding of the complexities of travel to confront the implications of the wider crisis of global migration. 

Magassa’s social vignettes are composed of stylised human caricatures loosely filled with reds, blues and turquoise whereby both victims and the perpetrators of the injustice are painted. His choice of red and blues obscure any reference to race, though gender may be alluded to by the inclusion of stiletto shoes or boots. The remaining figures are barefoot, some of which have long necks while others no visible neck at all but rather with just three toes on their feet and three fingers on each hand. All these seemingly other-worldly figures have exaggerated red lips, sometimes with the occasional tooth and protruding tongue. Some figures pout, some grimace, and others seem resigned to their fate. By distorting the forms of his subjects’ figures to appear farcical,  Famakan uses the subjects’ bodies to symbolise the high degree of absurdity inherent in the difficulties of migration today.

The compositions of his various works include figures that find themselves in difficult or untenable situations¾ trapped in a net or caught behind the barbed wire fence of a detention camp blindfolded, or seemingly hospitalised. One of the figures seems to be contemplating suicide, while others seem constrained in the presence of a warden seated on a toilet. 

Born and raised in Kita, a village located 180 kilometres from Bamako, the capital of Mali, Famakan’s upbringing mirrored the experiences of countless postcolonial Africans, shaped by adversity and the constant pursuit for mere survival. From a young age, Famakan worked doing silk-screen printing and calligraphy; worked as a mason’s assistant, and even sold goods at the local market to earn enough money to meet his basic needs.

Famakan went to Bamako to complete his studies, attaining a baccalaureate in the Terminal Arts Lettres course of studies which the Malian government had extended to include the study of drawing and painting to cater to individuals interested in pursuing art as a course of study. Following this, Magassa pursued further studies at the Conservatory of Multimedia Arts and Crafts (Balla Fasseke Kouyate), where he earned a degree in visual arts. 

Famakan’s exhibition serves as an act of self-reflection on his experience in raising awareness of the challenges of global travel. By extension, it serves as a broader socio-political commentary on the broader implications of migration and displacement in Africa and the rest of the world.

Famakan Magassa :  Witness of My Time is curated by Phokeng Setai, and opens on the 24th of August 2023.