Monika Emmanuelle Kazi: the long game

Brit Burton

The symbols and systems that Monika Emmanuelle Kazi has created to define her work are a guiding point to the artist’s unique lived experience

Monika Emmanuelle Kazi’s practice is a visual meditation of the role of the image, the archive, and her diasporic upbringing that intersects with repeated motifs that surround memory, fate, and domesticity. Born in France and raised for fourteen years in the Republic of Congo, the artist returned to Paris to finish her education and continue her studies in Belgium, first in architecture and later switching to interior design. It would be a choice that would prove to be a pivotal and foregrounding aspect to her artworks, where close attention is paid to the euro-centric ideas of the built environment by examining the infrastructural and aesthetic aspects that become convictions to question and challenge. “By talking about domestic space” Kazi explained, “it is something that can be related to everyone.”

Large-scale installations that range from video works, sculptures, textiles, paintings, and performances are an intricate part of Kazi’s self-referential gestures she considers to be a part of a system. Her personal archive and re-use of the same five to six images is also part of it, as she considers the depictions and her family as a way “to create an energy and atmosphere that evoke a sense of nostalgia.” Material choices are often culled from haptics and senses based on shared, communal memories of reality via objects—childhood games, milk, dirt, for instance—but are often elaborated with a surrealist edge that disputes a narrative closely aligned with colonization.

Kazi’s typified use of painting with silver liquid nitrate on glass is a particular trademark, which recalls a simultaneous acknowledgment of a ubiquitous chemical process and poetic reflection. The resulting object is often a fragile-looking sculptural structure that combines an abstracted image personal to the artist while the mirror-like quality maintains the gaze of the viewer. In Jeunesse perdue (2023)—translated as “lost youth” in English—an aluminum frame secures and encapsulates the interior glass cut painted pieces, while still resembling some part of a filigree-looking enclosure. The juxtaposition between everyday aluminum and cut glass, both of which gesture towards fragments or parts missing a whole, are poignant elements of the artist’s visual grammar.

Jeunesse perdue, 2023, glass, silver nitrate and aluminum, 90 x 60 x 6 cm. Photographer: Moritz Schermbach. In courtesy of the artist & PHILIPPZOLLINGER.
Monika Emmanuelle Kazi, Jeunesse perdue, 2023, glass, silver nitrate and aluminum, 90 x 60 x 6 cm. Photographer: Moritz Schermbach. In courtesy of the artist & PHILIPPZOLLINGER.

In her solo exhibition at Philipp Zollinger gallery in Zurich, Homes Less, home spells, the meaning of a residence is reconsidered in terms of banal intimacy or as an investment property. The exhibition further deliberates on the considerations of artistic or aesthetic living. In the glassworks, For Rent, For Sale and It’s where the magic happens (both 2024) images and their likeness were sourced from Dominique Nabokov’s Living Room Series, three photography books that explore homes of those in the art field based in the conventional Western art capitals of Berlin, New York, and Paris. It was a departure from her initial images, havinIng always taken the same photographic inspiration from her archive, which depicted the familial life and domestic sphere in West Africa.

The paintings in question recall the typically minimalist and always highly designed interiors, complete with plants and art collections, that are further abstracted by their layered, leaning installation and the artist’s use of painted liquid nitrate. They occupy a dual sense of the uncanny—what is it exactly that we’re looking at? Does our space look similar?—while holding a certain level of seduction with a mirrored quality that looks back at us. In such a selfie culture, does the artist care that the audience has an internal drive to take photos of themselves in the work?

Installation view from the exhibition Home less, Home Spells. Photographer: Conradin Frei. In courtesy of the artist & PHILIPPZOLLINGER.
Installation view from the exhibition Home less, Home Spells. Photographer: Conradin Frei. In courtesy of the artist & PHILIPPZOLLINGER.

“I like that. When there is a mirrored work they will always put themselves in the work. It’s a curious effect that brings you back to your role as viewer. It’s using the work in a way that a performative gesture appears by incorporating the viewers into the landscapes that I paint, and there is an activation.”

In their installation, both For Rent, For Sale and It’s where the magic happens explore the appeal and desire of aesthetic, sculptural objects to encounter as an interaction or possess as a good to be purchased. Their materiality and illustrative connotations—a minimalist glass installation that looks at the home and leisure of the artistic class—allude to the denser connotations of contemporary art history, its markets, and the metaphor for real estate as an imperialist pursuit. It is a perfect triad for the artist, who looks at power and the breadth of colonial implications as a constant framing device within her work.

“I want to, little by little, pull apart the established facts of our daily lives to show the impact or influence, still present today, that the history of colonization has had on our ways of living and being in the world.”

The installation Do you know how to play? (2021) and video work, Do you know how to play? (2022) laid bare the cruelty of the past through the metaphor of game-playing and world-building. The Ludo board, a popular board game in West Africa, is the central object of the work. As a game, it is something simultaneously esoteric or enigmatic to a Euro-centric audience while still possessing a deep sense of familiarity with the artist as a childhood pastime. The lacquered wood and square form—including the geometric etchings it illustrates on the surface taken from Kazi’s archive—may initially resemble an odd chessboard or something vaguely like it. Upon closer inspection, the Ludo board is a multi-player game meant for deliberation and strategy through circumnavigation to the center, colloquially referred to as ‘the heavens’ or ‘paradise’.

Do you know how to play ? Photographer: Guadalupe Ruiz. In courtesy of the artist & KIEFER HABLITZEL STIFTUNG.
Monika Emmanuelle Kazi, Do you know how to play? installation view. Photographer: Guadalupe Ruiz. Courtesy of the artist & KIEFER HABLITZEL STIFTUNG.

In all iterations of the work, antique-looking crystal glass chalices act as player’s game piece and are filled variously with powdered or liquid milk—a reference to the Swiss-based Nestlé and its dissemination of baby formula that devastated the African continent. The installation of Do you know how to play? exists as a suspension of time, with a half-finished game set up with the unknown players vanished. While the chalices seem placed at random, their half-empty or half-full contents make one consider the old adage of maintaining eternal optimism in the face of unfair, cruel circumstances. Or, one could re-consider the idea of the fixed game; who has been given the better circumstances to begin with? Either way, the surrealist notion of chance and destiny is an evocative measure Kazi has constructed. 

The nearly forty-two-minute video work of the same title has a more directive and cinematic aim in including the audience. Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 history-fantasy film The Seventh Seal is the inspirational and specific reference for the artwork, perhaps as the Western art allusion that initially attracts an audience. The congruity is notable: the endless expanse of a body of water and mountainous landscape as the horizon line, with two board game players framing the outer edges of the shot, while the game is balanced on top of a rock in the center. In the film, the all-black caped figure is a representation of death who has come for the main character, who repeatedly tries to outwit and outrun death by proposing a game of chess. It is a canonical scene and cinematic classic that depicts the arrogance of man’s futile attempt to control fate.

Monika Emmanuelle Kazi, Do you know how to play?, video still. In courtesy of the artist & Kunsthalle Friart Fribourg.

For Kazi, there are crucial departures for Do you know how to play? Compared to Bergman’s film, the most obvious and striking of which are that her players are female, playing on a Ludo board, donned with ruffles and ill-fitted in men’s clothes, and who take instructions from a woman’s voice outside of the frame. Filmed along the shores of Lake Geneva, the proximity to Nestlé headquarters is highlighted. The artist’s voice is the instructor, letting each player know how much or little to move, reinforcing the lack of one’s own control and the epitome of other’s choices in your destiny. Close-up shots are interspersed of the player’s hands hovering over the chalices, filling in the cups with milk powder, awaiting their turn. 

The symbols and systems that Monika Emmanuelle Kazi has created to define her work are a guiding point to the artist’s unique lived experience. Theatricality and its utility are explored in the elegant use of materials, while the second-guessing aspects of everyday leisure or domesticity are part of the equation to consider an audience in and outside of the work. But beyond that, the clever gestures that point to the ongoing problematics of colonization, the past as we reconsider it and the present as we face it, is a catalyst for practice determined to play the long game. 

April 29, 2024