Actions by Design

In Kapwani Kiwanga’s (b. 1978) pink-blue, an installation at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg in Germany, visitors walk down a soothing, deep pink corridor as horizontal fluorescent lights beam from the ceiling. The colour is intense and enthralling, and in popular culture it is mostly associated with luxury and femininity, like that of recent marketing for Greta Gerwig’s new and highly anticipated Barbie film (2023). Yet, Kiwanga chose it for different reasons. This particular hue is popularly referred to as Baker-Miller pink, P-618, or even “drunk-tank pink”, due to roots in an experiment at a correctional facility in Seattle in 1979. “Baker-Miller pink was said to have an effect on people’s heart rate and make them more docile,” the Canadian and French artist says. “It was experimented with in jails, first in Seattle at a military prison, and it was shown to make hostile or agitated prisoners calm down.”

These tests demonstrated that painting confinement cells Baker-Miller pink subdued inmates effectively, pacifying their anger and aggression and reducing the likelihood of revolt. Rebellion was a central anxiety at the time. The late 1960s and 1970s witnessed the rise of organised resistance in American prisons in the wake of the Black Power movement, culminating with the Attica Prison Uprising in 1971. Prisoners seized control for four days in protest of brutal, inhumane treatment, before a bloodbath – led by law enforcement – took place to punish the insurrectionists. A couple of weeks prior, George Jackson (1941-1971), a prolific writer and icon of the movement, had been shot dead in Soledad Prison in California in an escape attempt. Three prison guards and two incarcerated men were killed. “

The most direct effect of the George Jackson murder was the rebellion at Attica prison – it came from long, deep grievances,” Historian Howard Zinn writes in A People’s History of the United States (1980), a book celebrated for “throwing out” the official narrative of “men in high places” commonly taught in USA schools. Instead, Zinn’s account centres American individuals and communities working to make meaningful change at a grassroots level. “Fifty-four percent of the inmates were Black; 100 percent of the guards were white. Prisoners spent 14 to 16 hours a day in cells, their mail was read, their reading material restricted, their visits from families conducted through a mesh screen.”

The study at the Naval Correctional Facility in Seattle, conducted eight years after the tragic pinnacle of the prison movement, was developed to control and weaken incarcerated people. Today, Baker-Miller pink continues to modulate human behaviour, appearing in psychiatric wards, youth clinics and cells designed to hold people under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In 2017, Kendall Jenner painted her bedroom walls Baker-Miller pink in an attempt to suppress hunger pangs and achieve weight loss. The colour, seemingly hypnotising, remains a fixture of debate amongst scientists as to its effects on feelings, behaviours and impulses. 

The role of colour in architecture and social control recurs in Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg’s The Length of the Horizon, a mid-career retrospective bringing together Kiwanga’s major works for the very first time. She is an anthropologist by training, and her deeply researched pieces stem from a fascination with how societies are built, and how they function. This approach puts her in the company of other multidisciplinary artists Lydia Nakashima Degarrod, Maya Stovall and Ruby Chishti, whose installation-based works interrogate the inflections of colonialism, migration, power and race. “My curiosity about the world and the structures that buttress our societies led me to study anthropology, and there were a couple of things I took from that which influenced my artistic practice,” Kiwanga recounts. “I’m not someone who really believes in boundaries, per se.  I do think everything is somewhat connected and permeable. Art and science, as with many other disciplines, are more similar than different.”

Kiwanga discovered the political dimensions of design whilst researching disciplinary architecture – alternatively known as “hostile architecture” or “defensive architecture” – and the ways in which housing can be used to control bodies, or restrict and manipulate the behaviour of the people living within. “I was looking at how colour was used in different institutions. Schools, prisons, hospitals, factories, all these places that surround us use it in ways we don’t necessarily think about. I came across colour theorist Faber Birren (1900-1988), who created a hypothesis meant to construct a more convivial work setting, or to protect people that were working with heavy machinery by encouraging them to [stay] alert.” 

Birren contended that colour and light both have a meaningful impact on human psychology, an edict that guides  the curation and experience of The Length of the Horizon. In Linear Paintings (2017), for example, canvases painted in dual tones – teal blue and white, maroon and beige, bubblegum pink and white – mirror the interior design of hospitals. “I was particularly interested in two-tone palettes used on walls, and where that came from,” Kiwanga recalls. “Looking back at a 1905 conference on tuberculosis in Paris, there was this suggestion by architects to treat walls with different paints at the height of 160 centimetres from the floor, in hopes of having a more washable area, and therefore eliminating the bacteria and different germs that lead to disease.”

Kiwanga found that green was often used in medical settings due to its “healing effect” and ability to evoke the tranquillity of nature. The verdure of plants appears in Kiwanga’s Flowers for Africa: Rwanda (2019), an installation that mirrors the triumphal arch erected in Kigali for festivities surrounding the proclamation of the Republic of Rwanda in 1961. Swathed in eucalyptus, native to the country, Kiwanga’s arch withers over time, conveying the haunting hope of independence, which was later ratified in 1962. The wider Flowers for Africa (2012 – ongoing) series sees Kiwanga recreate other decorative arrangements from archival imagery, namely those commemorating the liberation of African countries from colonial power. These include white and red gladioli, marigolds and chrysanthemums, withered bouquets tied in ribbon that, eventually, wilt and droop towards the floor. The series perhaps signifies the mixed fortunes of the continent post-independence, not least the devastation of the Rwandan Civil War (1990-1994) and genocide. A silent, desolate feeling hangs in the air. Doubtlessly, these installations hold sacred ground, but there’s a sense that independence in and of itself is a dream deferred, the sacrifices of anticolonial struggle giving way to numerous other kinds of  human suffering, from mass poverty to civil war and political corruption. 

Botany appears once again in The Marias (2020), a yellow room in which paper flowers are positioned on pedestals. “The peacock flower is seen as decorative for those of us in Europe, but it also has toxic capabilities,” says Uta Ruhkamp (b. 1974), Curator of the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg exhibition. “A woman called Maria Sibylla Merian travelled in the 18th century to Suriname and wrote a whole book about plants: Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium (1705). Merian describes how this flower was used by enslaved women to protect themselves. These plants were used for abortion.” Here, Ruhkamp describes an early way for enslaved and / or Indigenous women to exercise agency over their bodies. In Kiwanga’s show, the peacock flower is surrounded by a stressful blaze of lemon yellow. The all-encompassing colour field reflects the bright sunlight that these plants need to grow, whilst, at the same time, triggering a feeling of sensory overwhelm, claustrophobia and a desire to escape.

“What is so interesting about Kiwanga is that her works are highly aesthetic, and her installations are accessible,” Ruhkamp continues. “It’s very enticing because art has always been about aesthetics. But on another level, once you get more background information, you realise how complex and historically charged the works are.” The contrast of visual beauty and the realities of historic violence recur in Kiwanga’s oeuvre, notably in Glow (2021): geometric black marble sculptures with integrated LEDs light sources. They stand against a royal purple background, andsignify the candle lanterns that Black, Indigenous and bi-racial enslaved people were forced to carry at night to identify themselves in 18th century New York, if not accompanied by a white person. Light was thus used to expose people to racist violence, as well as as a mode of surveillance. “Lantern laws” were an enforced form of illumination, which controlled the movements and visibility of people of colour around the city after dark.

This form of visual power likewise appears in pink-blue. In the second half of the corridor, the walls transform into a deep, ghostly blue, and the fluorescent bulbs overhead emit a similar glow – different from the blinding white of the pink portion of the installation. It echoes those used in public bathrooms, coffee shops, bus stations and underpasses to confuse and discourage drug users from injecting substances directly into their veins, which appear blue against the skin. Whether this method actually does deter drug use is a matter of debate; experts have pointed out that the resulting lack of visual clarity can lead to messier injections, risking injury and infection. A 2013 study published in the Harm Reduction Journal found that half of drug users interviewed would still use a blue-lit restroom, and the Centre for Disease Control in British Columbia advises against installing these kinds of lights. It cites a heightened risk of unsafe injections and the escalated vulnerability of an already-stigmatised group.

The Length of the Horizon is about revealing architectures of control, however subtle, to wider audiences. Ruhkamp emphasises: “pink-blue is very immersive. You feel what the colour does in your whole body. This is a big quality of Kiwanga’s work – to experience it yourself and sharpen your knowledge and conscience about how you’re guided [by colour and light] on a daily basis.” As visitors pass through the corridor, hyper-sensory, transfixing pink gives way to a dreamy, almost depressing blue. Extreme coolness after crushing warmth signals a veritable vibe switch, demonstrating the tangible effects of colour on human physiology in real time. This can’t be understated. It’s clear that aesthetics are in a constant, ever-evolving relationship with power. Shadow and light can be used to subvert and rebel, just as they are employed, institutionally, to subdue and command. 

The Length of The Horizon

Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg | From 16 September

Words: Iman Sultan

Image credits:

1. Kapwani Kiwanga, pink-blue, (2017). A wall is just a wall, The Power Plant, Toronto, (2017). Photo: Tony Hafkenscheid.

2. Kapwani Kiwanga, The Marias, (2020). An apology, a pill, a ritual, a resistance, Remai Modern, Saskatoon (2021). Photo: Blaine Campbell.

3.Kapwani Kiwanga, pink-blue, (2017). Alternate Realities, Arsenal Contemporary Art, Montréal (2019). Photo: Romain Guilbault

4. Kapwani Kiwanga, pink-blue, (2017). A wall is just a wall, Esker Foundation, Calgary, (2018).  Photo:  John Dean.  

5. Kapwani Kiwanga, pink-blue, (2017). Alternate Realities, Arsenal Contemporary Art, Montréal (2019). Photo: Romain Guilbault