What we identify as history is shaped by a mixture of elements, frequently less bound to sanctioned facts than to other more intangible belief systems. This inquiry stands at the core of the work of Canadian artist Kapwani Kiwanga whose practice interweaves a research-based investigation influenced by her earlier training in social sciences, with a more subjective and fictional observation of culture.

For her first UK solo exhibition, Kiwanga continues her research into the legacy of the 1905-1907 Maji Maji uprising against German colonial rule in what was then Tanganyika, German East Africa. According to oral history, the rebellion was fuelled by the prophecies of the spiritual medium Kinjiketile, who galvanised the Maji Maji fighters against the colonial rulers with his belief in a sacred water, which would make anyone who consumed it invincible to the German bullets. More than a temporary union against the common enemy, the rebellion provided the possibility of creating an alternative and unified social structure in the country. Although the uprising failed to overthrow German rule, the aftermath of the war had long-term effects on the land and its people. Kiwanga uses this event, and its adaptation in folklore and popular culture, as a starting point from which to trace how historical accounts linger in consciousness and weigh on a nation’s identity long after their occurrence.

Kapwani Kiwanga’s versatile practice takes shape through video, sound and lecture performances. For Kinjiketile Suite, she translates her research-based practice into the exhibition space, weaving together material from various sources, from eyewitness accounts of the events of the Maji Maji rebellion compiled in a study by the University of Dar Es Salaam, through to Ebrahim N. Hussein’s influential play Kinjiketile (1969). These source texts are represented as recordings and performances by actors, who interpret the transcripts both in English and Swahili. Additional ephemera and archival matter compiled in the course of Kiwanga’s research, is housed within a custom-made exhibition architecture prompting a layered reading of the source materials. The multiple voices of these accounts, and the particular emphasis on the ambivalent figure of the prophet Kinjiketile, explore the mutation and mythmaking inherent in oral history.

In addition to the research-based material, a large collection of castor oil plants (Ricinus Communis Zanzibarensis) is cultivated across the gallery space and will continue to grow throughout the duration of the exhibition. According to accounts, this fast-growing species, native to Tanzania was one of the secret ingredients that made up the sacred water that Kinjiketile distributed to his followers. Nurtured by the overlapping accounts and multiple narratives, the plants embody the collective process inherent in the spirit of the uprising, and allude to Ujamaa; a particular kind of socialism instated in Tanzania by Julius Nyerere and its accompanying collectivisation of farming.

A parallel narrative is told by Kiwanga herself through an erratic sequence of short audio vignettes which deliver a subjective and personal entry point to the story of the Maji Maji uprising. Interspersed throughout the exhibition space, her narration functions as a fragmented guide through the show.