STEVENSON CAPE TOWN presents Kings County, a group exhibition featuring Njideka Akunyili, Meleko Mokgosi, Wangechi Mutu and Paul Mpagi Sepuya.
Today Brooklyn, as Kings County is more commonly known, counts 2.5 million inhabitants, measures 474 square kilometres, and by itself would be the fourth largest city in the United States if it were not part of New York. It traces its roots back to Breuckelen, a 17th century settlement established by the Dutch West India Company, named after a city in the Netherlands. In 1664 the English gained control of the territory, and in 1684 they combined Breuckelen with five other former Dutch towns into Kings County, establishing a political entity which survives to this day.
Brooklyn is a place of immigrants, its demographics ever shifting. Complex layers of class are superimposed on both historical and newly established ethnic enclaves. Because everybody who lives there is, in some way, from somewhere else, it has been a theatre of imagination and invention, and Brooklyn as an idea, or a metaphor, has been as important in this process as its physical characteristics. Perhaps as a result, it has attracted an urban creative community of a nature and scale not seen elsewhere in New York – a community that, in turn, has affected the idea of Brooklyn in real and imaginary ways. Brooklyn is often associated with gang violence and artisanal food, but its lived experience is infinitely more complex, and resists such narratives as much as it invites them.
The term Kings County is unfamiliar to many outside New York, and its archaic, colonial associations suggest an imaginary place. The artists in this exhibition are all, in different ways, invested in this imaginary place, and use the idea of Brooklyn as a backdrop to the making of their art. Nigerian writer Teju Cole, who contributes an essay to the exhibition catalogue, describes Brooklyn, specifically its Fort Greene section, as the only place on the planet where he does not stand out. Moreover, he says that the friendships he has forged in the borough have allowed him to imagine an Africa unburdened by the artificial borders imposed by the Berlin Conference.
For Wangechi Mutu Brooklyn was a place to live while getting an education in Manhattan, and now it has become her second home. Meleko Mokgosi was specifically drawn to Sunset Park and its history of manufacturing, as well as its large South American population. Curiously, the other two artists have left the neighbourhood since the exhibition was conceived, or are in the process of leaving. Paul Mpagi Sepuya and Njideka Akunyili are both moving to Los Angeles this year, but often reflect the timbre of Brooklyn social life in their work.
On one level, Kings County is about four immigrants (from Botswana, Kenya, Nigeria and California) in a place of many immigrants. More fundamentally, however, Kings County is about the symbolic potential of geographic locations – about how imaginary places can affect the real world, and vice versa.
Njideka Akunyili was born in Enugu, Nigeria, in 1983, and obtained her MFA from Yale University in 2011. She is the winner of the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award (2013), a Rema Hort Mann Foundation Grant (2013) and the Carol Schlosberg Memorial Prize for Excellence in Painting (2011). Recent and upcoming exhibitions include Bronx Calling: The Second AIM Biennial, Bronx, NY; Cinematic Visions: Paintings at the Edge of Reality, Victoria Miro Gallery, London; and Primary Sources, The Studio Museum in Harlem, NY. She was selected for the Studio Museum residency program in 2011-2012.
Meleko Mokgosi was educated mostly in Botswana, where he was born in 1981, and moved to the United States in 2003 to pursue his tertiary education. Following a scholarship at Williams College, MA, and the Slade School of Fine Arts, he attended the Whitney Independent Study Program in 2007. Thereafter, he studied under the mentorship of Mary Kelly at the UCLA Interdisciplinary Studio Practice program, and in 2012 he was awarded a Studio Museum residency. He has exhibited at venues including the Botswana National Gallery, Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art, The Studio Museum in Harlem, the Hammer Museum at UCLA; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Lyon.
Wangechi Mutu was born in Nairobi in 1972 and studied at the United World College of the Atlantic in Wales before moving to New York in the 1990s. She earned a BFA from Cooper Union for the Advancement of the Arts and Science in 1996, and an MFA from Yale University (2000). Solo exhibitions have taken place at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Montreal, among other institutions.
Paul Mpagi Sepuya was born in California in 1982 to an American mother and Ugandan father. He has been an artist-in-residence at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Workspace (2009-2010), the Center for Photography at Woodstock (2010), Studio Museum in Harlem (2010-2011), and most recently at the Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago (2014). His most recent artist publication, Studio Work, was self-published in 2012 and the related body of work has been exhibited at The Studio Museum in Harlem, The Center for Photography at Woodstock, NY, Franklin Art Works, Minneapolis, and Artspeak, Vancouver.
Teju Cole was born in the United States in 1975 to Nigerian parents, and was raised in Lagos. He is a writer, art historian and photographer, and is currently the Distinguished Writer in Residence at Bard College. He lives in Brooklyn. He is the author of two books, a novella, Every Day is for the Thief, a New York Times Editors’ Pick, and a novel, Open City, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award, the New York City Book Award for Fiction, the Rosenthal Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Internationaler Literaturpreis, and was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the New York Public Library Young Lions Award, and the Ondaatje Prize of the Royal Society of Literature. Cole is a contributor to The New York Times, The New Yorker, Qarrtsiluni, The Atlantic, Granta, Aperture, Transition, A Public Space and several other magazines.
Kings County opens on Thursday 9 October 2014, from 6 to 8pm.
The gallery is open from Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm, and Saturday from 10am to 1pm.