Grada Kilomba_05A2124©-Ute-Langkafel-MAIFOTO

Portrait of Grada Kilomba © Ute Langkafel


In Her Sculptural Installations, Grada Kilomba Makes Visible What Is Invisible

Published Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Grada Kilomba’s work across performance, staged readings, video, and sculptural and sound installations draws on memory, trauma, gender, and postcolonialism to interrogate concepts of knowledge, power, and cyclical violence. Her sculptural installation 18 Verses (2022)—which has never before been exhibited in the US—is on view at Pace’s 540 West 25th Street gallery in New York from May 12 to July 1.

On the occasion of Kilomba’s debut solo exhibition with the gallery, we spoke with the artist about her unique practice of decolonial storytelling. In this interview, the artist discusses 18 Verses and her acclaimed large-scale installation O Barco | The Boat (2021), which have been created as part of a trilogy. The following conversation has been edited and condensed.


Installation view of Grada Kilomba | One soul, one memory featuring 18 Verses (2022) at Goodman Gallery in London, courtesy Goodman Gallery

Claire Selvin: How would you characterize the relationship between 18 Verses and O Barco | The Boat?

Grada Kilomba: 18 Verses is the second iteration of a trilogy that began with O Barco / The Boat—a 32-meter large-scale sculptural installation that has been exhibited outside, in public space. The Boat makes visible, in public spaces, what was made invisible: the history of the transatlantic. This history is under-documented in monuments or artworks in public spaces, even though it is one of the longest and most horrendous episodes of human history. O Barco / The Boat interrupts the collective imaginary by making visible what is actually made invisible.

Many of the monuments use the boat as a metaphor, as a symbol of so-called discovery. The boat becomes synonymous with glory, adventure, and courage. The question that I wanted to raise with my installation is: what were these boats carrying at the bottom? And in this sense, how can we rethink history?

My work addresses cyclical violence and this notion of repetition. With 18 Verses, the boat comes from the past to the present, from the outside to the inside, to reflect upon this historical repetition. 18 Verses is the second part of the trilogy, and it reveals the silhouette of a shipwreck. It examines today's politics of immigration and water surveillance upon colonized countries, and the tragic boat crossings in the Mediterranean and other global waters.

History repeats itself. There’s a sense of historical repetition—we cannot separate the past, present, and future. Rather than looking at time as linear, we must see it as a spiral. These are the ideas that this trilogy brings to the fore.


Installation view of Grada Kilomba | One soul, one memory featuring 18 Verses (2022) at Goodman Gallery in London, courtesy Goodman Gallery

CS: The wooden components of 18 Verses undergo a traditional burning process. Can you tell me about the significance of that process?

GK: It’s a very performative process. It starts with arrangements of soil—you have to prepare the soil for burning. We make a very deep hole where the fire will be, and next to it there is another hole with water. The pieces of wood go through the fire very quickly so that they don’t burn deeply: just a few millimeters on their surfaces. It’s almost like a choreography, a dance with the wood.

After going through the fire, each piece of wood is rolled in the water. Metaphorically, it’s a process of death and rebirth, fire and water. This process is repeated several times, and what has touched me very deeply is that, when the wood is burned, the deepness of its skin is revealed. It’s this amazing moment that has brought me to tears several times. Every piece of wood is unique—each has an identity of its own.

CS: Can you tell me about the fabric component of 18 Verses—what does it represent symbolically?

GK: I love working with fabric. It really becomes part of the language of storytelling in my works. In 18 Verses, the fabric embraces the wooden pieces that feature poetic verses. It becomes the black water, but it also represents an imaginary entity emerging from the deep waters—a Venus emerging from the waters, embracing all these bodies. The fabric brings a sense of peace or closure to their journey.

The fabric has a poetic movement, almost sculptural, that it brings to the installation. When I work with fabric, I always use it as a metaphorical element, a Black woman embracing the pieces.


Installation view of Grada Kilomba | One soul, one memory featuring 18 Verses (2022) at Goodman Gallery in London, courtesy Goodman Gallery

CS: What role does the sound installation play in 18 Verses?

GK: 18 Verses reveals the catastrophic aftermath of a shipwreck. While bodies are present in the performance with The Boat, bodies are absent from 18 Verses. There are only voices and sounds—singing for those who are lost. So, music is used as a form of narrative. It narrates the story of the waters.

It’s a song of mourning, and therefore also of liberation. You can only liberate yourself through crying. The songs and sounds that we created for this work were composed with musicians from Cape Verde, where they have a very beautiful musical style called the morna.

Cape Verde has a very specific history within the continent of Africa. It is an island where people were brought from all different nations and regions of the continent. It is intimately related to the transatlantic and the Middle Passage.

They have a practice of crying and making sounds of mourning and grief, only through breathing. There’s this very deep and emotional technique of singing that becomes crying, and there’s also a use of shells for making a full sound landscape.

This is how we produced the composition for 18 Verses—I worked with percussionists and vocalists to compose the sound landscape that narrates the story of this historical repetition.

  • Essays — In Her Sculptural Installations, Grada Kilomba Makes Visible What Is Invisible, May 10, 2023