They say these latest dark times have been about the erosion of boundaries: work and life, screen and reality, high and low, art and capital, pleasure and pain. But hey, they have always been saying that—well, at least every decade since the 60s—and anyway, things around here still feel pretty bounded.
The Portugal-based, Nigerian-American artist Dozie Kanu does not erode boundaries, he activates them. His sculptures designate lines, yielding their breaking point. I have been following Kanu, who was born in Houston, Texas in 1993, since at least 2019, when I reviewed his first solo museum exhibition, Function, at the Studio Museum in Harlem’s 127th Street outpost.
Already, while visiting his Blood Type installation at Performance Space New York in late 2021, I had noticed the development of his formal vocabulary. I still remember the color: burnt, ripe, neglected, spiritual, no, funereal. Awakened by my senses, I could almost smell the iron, which is to say maybe I only remember how it all made me feel. I had the impression that I was not in a curated gallery, but rather a set or a stage, witnessing both the preparation for a performance and the performance itself.
Kanu’s past work has played on the boundary between art and design objects, so talking to him again in 2023, ahead of his solo presentation at Independent with Galerie Francesca Pia, I asked whether he considers himself a sculptor. He replied in the affirmative, adding that his practice is also conceptual or post-conceptual. Kanu’s conceptual field traffics in questions around material culture, performance studies, and Black theory: What is use? What is an object? What is value? What is function? What is form?
And yet concepts don’t rule his sculpture. “I work from a very visceral place,” he explained. “I try not to think too heavily conceptually. I think a lot of the conceptual excavation happens once I'm looking at a finished artwork.”
In today’s anti-intellectual economy, the art of concepts is perhaps the most relentless art of all, as it is unable to hide behind that loud procession of talent, craft, skill, and sincerity. In contemporary American art, what is shown and what is seen often bears little relation to the professed ideas that are diluted and repackaged as wordplay in press releases. All that to say, Kanu’s intellectual powers emit heat in their buoyancy, their ability to touch even the most innocent viewer.
“I’m always looking for ways to affect culture,” he said of his desires for accessibility. “If I’m present within popular culture, playing in the NBA or becoming a rapper won’t be seen as the only ways to pull your family out of poverty without selling your soul. Don’t get me wrong, I want to keep the academic associations alive in my work, but there has to be a level of it that’s appealing to people who come from far outside of academia. That’s something that’s really difficult for me to balance out, because in no way am I interested in dumbing the work down.”
Kanu spoke of luring people into his work. “I think a lot about my teenage self,” he said. “What would I have liked to see when I walk into a gallery or a museum? What would have really sparked my interest?”
Take a brash new piece, play Cozart before sending assertive (2023), which references Sonic the Hedgehog. I mean, take the bait. The devilish playfulness of the originally true-blue video game character, rendered here in hand-carved wood, stained dark brown, is tempered by the industrial numbness of the cartoon’s deconstructed steel casing. Figured in a deep stride motion, one clunky shoe in front of the other, Sonic’s face is partially obscured by salvage from scrap metal yards in Portugal. The arrangement is brutalist, fragmented, generating a paradoxical triumph of movement and groundedness.
Note that the transatlantic slave trade began with Portugal; place, geography and world history are important elements in Kanu’s case. When he moved in 2018 to a rural warehouse he renovated in Santarém, an hour’s drive from Lisbon, everything shifted. Before that he was living and working in New York City without a studio. “My practice changed drastically because I was able to hoard,” Kanu told me. With more space, he was able to give his found materials room to breathe, holding onto them for a few months until he was ready to put them to use. “Having the freedom to fail and having the freedom to experiment is very important to me,” he said.
That sense of experimentation in his process is visible in another new piece, apologies (2023); the idea for it took both no time at all (ten minutes) and a few decades (he just turned 30). Six pieces of found metal, with straw woven around it, are positioned in a triangular basket form, complete with bony brass handles. The result is both elegant and hard, but still a neatly crafted basket, plain and simple. Those are the moments of grace that only come with practice.
“Thinking like an athlete, you’re able to perform when your number is called because you’ve practiced so much,” Kanu remarked. In that sense, I suspect the climax of his latest work will come like a basketball spinning in midair, with such poise and momentum that you will not know what happened or when it will all stop.
Tiana Reid is an assistant professor of English at York University, Toronto. Her research and teaching interests include Black literature, gender, and labor. Her writing has appeared in Artforum, Art in America, Bookforum, Frieze, The Nation, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, and The Paris Review, among other places.