Photography Max Lakner

By Vivien Lee

For Dozie Kanu, racial identity is merely a construct of modern design. At least, this is one of the many underlying themes in his installation Blood Type, which inaugurates the “Open Room” program at Performance Space, New York. Working from the premise that public space shapes public discourse, Kanu’s installation, conceived as the antithetical “coworking space,” investigates signifiers of identity—such as the layered complexities of race—and channels them through an environment centered around shared purpose and social transformation. Kanu’s inquiry into how blood types affect a person’s identity extends the conversation on race beyond surface levels of identity and into what lives “under the skin”—the innate over the ornate.

For Blood Type, Kanu filled a dark, sanguine-hued room with a snaking table made of sheet metal, six stools, framed images and antiquated figures and photographs from the Texas-born artist’s time in Portugal, Nigeria and the United States. While this furnished simulation could easily fall under the brackets of a high-end interior design project, its decorum teems with the artist’s meditations on ancestry and immaterial truths. “I’m preoccupied with systems of value and how a work that has utilitarian position might get devalued, as if utility diminishes its benefit or potential,” Dozie told me. Influenced by fashion, Black culture and critical thought, his practice investigates objecthood and relationships between form and function, performance and representation. “It’s very difficult for people to see past the objects. My challenge is infusing narrative so people can look beyond them. It parallels the way Black voices have been marginalized.”

Commencing “Open Room”—a public space at the gallery designed for communal use—Kanu’s installation was preceded by a group performance entitled Octopus: An Evening Inside of Blood Type, in tandem with artists Dawuna, Valerie Franco, Caroline Sultzer, Matt Hilvers and Elliot Reed. Through this social-oriented element, Kanu communicates an idea expressed by French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud. In his book Relational Aesthetics (1998), Bourriaud had observed relational art as models of human relations that stem from creative collectivism—practiced in the nineties by artists such as Félix González-Torres and Carsten Höller. Peripherally, Kanu’s values around self-governance are a point of departure in his work. After graduating from the School of Visual Arts in 2016, Kanu, who was born in 1992, pursued a career in production design, collaborating on sets with fashion brands, before making sculptural furniture of his own. After 2018, Kanu left New York because of its demanding, profit-driven culture and high cost of living. Inspired by the pursuit of a self-governing society, Kanu brought his practice to rural Portugal, where he currently works out of a live-in warehouse studio.

Blood Type references his studio’s proximity to Mercado de Escravos in Lagos, Portugal, the first European market to auction enslaved individuals in 1444. “Considering that my parents both lived in Lagos, Nigeria, at a certain part of their life, I’ve been thinking about what being in Portugal means and the idea of whether I’ve been ancestrally called back to a place where many problems pertaining to Black people began,” he explained.

Still, since settling in the idyllic countryside of the Iberian peninsula, where rent is low and agriculture thrives on solar-paneled energy and small communal efforts, Kanu has strived toward developing an autonomous foundation. In considering the future, Kanu’s work touches on the way systems of oppression are purposefully structured. “Oppressed people are put in a place where they will always be oppressed, and there needs to be a new kind of thinking so they’re not dependent on the government,” he said. “There needs to be a re-educating of the working class to navigate society.” However elusive, the many elements that are layered throughout Kanu’s work elicit a refreshing utopian sensibility that seems lost or misplaced in our jaded post-everything era. Instead, his critical takes nudge us to reframe current circumstances in order to shed alternative insights, challenging the way we stretch the human imagination beyond mere intellect.

Published: December 11, 2021

Blood Type” inaugurates Performance Space’s Open Room and is on view at Performance Space New York, 150 First Avenue, Fourth Floor, through June 26, 2022.