(NORTH MACEDONIA / FRANCE, 1945)
A lawyer turned journalist, Kiro Urdin studied art and cinema in Paris in the seventies and has been painting since 1985. He is known for his energetic paintings which have been exhibited worldwide since 1986, in cities like Paris, Yokohama, Los Angeles, London, Stockholm and Bratislava. During the same period, in 1988, Kiro went to New York and Hollywood to pursue his film ambitions. There, he directed four films, and he keeps on directing documentaries and experimental films today.
In 1996, Kiro embarked on an epic journey around the world to create the first painting to be worked on all over the world. His idea was to incorporate elements from every place he visited into the canvas, thus symbolically bringing the world together in one undivided unity. The adventure took two years and was spread over thirty locations, from big urban cities to ancient world sites: the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and the Tomb of Jesus Christ, New York, The Berlin Wall, Ohrid, Brussels, Knokke-Zoute, Bruges, Paris, Rome, Pompeii, Pisa, the Suez Canal, London, Stonehenge, Athens, the Nile, the Great Pyramids in Giza, Kenya, Machu Picchu, Cuzco, Bangkok, the Forbidden City and the Great Wall of China, Tokyo, Kamakura, the Mont Saint-Michel, and Eindhoven.
The result of Kiro Urdin’s two-year journey is a 48 square meter oil painting titled Planetarium. A Macedonian film crew documented the performance and Planetarium, the documentary film, was subsequently released. Directed by Ivan Mitevski, it won Best Documentary at the New York International Independent Film and Documentary Festival in 2005. A monograph with photographies taken during the trip by Marin Dimevski was released simultaneously to the film. Today this monumental painting is on permanent exhibition at the Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum in Bratislava, Slovakia.
Planetarium Dance is collaboration project between Kiro Urdin and Toronto-based choreographer Debbie Wilson. On seeing the film, Wilson approached Urdin and proposed to expand the Planetarium experience through a new medium - dance. Macedonian composer Venko Serafimov was called onboard to compose the music for the dance. The ballet features eight dancers from Wilson’s own troupe, a local Toronto contemporary dance company, and seven from the classically trained Macedonian National Theatre. Planetarium Dance premiered at the Toronto Dance Theater (Canada), and has since been performed in Ohrid, Heraclea, Skopje, Chicago, Ankara, and during the commemoration of the United Nations 60th Anniversary in Geneva, Switzerland.
In recent years, the artist has further developed his cosmo-lyrical abstraction into large canvases. In 2020, Urdin embarked on another performance under COVID lockdown, and over several months, painted 500 figurative paintings which can be seen in the book COVID TIME PERFORMANCE. For his 2022 solo at De Zwarte Panter, in collaboration with Kloser Contemporary Art, Urdin started painting an epic 10-meter-wide canvas in which he encapsulates artistic philosophies based on the concept of Tabula Rasa. Spread over several months this painting performance will also give birth to a book and a film documenting the work and its surroundings.
Over the years, Urdin’s work has evolved beyond traditional media like film and paintings to include dance, sculpture, literature, photography, philosophy, and design. He has published over 20 books, some with his thousand aphorisms, and one book of poetry entitled Novel, from which his poem Light was selected for the Pushkin Festival in Moscow. Working in Belgium, Macedonia, and the U.S.A., Kiro Urdin is vibrantly driven in his efforts by one unifying philosophy, namely, to bridge different cultures, and to bring all art forms into one. Or as he defines the core of the Planetarism movement which he founded:
“One Point everywhere, everything in one point. One Art everywhere, everything in one Art.”
Upon receiving the invitation to exhibit his recent work at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center of Miami, Kiro Urdin decided to revisit his unique and personal artistic and human journey with the African continent. In this introspective and poetic show, the artist explores his memories and recordings of images captured along a thirty-year relationship with Africa as experienced by his numerous travels to Mali, Ethiopia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Niger, but most of all through his recurring stays in Kenya and Tanzania, where he directed several experimental films over the past two decades. Urdin’s relationship with Africa goes deep and beyond, for it triggered a fundamental research about origin and universality in both his work and philosophy.
To understand how the 78-year-old French artist, originally from North Macedonia, truly finds his place at the avant-garde of contemporary art, comparatively late in his career, it is paramount to retrace his experience with Africa, and by extension with the world at large. Key to his exploration of the self, and what it means to be an artist, is a ground-breaking performance-painting that would place Urdin in the limelight in 1997, the year he finished Planetarium, a 48 square meter canvas that he painted all over the world.
The first global painting of its kind, Planetarium subsequently gave birth to a ballet presented at the United Nations in 2005, for the organisation’s 60th anniversary, and directed by Canadian choreographer Debbie Wilson. Leaving Belgium in 1996 with a massive blank canvas on his back, and a TV film crew following his performance, Kiro Urdin would soon leave European shores to visit Maasai tribes in Kenya. Whether there or in Ethiopia, facing an overwhelming cultural divide while trying to convey the ambition of his global artwork, Urdin was forced to consider what universality truly means when it pertains to art. For it is often said that great art is truly universal. And one might easily agree with that statement, except for the fact that however great Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi may be, it is truly anchored into Christian concerns of Renaissance sacrality. So, for his art to be fundamentally universal, Urdin would have to deconstruct the style he had been meticulously building since the mid-80s when he nonchalantly started painting at the Place du Tertre in Paris. At first expressionistically figurative, the artist later developed an increasingly abstract approach to portraiture yet remaining in the realm of the human figure. Thus, Planetarium consequently marks a necessary evolution towards his now widely recognizable abstract expressionist style, without which he would possibly never have achieved his core mission of creating an artwork that englobes true universality, common to all people, whatever their culture and artistic backgrounds.
From that revelatory moment when he was jumping on his canvas with a group of Maasai men, Urdin would never again abandon his quest to embrace universality as a vector to represent humanity and spirit as one. Over the past decade, the artist took this ambition another step further, anchoring it in what could be described as Neo-Sacred Environmental Art. As we attempt to navigate the third decade of this century, the environment, and our impact on it has become humanity’s main concern. Justifiably, for if you retrace the history of our species over centuries and millennia, it appears that climate is almost systematically a main driver when it comes to human settlement, survival, conflict, and displacement, often leading to the central question of our societies throughout the ages: how do we cohabitate?
If one would revisit the History of Art, surely the Western one, but also traditional art from Africa and Oceania, or even pre-Christian European forms of artistic representation, one would only be struck by a universal drive to iconize narratives related to our origins, the latter often illustrative of Man’s dependency on Nature. Of course, monotheism rather consistently strived to annihilate this essential bond between our environment and ourselves, placing the existentialism of our souls on far higher levels than the Earth. And one could argue that while this phenomenon certainly lasted for a couple of millennia, we are now returning to our more archaic considerations of what should really be sacred, that without which we are nothing, our planet.
This is precisely what Kiro Urdin has been increasingly representing since the early noughties. His more recent cosmo-lyrical paintings attempt to freeze in time moments of creation, a re-genesis of sorts, in which the point of view remains human and truly universal. Just as Peter Paul Rubens was glorifying episodes of the New Testament, drawing the viewer’s attention to notions of holiness, sacrifice and redemption, Urdin’s monumental canvases represent concepts of new life, of rebirth, in communion, or rather in equilibrium with our sacred environment. Doing so, the artist champions a new vision of Man and Nature, both deeply anchored in our millennial animistic traditions and his forward-looking aspirations to rethink our place on Earth.
Given Urdin’s rather unique situation in this continuity of a History of Art dedicated to Nature, its mythical creators, and its magical materializations, it becomes even more relevant to look into some of the very personal experiences that slowly built into the inspiration for his artistic works.
Among those, his film Dogona perhaps plays an even more important role than the episode when Urdin was painting Planetarium in Africa. In 2002, four years only after premiering his film Planetarium, the artist returned to the continent with one idea in mind: to paint among the Dogon people of Mali, while also making a film about his experience there and the many myths surrounding the Dogon cosmogony. After one week spent living among them, Kiro Urdin put the last touches on the large canvas he titled Dogona, helped along by local children and under the mystifying gaze of Dolo, the man who was his guide to this world of ancestors and deities.
As part of this new exhibition, the artist has decided to show three of his award-winning films that will shed light on the various inspirations which nourish his work ever since he set foot on African soil. In chronological order, these are Planetarium (1998), Dogona (2002) and the recently finished Before and After (2022), which he shot in Tanzania over several seasons, and which like his paintings attempts to represent the universality of life.
Urdin’s Dogona experience led to an ensemble of epic works inspired by the Dogon cosmogony, which are now part of international art collections. However, for this new show at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center, Kiro Urdin revisited some of the iconography he developed in the Dogon corpus, all the while injecting fresh elements borrowed from his passion for traditional sacred African art, as can be observed in his dynamic vertical canvas titled Anyanwu (2022), a cosmic homage to the Igbo solar deity of Nigeria, which so famously inspired the great modernist Odinigwe Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu MBE, better known as Ben Enwonwu.
Beyond Mali or Nigeria, some Central African practices, like that of the Nganga (2023), the Kongo name of a traditional witch doctor in the Democratic Republic of Congo, also celebrated in some African diasporas in the Americas and the Caribbean, have inspired this new body of work centred around the title piece of the show: Ancestor. With In Honor of the Ancestor (2023), Urdin represents the allegorical rebirth of the human figure. As in most of his work of the past decade, the recurring theme of rebirth draws the viewer’s attention to the necessity of envisaging alternative ways of living. In his last solo show at De Zwarte Panter in Antwerp (Belgium), the artist unveiled a giant work measuring 3x10 meters (10 x 32 feet) which was concerned with similar ideas of cosmic re-genesis, and of new life. Titled Tabula Rasa (2022) the exhibition drew in more than 10’000 visitors who were magnetically pulled into the chromatic explosions which have become a signature of Urdin’s work.
Similar concepts of re-genesis regularly appear in the artist’s practice. The Birth of Purple (2022) is one such canvas, confronting us with masses of energy, turning us into witnesses of creation. This empowerment is fundamental in Urdin’s art which genuinely aims to bring together, to attract, to ask anyone observing it to be part of the journey.
Egg-shaped icons naturally populate these new works as they suggest the core concept of life; and paintings like Black Beauty (2023) and Together (2023) demand that we take a step closer, if only to witness what goes on inside the membrane. As we do so, we take a leap of faith into a universe of repetitive micro-patterns which constitute the matter used by the artist to suggest energy, and all its in-betweens, to represent life. As a result, the figures at the centre of the blue egg in Together (2023) look like they are waiting to be liberated.
Another seminal painting in the exhibition is the almost haunting Center of Civilization (2022). Ornated with the tiny cubes that form a recuring pattern in the artist’s painted work, the large canvas seems to portray a spiritual being like the one in Near Kilimanjaro (2022). Usually associated with Christian votive offerings to saints and divinities for the fulfilment of a vow made, or in simple gratitude or devotion, this composition reminds us of Japanese paper offerings, where written messages are used to thank spirits for their help. Urdin’s early career as a painter partly took place in Japan, and this experience is core to his universal approach to life, and his philosophy.
Virunga Man (2023) and Woman with Sculpture (2023) truly embody Urdin’s skill as a painter creating out of nothing. From the seemingly random chromatic chaos of his brush appear refined and enigmatic silhouettes, watching us, inviting us to listen, take a pause, and consider.
There is a larger work which will only join this exhibition well after this introduction is printed. During his residency at El Espacio 23, Kiro Urdin will create a new monumental work for the walls of the Amadlozi Gallery. Knowing the artist’s process, it is pointless to speculate on what this work may represent and convey. It is safe to assume inspiration will surely stem from his experience in Miami.
Together, these works aim to convey a sense of openness. Far from trying to define any form of identity, Kiro Urdin invites us to think beyond any defined border. Humanity is one. What he assembles with these paintings and films is by no means a portrait of Africa, its peoples, or its spirits and ancestors. It should rather be absorbed as an experimental distillate of the artist’s never-ending physical and philosophical journey which he needs to exist, which he uses to meet us and share.