Matthew Krouse holds an hour-long conversation with Kudzanai Chiurai who launches a two-part exhibition — the first of which opens on August 31 at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg — accompanied by a new book of essays titled While the Harvest Rots, edited by Robert Muponde and Emma Laurence
According to the Goodman Gallery statement, circulated in time for his exhibition We Live in Silence, Zimbabwean artist Kudzanai Chiurai’s new work aims to “disrupt ‘colonial futures’ and create ‘counter-memories’ to contest dominant Western narratives.”
The show will include photographs, drawings, paintings and installation pieces making it the final installment in a three-part series that began with Revelations (2011) and continued with Genesis [Je n'isi isi] (2016).
The second exhibition venue for We Live in Silence is Constitution Hill. There, on September 9, the artist will screen four new films from which the works shown at Goodman Gallery are derived.
Chiurai will hold an early mid-career retrospective at the new Zeitz MOCAA in September before exhibiting new works and selected works from his current solo exhibition at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in November.
Matthew Krouse (MK): Let’s ask the very first question: why can’t you be a Zimbabwean artist?
Kudzanai Chiurai: What do you mean why can’t I be a Zimbabwean artist?
MK: Does it bother you that you can’t be a Zimbabwean artist really?
KC: I can. I am.
MK: When last did you have a solo exhibition in Zim?
KC: I have one coming up in November.
MK: Where will that be?
KC: At the National Art Gallery.
MK: So in other words you have been embraced in Zim by the very mainstream?
KC: Yeah I think so. I think so.
MK: And what do they give as a support base for a solo exhibition by someone like you?
KC: Well it’s the National Gallery. It’s a state institution so they support whatever arrangements I need to make – bringing in work for the show. Like we also managed to get the Chimurenga PASS, [The Pan African Space Station, a periodic pop-up live radio station]. Ntone Edjabe [Chimurenga magazine founder] will be there. We managed to get that for the exhibition as well.
MK: Does it go throughout the show or is it only for the opening?
KC: It’s for the first week of the opening. It will broadcast from the exhibition.
MK: Is Ntone going to be there?
KC: Yeah the whole team is going. We raised some of the money for it. I applied to Pro Helvetia and got a grant from them, and there is some other money I must apply for.
MK: And when you do the exhibition, do you have the liberty of making new work?
KC: Yeah I have the liberty of making new work.
MK: And how much new work will you be making for the exhibtion?
KC: I will probably have two sculptural works, an installation, some drawings, painting and the videos from this show [We Live in Silence] will also be shown there.
MK: And any retrospective work?
KC: No. Not any restrospective work.
MK: Of course, there are certain ideas people have about working in Zimbabwe – what about restrictions on content over there? Anybody ask you what you’re making?
KC: I sent them [the National Gallery] a proposal about what I wanted to make. They asked me to write it down; I wrote it down, they were happy with it.
MK: Is any of that content clearly politically inclined – or speaking about any opposition to the power structure in Zim?
KC: Like all art is political. I think there are elements of it, there are. There are parts of the show that is in opposition. But then that is what I wrote in my proposal and they agreed to it.
MK: So you don’t feel, or it seems from the tone of your voice, that your country’s national gallery is a particularly restrictive artistic environment?
KC: No I think artists have been able to create and say what they want. They engage in their own politics in that space. I think there’s a fear that it’s a national art gallery as much as it’s a state institution. I think it still grants those specific liberites to artists.
MK: Do you know that Tristan Tzara was at the opening of that gallery?
MK: The great Dadaist.
KC: No I didn’t.
MK: He may even have shaken hands with Robet Mugabe.
KC: And the Queen. She inaugurated it when it was opened. There’s a huge plaque.
MK: For you, what is your worst neo-colonial trait that you hate in yourself? What is your worst hangover from colonialism that you carry with you, that you wish you could get rid of?
KC: It’s that for a long time, I guess, like with schools in Zim and schools in South Africa, you go to school to be fashioned in the model of a conservative Englishman. Like an Afrosaxon. This is what you’re supposed to be – you’re supposed to be an Afrosaxon; and you go through life thinking this, that you are this person. You are being prepared in this world, in this environment, to be an Afrosaxon. And that’s the thing I’ve hated the most.
MK: Do you every say to yourself, “I wish Zimbabwe would have been colonised by the French or the Portuguese, instead of the English”?
MK: So your general outlook would be, “I wish that Zimbabwe would not have been colonised at all.”
MK: So that is your colonial burden. Do you carry that around with you a lot in your life? Are you constantly aware of the colonial burden?
KC: It creates so much crisis. Because you’re constantly – remember, in your learning experience you are prepared for where you’re supposed to live and experience that as an Afrosaxon. It creates terrible conflict in terms of what you understand and what you experience. And also what your grandparents say and experience, and can communicate, are vastly different from my experience.
MK: But you’re not very old, so they must also have been colonised. Internally.
KC: They have. Like they all went to missionary schools. So they have different expectations as to who and what you’re supoposed to be, and this creates incredible conflict. And I think this is a conflict, like you live constantly trying to resolve at contact points with institutions, with Immigration. With every kind of institution or contact point you are constantly at a point of conflict. So this creates considerable confusion.
MK: But that conflict is an outward conflict with institutions.
KC: It’s an internal conflict. At the point of contact there is conflict, and at the same time you are also experiencing internal conflict as a result of that contact.
MK: But then as an artist, it’s jumping a gap, but take that as a person looking on, and make it serious, the tragedy of people’s lives. It doesn’t matter that you’re a successful person, it doesn’t matter at all because there is something fucked up about everything. You can be a victim. Then why is your work so heavily aestheticised? Why is it so richly aestheic when the experience of life is really so underwhelming? Is that like an attempt to dress up your inner being in order to adorn you inner world, or is it an outward expression to say: fuck the ugliness let’s make it beautiful? Or is it both?
KC: Maybe it’s an outward projection in terms of like how I see it. I think it’s more or less like an outward projection of what I think it is. It might not actually be accurate.
MK: Let’s take [your portrayal of] women for example because I see there is some sort of text, subtext, or primary text about women in the exhibition notes. And if you look at your treament of women generally – which is quite a specific thing — you definitely make female icons out of African women, religious style icons that glorify their oppression. In a very Catholic way iconically. In a very orthodox religious manner.
KC: Use of religion is very internal in terms of how, like, the heirarchy of our knowledge is shared. So in this heirarchy of knowledge we understand specific things, and respond to specific things based on this heirarchy. How we understand, and how it creates, like, essentially our memories. So for me that has always been interesting in terms of Christian iconography. What kind of heirarchy does it create? And I found this to be really interesting in Zim. So when I am working there and looking at some of the imagery, and what has happened in the past 60 years, going back to those missionary churches it is always interesting how this heirarchy of knowledge also created this heirarchy of human value in which the role of women, especially African women, was pretty low. And one tends to kind of convert it into status of servitude. I found this very interesting. And then I kind of also found out, I guess, like there’s a very specific language to it. There’s a very specific understanding to the role of women – role of women in the church, role of women in the family, role of women within the African family. And all of those things essentially changed with Christianity. So then what became interesting is that, well, if that’s the case why don’t I flip the story? Why don’t I change the heirarchy and look at it from that perspective? Christ was a black woman. God was a black woman.
MK: So it’s not the Mother Mary figure. It’s more The Son. The Son is The Daughter.
KC: The Son is the Daughter. So I started to look at it that way, and started to interpret it. And think: “what then happens of we understand our heirarchy of knowledge in that regard?”
MK: Has that been a conscious artistic move in your practice?
KC: It was very conscious. I think initially I did it sparingly, like with the first work. But then I think, with the last two series I did it very consciously, very intentionally. So it’s almost like I was looking for an alternative. I was looking for an alternative story. Like if I was 16 and I gave myself that story what would I think? And what would follow after that? How would I see everything? How would I experience everything? What decisions would I make after that point? So it was almost like trying to create my own new Bible, or a new form of history and then handing it to myself when I was 16. Then that 16 year old has to make different choices.
MK: Then even if you take the picture of the rebel revolutionary female: it kind of does and does not exist, the sort of AK-47 weilding, wild hair, beautiful fashion model type – with a fashionable revolutionary spirit.
KC: There are amazing images in the archive of Zimbabwean women carrying guns – training in long skirts and, like, doing their marches; learning how to shoot. Those are extraordinary images and we never really see them. There are also similar images that you’d find in Guinea-Bissau. Then we never see those images at all. You always find the black intellectual comes out on top. The black male intellectual is always the one that comes out on top. That’s the most popular image.
MK: Do you think that’s because that is more digestable across the board? Is that a hangover from colonialism, or is that embedded in African culture that is perceived to be inherently patriarchal?
KC: No traditional African culture is not inherently patriarchal – not at all.
MK: So then this idea of the male intellectual saviour…
KC: I think it was very calculated the way it was instituted. So for me that was interesting in finding ways, finding alternative ways to remember that history. If I was asked to give that history to my 16-year-old self.
MK: Then what? Do you think you’d be a better person?
KC: That’s what I was wanting to find out – would I be a better person?
MK: The point is that [in your art] you have made the leadership figure a woman. And then there’s been this discussion about your “borderline Afropessimism”. So perhaps we should talk about Grace Mugabe and the recent incident [involving an alleged attack on a South African in Johannesburg], and what one assumes are her power ambitions for the next phase in your country’s history. Then we’re saying in the narrative of post-colonial Africa that women can be as evil as men. Old white men would love that because it would play into all of their neocolonialist beliefs of what post colonial Africa has dredged up, out of the mire of history.
KC: It’s an important question: can women be as evil as men? Well there are women on the NEC [ANC's National Executive Committee] in South Africa. Are those women evil? I don’t know. That’s why it’s an important question. If those images were given to myself when I was 16 what would I have thought?
MK: Exactly, because you didn’t have a chance, as a colonised human being, to see an equal world in which there would be African people who would be good, bad, mediocre, exeptional, brilliant, or totallly shit.
KC: I wasn’t given that chance.
MK: That’s what we as stupid whites don’t understand. People weren’t given a chance to see the world as it should be.
KC: So that’s why, for me, it’s an important question to ask: if that question could be given to me – if I was I was say 16, or 15, or even 12.
MK: But hang on: you were born in 1981. So you were born into a liberated Zimbabwe.
KC: Was it?
MK: Exactly. I suppose that’s the argument here also [in South Africa]. Was it? Well, it isn’t. It cannot be.
KC: The interesting conversation is like, these negotiations have to take place because things have to be stable. But what does stability mean? Does that mean we used the very same language that defines stability. The very same language the very same… as Europe? And what does stability mean?
MK: Interesting that you should ask that within the context of contemporary art. In the context of contemporary African art that sees as its superstructure — or it “apes” or just mimics — the mainstream art scene of the world. It hasn’t been able in any way to construct its own identity.
KC: Well it hasn’t necessarily.
MK: I have to ask: has it been able to construct its own identity as a scene, a white cube, in the first instance? In traditional African culture how many white cubes were floating around?
KC: What one has to consider is that as an artist living on the continent — or of African descent, or in the diaspora — one of the most fundamental things is global participation. And this is what a lot of artists strive for. Being part of the global conversation. But one has to ask: in which context are you part of that global conversation? And which language are you using to be a part of that global conversation? These are very important things. And whether one considers there’s African art scene or there’s an African identity, I think that’s entirely irrelevant. It’s the nature of the participation that’s far more important. It’s the language of the participation that’s more important. Because if at any point my language, or the nature of my participation in this conversation, is irrelevant then what’s the point of there having been a conversation about an African art scene?
MK: It’s all off centre. If you look at your own biography, that the gallery presents, it does not emphasise your African participation. I don’t know how much exhibition you’ve done on the African continent.
KC: Most of the work I’ve done. I’ve had shows: at Lagos Photo, Dakar Biennale, I had a show in Mocambique, Ethiopia. I find saying an “African art scene” to be irrelevant. I think, particularly, the most important thing to happen is global participation. Are we willing to participate globally? Are we willing to do that? Because by asking “are we willing to be global participants?” it means that we also create the spaces to have those conversations about global participation. That’s the other important part. So it’s not just like global participation [means] me going to Europe or the US. Global participation is them also coming here. So it’s to kind of look beyond, like, location.
MK: Beyond small mindedness. That’s a good point to ask about something that inspired your new work, the film Soleil O by Med Hondo [Mauritania, 1970]. How did you actually come upon the movie Soleil O?
KC: It was at a film festival I’d gone to. I think it was in Berlin. I was invited to this archive film festival and that’s where I saw the film. I think it was in 2015. Or 2014.
MK: And when you watched it were you transfixed by its period nature or its contemporary message. It’s message for now?
KC: Its message for now. I think that’s what kind of got me. And then I started harassing the people, asking how can I get this film?
MK: And what did strike you about it?
KC: Its language was so precise. It was so, so precise. It was really shocking how precise it was. But it was then, also, really interesting that in its entire narrative there is no reference to black women. So that really shocked me: “how is this possible?” It’s an incredibly revolutionary film. It’s about that mental conflict I was talking about, and how you can go mad thinking about “Am I Afrosaxon? Am I African? Am I supposed to be African? What parts of African should I be?” And you also have to deal with this interface, with like having multiple personalities to deal with different institutions. So this craziness was also relfected in the film. And I thought that was incredibly precise. But then it was also that there were no black women in it. And then that was, “What the fuck was that?” And then that kind of got me really interested in trying to figure out, ok how do I change the story? In the same way, if I was to go back to my younger self, and gave myself that film, at 36 what work would I have made? Would I have made the same choices? Having known that film, or having watched that film, would it have changed me in the the same way that I am trying to chang the film now, trying to look at it entirely differently? So then I tried to figure out: how do I change the story? How do I create an alternative, I guess, to that narrative, to that story, to that specific film?
MK: Are you succeeding, in your own mind, did you succeed?
KC: I don’t know if I succeeded. I don’t know if I succeeded.
MK: How do you measure success in that realm?
KC: It’s very hard to measure.
MK: Is it sales? Is it exhibition opportunities? Is it the love you get from your audience?
KC: I think you can measure it that you have attempted something honest. I think I’d rather measure it that way. Some may measure success on the story, the exhibition, whether stuff will sell; [or if] it might end up in a museum or with a private collector. But [for me] that you attempted something honest.
MK: Does that mean that in your universe dishonesty has not place in art?
KC: It actually has a good place in art.
MK: But you just said you measure it by honesty.
KC: But then that’s my measurement.
MK: Well I’d like to see what you’d make when you’d say, “Ok Kudzanai your entire next effort is going to be totally dishonest.”
KC: It could be an interesting project.
We Live in Silence runs at the Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, from August 31 to 14 October. Part two of Chiurai’s exhibition opens at Constitution Hill on September 9 at 6pm. Four new films will be screened with a live musical accompaniment by Joao Orecchia, Siya Makuzeni, Mpumelelo Mcata and Tshepang Ramoba. The book While the Harvest Rots, edited by Robert Muponde and Emma Laurence, is published by Goodman Gallery
Main Image: We Live in Silence VII – by Kudzanai Chiurai
Take Two: We Live in Silence II - by Kudzanai Chiurai
Portrait: Kudzanai Chiurai’ - by Anthea Pokroy, courtesy of Goodman Gallery