One man army

2011-10-28 09:50

It all sounds a bit rock star at first – the plans for the opening night of 31-year-old Kudzanai Chiurai’s State of the Nation exhibition. Open to the public, the Newtown street will be closed off and a throne installed in the middle. Thandiswa Mazwai and Zaki Ibrahim will appear live, and word has it that US rapper Mos Def may join them. Chiurai counts him as a friend.

But this isn’t a street party. The throne is made from replicated human body parts and will be surrounded by barbed wire. From it, Ibrahim will recite political speeches by African dictators. Mazwai will sing to a film of the Last Supper featuring a black female Jesus and a muti murder.

Chiurai may have famous friends and may have created pieces now owned by Elton John, Patrice Motsepe and Richard Branson, but sales and ego don’t drive him. You can sense it the moment you meet him. He speaks with concentration, never raising his voice – except occasionally to burst into peals of laughter.

For Chiurai, art is a political weapon that can change lives. He first discovered this power as a student after a visit to Zimbabwe during the height of the land invasions. He painted Robert Mugabe’s head in flames – and received huge support from fellow Zimbabweans, who hailed
his defiance.

A decade later, Chiurai has broadened his repertoire. State of the Nation is a collection of performance, video, sound, paintings, drawings and photographs. Together they birth an imaginary African state. The official flag of this traumatised homeland is graffitied with the words “no peace”.

I meet the artist in a downtown Joburg studio with his photographer, Jurie Potgieter. New soul starlet Ibrahim sloughs around in her dungarees, waiting for the set to arrive so that she can be photographed as the first legally elected prime minister of the Republic of Congo, Patrice Lumumba.

Chiurai shows me his new photos. My first thought is “epic”. My second is that his work has matured – the pop references are more specific, the fashionable has become anti-fashion. My third is a growing unease.

The photos are dramatic re-enactments referenced, after intensive research, from sources such as a Chinese communist poster, a Goya war painting, Chairman Mao addressing his generals and Idi Amin interviewing a captured rebel ahead of his execution live on TV.

Chiurai has been studying his tyrants. “Once, their ideological beliefs prospered, but something changed, ego took over,” he says. In place of the historical figures are soldiers and rebels.

His characters, smeared with grease, plunder with machetes and guns and money – China plundering Africa, governments plundering the land, men plundering women. They are mediated versions of ourselves; the worst of you and me – in a beautiful landscape ravaged
by conflict.

“One dude saw my photo of Idi Amin relaxing at the pool (with a sausage in his hand, surrounded by submissive wives) and really liked it. He said, ‘This is exactly how we chill with our women’.”

In the work there is a polarity between the powerful and the vulnerable, with the artist on the side of the vulnerable. He talks about a spate of xenophobic violence in 2009.

“I saw someone beaten with a brick. He dropped to the ground and people burst out laughing . . . Blind Zimbabweans were holding hands as they were being led to Jeppe Police Station. People tried to rob them. I have never felt so vulnerable.”

In the original Goya painting, the victims of war are men. In Chiurai’s version, they are women. “At the time of the shoot, a group of women were killed in Guinea.

They organised a protest and the military opened fire . . . In Africa, rape has been militarised to use it as a weapon.”

Which is why he chose a woman (Ibrahim again) to be Jesus in his first ever video, a remarkable piece set at the Last Supper. “When you examine African history, you discover many matriarchal societies. We’ve lost the balance. Men wield their power, but forget it takes a woman to give birth to a man.”

Around his passive Jesus are disciples waging life-threatening political squabbles. In front, a man offers two women the bowels of a muti-murder victim. As the women recoil in horror, they become a mini-Guernica (Pablo Picasso). “That came from the sight of a group of women wailing at the TRC hearings,” he says quietly.

Kudzanai Chiurai is a soldier. A sangoma friend, Nokulinda Mkhize, told him so. “She’s helped me understand the importance of ancestry and ritual. She told me that my guides are soldiers. Until now, this had never been part of my life or work in a meaningful way.” He has asked Mazwai to perform a song at the opening in which she calls on the ancestors.
It is part of the zeitgeist of new South African art, a calling of the ancients to understand the present and face the future. You see it in the work of emerging stars such as Nicholas Hlobo with his Xhosa spiritualism and Athi-Patra Ruga with his ritually transformative performances.

Hlobo is the toast of New York this month, Ruga is booked for performa and Chiurai has been selected for documenta – some of the world’s most important shows. They are taking their histories with them.

» Chiurai’s State of the Nation can be seen at 50 Gwigwi Mrwebi Street, Newtown, from Thursday until December 6 and at Goodman Gallery Projects at Arts on Main from November 6 until January next year 

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