City Press speaks to Kudzanai Chiurai about Men of Livingstone

Johannesburg - Kudzanai Chiurai doesn’t want to talk about his return to living and working in Zimbabwe after more than a decade in South Africa.

He’d like us rather to focus on his new photographic work, Men of Livingstone, which is part of a larger series called Genesis [Je n’isi isi] and will go on show at the important LagosPhoto Festival in Nigeria on October 22.

The award-winning and ever hip 35-year-old artist’s work adorns the walls of Elton John and Richard Branson’s homes, features on the set of the TV series Empire and has been bought by many of the planet’s top contemporary collectors.

But he’s down to earth, soft spoken, spiritual and intensely private. He wants no part of the fame game. If anything, a return to Zimbabwe and its smaller pool of collectors moves him even further from the white capitalist gallery display. His concerns are African and political, and his picture is big.

Chiurai’s renowned paintings are drawn from the street and from within in a swirl of mysticism and menace, colours and symbols popping. He also trades in iconic sculpture, poster art, sound installation, text and film – where his depictions of black women portraying Jesus or Patrice Lumumba have been shown as far afield as the Sundance Film Festival in the US.

But his photo series are a particular line of thought underscoring his other work.

Born a year after Zimbabwean independence, Chiurai’s photo series have, in the past, depicted contemporary African leaders in a powerful and dystopian critique of corruption and violence. They’ve shown abusive power as uncomfortably fashionable; they’ve displayed African leaders guzzling at nice things in stained white underpants.

The new series, though, is an account of the men who ventured with Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone into central Africa, says Chiurai over email.

“They included other Europeans who sought similar adventures, and the porters and guides who bore the weight of their supplies. Slaves freed from Arab slave traders also joined the Livingstone party and would later provide testimony to his character ... his courteousness, kindness and an inflexible determination in his faith and purpose, and lastly his abilities as a leader of men and liberator.”

But that’s a ruse. In Men of Livingstone, Chiurai delves deeper into the genesis of the problems of the postcolonial state than before, exploring the corruption of traditional African culture.

He tackles “Livingstone’s notion that Christianity and commerce were inseparable” and, by introducing them to the parts of Africa he explored, hoped to replace slavery with Christianity and commerce, “thus bringing about the civilisation of Africans who lived in the darkness of paganism and savagery”.

“With Bible in hand, he saw his role as a shepherd, leading the African people into the light. As he fondly remembered that ‘this continent must be civilised from within outward’.”

Expeditions such as Livingstone’s would “change the trajectory of the social and economic foundations” of the parts of Africa that he explored.

Researching the Livingstone story, Chiurai says he was struck by how widespread the notion is of “a singular perspective of history” and that a white patriarch like Livingstone can “save” Africa and its people – which denies the history of the continent.

“The series attempts to unsettle the kind of colonial future narrative preached and envisioned by Livingstone, and overturns his gospel with an alternative narrative, imagining an Afro-future Livingstone could never have foreseen.”

Chiurai also manages to depict the consumerist nature of contemporary churches alongside the plight of mine workers. But most important is the subversion in the work. With a cast of beautiful young things, Chiurai holds up the power of the African queen while also referencing the inherent militancy of a new generation bent on decolonisation.

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