Johannesburg - One of the more extraordinary things I witnessed in Joburg’s contemporary art scene happened in Gwigwi Mrwebi Street in Newtown in 2011 at the opening of Kudzanai Chiurai’s State of the Nation exhibition. Outside a warehouse where his textured, pop, urban-spiritual paintings and his lurid, political photographs were displayed, was a live performance.
Patrice Lumumba was giving a speech. He was played by a woman, Zaki Ibrahim. Opposite her, Thandiswa Mazwai took to the stage, channelling the ancestors as she sang. On a screen above her, Chiurai’s first-ever film played, Iyeza, a reworking of the Last Supper in extreme slow motion, complete with a black, female Jesus and a group of violent male disciples. Its screenings would take the artist around the world as he moved his base back to Zimbabwe and began looking at South Africa from the outside. Leaving has so sharpened his gaze that it’s become a kind of cultural weapon.
With his latest solo to open in Joburg, We Live in Silence, Chiurai has remade that film. It’s one of five new films from this powerful Afro-pessimist trying to reimagine the future of Africans, and African women in particular, by retelling colonial and Christian-missionary histories and restoring black women to the centre of the narrative.
His films will show separately to his photos and installations, refusing to be bound by the white walls of the gallery, because they need their own, charged space. Like Mazwai’s performance, they are powerful spells that channel the ancestors.
Three of Chiurai’s new films remix an obscure 1967 movie by Mauritanian film maker Med Hondo, Soleil Ô.
“I saw it at an archive film festival in Berlin and I couldn’t get it out of my mind,” says the artist over dinner one night.
In his soft-spoken, sometimes pensive voice, he explains that the film – about a black man trying to find work in his newly independent country, but encountering instead the racism of the white French and the hangover of the church – speaks the exact language of today.
“Decolonisation, land, race, privilege, capital, labour, extractive economies, nationalism, black heroes... It begins to dawn on the main character that this world was not made for him. This promise that was promised is no promise.”
But as much as he loved Soleil Ô, he was also critical of its erasure of black women.
“They’re never central to the story, they’re background information, they fill space...”
So he has remade three of its scenes, now with a black woman (Botshelo Motuba) as the central character.
Something extraordinary is happening in Chiurai’s work. He is building sets like street theatre, rich and patterned. His is taking stills as he films, directing actors and recording spoken texts and creating scores. If we were silly enough to imagine a young, black Kentridge, Chiurai is a candidate – and one that makes the colonial edifice of the white art world look ridiculous.
Two other films speak to the reimagined Soleil Ô films. The remake of Iyeza has a Last Supper of only women this time. A car burns next to an evangelical priest in a leopard-print suit casting out demons – and male prophets literally fall from the sky.
And he has reshot his film Moya, a Pietà with only women. Now six black women join the scene, cleaning the body of the dead woman Jesus.
“Because it had to complete this story. It speaks to the other films,” he says.
Chiurai’s target is not just white colonialism here.
“The black man has a case to answer for the great betrayal of women. If we went to trial, we couldn’t call women as our witnesses because we f*cked women over,” he says.
We Live in Silence is on at the Goodman Gallery Johannesburg until October 14. The films can be seen off-site in the Old Fort at Constitution Hill from Saturday, 9 September until Saturday, 23 September.
(Photos: Supplied/City Press)