11 November 2011 by Dianne Tipping-Woods

Kudzanai Chiurai’s State of the Nation

Kudzanai Chiurai’s latest exhibition State of the Nation is running in Newtown (50 Gwi Gwi Mrwebi Street)  and at Arts on Main. The exhibition is described as exploring aspects of a constructed African state that has been ravaged by conflict.

Between the two venues, the show features photographic prints, drawings, large oil paintings, video, sound installation and performance. The compositions are loud, scathing, and theatrical. They exude a mix of vitality and corruption, violence and squalor, recklessness and righteousness. With their thick veneer of glamour, lashings of irony and multiple references to youth culture and hip hop, the works provide fresh ways of looking at the socio-politics of Africa today.

While the work is set in a nameless African country, with details drawn from conflicts in any number of African states, its composite parts form a larger-than-life whole in a sometimes cynical exploration of the violent, conflict-ridden aspects of the African condition.

“On a continent that has experienced more violent conflict than any other, this exhibition follows an individual’s narration of events that lead up to the inaugural speech by the first supposedly democratically elected prime minister. This leader styled along many of our existing African leaders, retells the history of a people from another time, but still Africa’s time,” says the artist.

Melissa Mboweni is the project’s curator, and Chiurai has collaborated with photographer Jurie Potgieter and singers Thandiswa Mazwai and Zaki Ibrahim.

The photos from the exhibition stick with me the most. The gun-wielding men with slick, glistening skin are camp, iconic and macho, {image_1}surrounded by discarded tyres, trolleys laden with human skulls, muti dishes and empty bottles. The female subjects; gun-wielding, aggressive, and sexualised; are equally disturbing with their intensity, their sweat and their blood.  And yet at all times there is a distance between the viewer and the viewed. The works remain cool and polished and the viewer detached. A deliberate consequence of the way the portarits are styled to echo the pages of a glossy fashion magazine - and all the more powerful as a result?

Shot by Jurie Potgieter, the photos are a follow-up of Chiurai’s last exhibition, The Black President, his series on an imaginary Cabinet. Also fascinating is the sculpture of a pair of conjoined humans (a double cast of Chiurai himself) forged into a throne, which has been chosen for next year’s Documenta 13, the exhibition of modern and contemporary art in Kassel, Germany.

Some reviwers have suggested that the work is too pessimistic, distortedly so.  Percy Zvomuya in the Mail and Guardian suggests Africa has recorded tremendous sucesses recently; in the past year Kenya adopted a new constitution; the Egyptians peacefully ousted Hosni Mubarak; and in Zambia Michael Sata is the country’s new president after defeating Rupiyah Banda in elections held some weeks ago.

It is true that this nuanced, varied Africa is not referenced in Chiurai’s State of the Nation. But the work is not unequivocal - and I look forward to seeing what Chiurai does next.

About the artist

Born in 1981 in Zimbabwe, Chiurai is an internationally acclaimed young artist now living and working in Johannesburg, South Africa. He was the first black student to graduate with a BA Fine Art from the University of Pretoria. Regarded as part of the “born free” generation in Zimbabwe - born one year after the country’s independence from Rhodesia - Chiurai’s early work focused on the political, economic and social strife in his homeland. Seminal works such as Presidential Wallpaper depict Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe as a sell-out and led to Chiurai’s exile from his home country.a

Chiurai has held numerous solo exhibitions since 2003 and has participated in various local and international exhibitions, most recently Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and Impressions from South Africa, 1965 to Now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which acquired Chiurai’s work for their collection.

With thanks to the Goodman Gallery for the pictures.

Category: Arts & Entertainment

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