Monday, November 21, 2011
Kudzanai Chiurai's State of the Nation
His work’s connection to the urban environment, however, goes much deeper than superficial links with a pseudo-Jean-Michel Basquiat-like graffiti style. The composition of his paintings and photographs at State of the Nation reflect the palimpsest of an urban African environment populated by diverse signs and iconographies, which reflect the multitude of cultures, traditions and histories that all converge in these modern conurbations. They are places where first and third, African, European and, now, Chinese cultures collide and meld. The signs that populate Chiurai’s paintings – and photographs – should be in conflict with each other. In a painting titled Corinthians (2011) the word “Hollywood” is scrawled across a canvas on which also appears a naked female cadaver, the shadow of a plant, a skull balanced on a stick, a disused tyre and the phrase “time picture for your digital use”.
Despite the fact that these signs, phrases, names, appear mismatched and disjointed from their origins, they now exist as part of the fabric of the African urban experience both virtual and real. The skyline of a city is depicted in the background of Corinthians, alluding to the built environment but it is this incongruent mix of signs that root the painting in the urban African setting. In many ways his work evokes Jean Baudrilliard’s observation about modern reality consisting of simulated signs representing reality, such as a Hollywood sign serving as a shorthand for a place.
Chiurai’s work therefore serves as description of African urbanity. The signifiers of place are always clichéd; the Hollywood sign alludes to American imperialism and a leopard-shaped sofa evokes a generic symbol of Africa. Everything in his pictorial planes have been reduced to overstated forms – consequently what he presents is not the gritty reality of street life but a symbolic shorthand evoking a contested African identity that is expressed in the façades of the continent’s cities.
He presents troubled spaces; death and violence are predominant motifs. This multilayered urban palimpsest is an unpredictable territory. The titles refer to parts of the Bible but there is also a sense that the worlds that Chiurai presents are rooted in biblical times; not that they are modern replicas per se; rather he aims to chronicle lost societies without a moral compass to guide them. A dog gnaws a human arm. A skeleton treads over the bones of his ancestors. Words or phrases such as “Nursery School” and “Education for Success”, which appear in a painting are ironic, meaningless: there is no innocence or transcendence. As the title of one work implies: the children in this place have no mothers. In White Picket, an idealistic domestic environment is violated by an angry man with a knife in his hand. This is a world that has been turned upside down; the natural order has been reversed. The world that Chiurai paints – quite literally as this chaos is best illustrated in his paintings – is one in need of a “saviour”, who can steer this sick society on a new path.
But can such a society produce such a man – or woman? It is through a series of extraordinary photographs that Chiurai explores the ideological systems, forces and “saviours” that can deliver this morally corrupt society from a pervasive malevolence. These photographs are staged re-enactments of dated photographs of significant political occurrences or famous paintings. The most striking is a rendition of the Last Supper, which features the figure of a composed female “Jesus” (evoking Dan Brown’s theory in The Da Vinci Code) presiding over a group of miscreants that include a warlord and a witchdoctor who is said to be burning human flesh.
This Jesus figure is a rendition of Patrice Lumumba, the former prime|minister of the Congo. Though Chiurai uses a woman to pose as him, we know it is him because a separate portrait (Revelations XII) recalls a well-known photograph of the Congolese leader. Most of the photographs are re-enactments of historical images, others are renditions of Chinese communist posters. Though some relate to actual events, they have been fictionalised via stylisation and parody.
The backgrounds, the contexts of these images are homogeneous, a collage, consisting of rose patterned wallpapers and West African fabrics. An old fan with horses printed on adds to the retro-kitsch pastiche. The theatrical tales of terror, violence and redemption all take place in this standardised collaged setting, a bricolage, defined by diverse cultural influences that also define his paintings and which evoke intricately layered African conurbations.
Chiurai creates the impression that a cross-cultural clash is embedded in the environment – or are these settings a product of such conflicts? Undoubtedly, the players – soldiers, victims, political leaders, foreign dignitaries and witchdoctors – are products of these jumbled realms, where power, control and survival aren’t discreetly negotiated but manifest in dramatic battles. Ultimately, it is the theatrics and visual rhetoric of this burdened existence that Chiurai so artfully articulates. - published in The Sunday Independent, November 20, 2011.