Monday, November 21, 2011

Kudzanai Chiurai's State of the Nation

It is not unexpected that Kudzanai Chiurai’s exhibition is showing at two locales in Joburg’s inner city – one a makeshift gallery in a warehouse in Newtown, the other the Goodman Gallery’s Project Space at Arts on Main. His work has often exuded a gritty, downtown persona. Mostly it’s the graffiti-style vocabulary that has engendered this notion that his work is “of the streets”. In fact, his ties to street culture are so blatant one reviewer suggested that his art appeared incongruent in a conventional gallery setting.

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.