Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Rocking Religion: Chiurai & Smith

A still from Kudzanai Chiurai's Moyo

It’s paradise for fashion bloggers; lots of young men and women in sassy street-style get-ups. Tuxedo jackets and skinnys. This is the crowd that Kudzanai Chiurai always pulls: Jozi’s hip party people. Part of the attraction behind his exhibition, 16SNLV, is the venue: a makeshift industrial space on Gwigwi Mrwebi Street, Newtown. It’s been updated, sanitised with white paint. Chiurai likes showing here rather than at the Goodman Gallery to which he is aligned.

His practice is embedded in Joburg life, so it makes sense that his exhibition openings tend to be a prelude to a party. Yet the mood is elegiac when you step into the space. It’s the music that has set this ambience. It’s something akin to what you might hear in a Methodist church during a funeral. It’s part of the video work Moyo, which is projected on a large screen. It’s a mother and child motif, recalling the Pietà by Michaelangelo. A female figure in costume is mourning the death of her (adult) progeny, lying bloodied across her lap. The work brings to mind Chiurai’s rendition of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, which was part of the State of the Nation show at this venue a few years ago.

That video work was animated, too – he enjoys animating paintings, translating them into choreographed mise en scènes with costumed people.  Africanising these stock scenes is an important aspect, prompting us to question what makes them undeniably "African." The animations or gestures are so slow and subtle, you have to watch closely to see them evolve - he almost denies the medium's function.  Presumably he employs this device to sustain our attention and thwart our expectation that his images can be consumed immediately. That work was also supported by music on the opening night when Thandiswa Mazwai performed a live set in front of a screen where the work was projected.

This performance took place on the street, but the spectacle and the mobilisation of imagery and music recalled a church scene; everyone was enraptured by the gradually evolving scene. His static, conventional paintings exude the urban texture of Joburg’s layered urban palimpsest, but in his video works he relies on the symbolic realm of religious iconography.

It is in his subversion of Western religious parables from the canon of art history that he draws attention to the seemingly unnatural turn of events, that besets life (politics) in Africa and how these patterns are rooted in western culture. The tension in his work is rooted in the juxtaposition and overlap between the West and Africa. Afropessism (rooted in reality) and (European) cliches about the continent rub up against each other. One painting - untitled -  parodies the ubiquitous African safari, mocking conceptions about the continent – yet another, The English Garden, features an African holding up an Uzi. He doesn't deliver stark realities, he simply reworks existing motifs, signs. So, even though Moyo is, according to the publicity material, designed to address the phenomenon of violence in our society, it is a stylised representation, an overstated metaphor.

His statements of protest couldn’t be described as subtle. Large posters bearing the face of President Jacob Zuma with the strap “Men in Charge” are piled high on tables, encouraging visitors to take them home. There are T-shirts, too, with wry logos. It’s like the paraphernalia you would expect to see at a rock concert.

Michael Smith’s new body of work also evokes the intersection between art, religion and music, though his approach diverges from Chiurai’s. Smith isn’t interested in mobilising religious iconography from art’s canon, rather he uses art to expose, perhaps even demystify, the religious spectacle, which he observes in his artist statement, now draws its drama from the music, rock performance rhetoric.
“Christianity had, it seemed come to embrace rock’s language, its cues, its emotional triggers, its crowd-pleasing mannerisms, with aplomb. Youth pastors from Rhema and other charismatic churches visited regularly, looking for all the world like wannabe rock stars; being cool, looking edgy had become “tools of ministry”,” writes Smith.
Smith's I wanna be Adored I

Despite the overlap between rock’s language and the performance in charismatic churches, Smith draws quite a hard line between these worlds in his exhibition, Shift. On one wall of the gallery are monochromatic charcoal drawings pertaining to transcendental moments at a rock concert and on the other, mostly inane scenes of the interior features of a church.

This partly occurred because Smith wasn’t permitted to take any photographs during religious gatherings while he was researching this project.
For the church scenes, he relied on product shots from a company that supplies items to churches. Hence realistic paintings of rows of empty chairs, a staircase, light streaking a barren floor and curtains.
Despite their apparent bland appearance these are all highly evocative scenes that are visual markers of a theatrical performance of any kind. A sense of verticality also unites some of them; the lines of a curtain, the staircase, the light across the floor, alluding to metaphysical transcendence.
Yet because these spaces are unoccupied, are rendered in dark tones, and in a fairly clinical manner, there is also a sense that while this may be promised, not only is its attainment impossible but that this moment, sensation, relies on theatre; the space itself needs to be activated by a performance.

It’s as if Smith has taken us backstage and demystified the entire process. It’s akin to lifting a bonnet and looking at a car’s engine. In his renderings of scenes at a live music gig, he approaches from the opposite end of the spectrum.

In I Wanna be Adored II he presents a singer/rock star on stage in a state recalling religious ecstasy. His eyes are closed and Smith distorts the figure; its as if you are viewing him through a glass of water. This creates the impression that he isn’t fully present, but dissolving, transforming, surrendering himself. It’s a paradoxical moment; while it appears as if he has abandoned his individuality, he appears godlike – it becomes all about him. He looks like Jesus with his dark beard.

This suggests that the music world has also embraced the performative rhetoric associated with the church, though perhaps not as deliberately or duplicitously as religious authorities have. As Smith shows, the props are meaningless in themselves without the performance. But what is this fleeting “thing” that occurs on a stage? Is it linked to the music?

It defies representation; for all of Smith’s impressive warbling effects, we cannot access that thing. The stuff it is made of cannot be quantified or cleanly analysed. Not that Smith sets out to coolly consider his subject matter, though the artificial, and perhaps even misplaced sense of resolution the work communicates, contradicts this. Smith cannot get beyond the appearance of the thing and properly demystify it because he is a visual artist, who also relies on props, transcendence and an experiential quality to do his work.

Perhaps Chiurai has taken the easy route; exploiting whatever languages to work magic on the audience. What differentiates him from other artists is his willingness to create a live “experience” with paintings and videoworks; if you miss his opening night, you have missed out.  The morning after his opening, I return to the venue to watch Moyo again. But the screen has been taken down and the TV  where State of the Nation video work was playing the previous night has been unplugged. It recalls the vacant scenes in Smith's series on Church interiors.

I have no choice but to recall the impressions from the night before. The problem is, it’s a bit of a haze and I feel like the warbled subject in Smith’s charcoal drawing. All that I have left are copies of Chiurai’s posters on the backseat of my car. - a version of this was published in The Sunday Independent, June 23, 2013. 

Shift shows at the Res Gallery in Joburg until August 17

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