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.