Zimbabwe's Kudzanai Chiurai: Can art change Africa?

Work by Kudzanai Chiurai Kudzanai Chiurai is one of Africa's most celebrated artists

Visitors to Kudzanai Chiurai's home on a gritty, warehouse-lined backstreet in central Johannesburg may find themselves surprised to leave with a bad case of loft envy. I know I did.

The Zimbabwean artist - whose scathing, theatrical compositions about African power and corruption have won him a growing following - lives in a huge, white, third-storey, converted workshop with a panorama of the city crowding the windows at one end and his latest canvases lounging along the opposite walls.

"My starting point was that dinner - Charles Taylor, Naomi Campbell, and Mandela," says Mr Chiurai, gesturing to several unfinished canvases.

Mr Chiurai is referring to a tantalising piece of evidence about "blood diamonds" that surfaced during the former Liberian leader's recent war crimes trial, and which is now the inspiration for the artist's latest project - "The Republic". One of the pictures on the wall shows a baboon squatting on the dead body of Samuel Doe - another Liberian warlord.

At the core of "The Republic" are 11 high-resolution photographs of some of Mr Chiurai's friends posing - some in their underpants, some brandishing weapons - as nameless African dictators surrounded by the paraphernalia of despotism.

"It's a fictional state," said Mr Chiurai. "I hope my work speaks for itself. The compositions are based on Chinese Communist Party posters. I'm also influenced by [US photographer David] LaChapelle," he added.

Painted flowers

Mr Chiurai, 30, did not start off as a "political artist".

Start Quote

I think next year could see a total collapse [in Zimbabwe]”

End Quote Kudzanai Chiurai

"I used to paint flowers," he told me with a grin. But after leaving his home in Harare in 1999 to study art in South Africa, he became involved with exile politics and the growing opposition to President Robert Mugabe.

His artistic contributions "went viral", says Mr Chiurai, and soon prompted threatening phone calls to his family back in Zimbabwe. He has not returned to the country since.

But abroad his art has received growing respect, with exhibitions at New York's Museum of Modern Art and London's Victoria and Albert Museum. He says musician Elton John bought prints of all 10 pictures from his "The President" series.

Then there is the furniture.

"Vanity" - a bronze throne made of eerily life-like casts of his own body - will be sat upon by an actor playing yet another president, and delivering a fiery speech, at the street party he is planning for the launch of his new exhibition next month.

"I passed out once," he says, during the gruelling process of making a latex body cast for the chair.

But can his glossy images - echoed wittily in some African television commercials - influence attitudes on the continent?

"Poetry makes nothing happen," wrote WH Auden, and Mr Chiurai does not expect his own art to be any different. In fact he seems particularly pessimistic about Zimbabwe right now.

"I think next year could see a total collapse. There's so much infighting - too many factions. There will be an election but I don't think there will be credible results. It's going to get worse," he says.

Andrew Harding Article written by Andrew Harding Andrew Harding Africa correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    November 3 - Opening at 18:30 – 50 Gwi Gwi Mrwebi St Newtown, Johannesburg. With contributions from muscians Thandiswa Mazwai, Zaki Ibrahim, Joao Orrecia and Mpumi Mcata and Tshepang Ramoba (from Blk Jks) Closes December 3 2011
    November 6 – Opening at 12:00 - Goodman Gallery Projects, Arts on Main, 264 Fox St, City & Suburban, Johannesburg. Closes January 2012

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    The only thing that will "change" Africa is Africans and after years of getting aid from every guilt-ridden country in the world why should they change? No matter what happens some do-gooder organization is there ready to throw money at a problem. Africans will never learn to be self sufficient if people continue to give them aid rather than encourage them to take responsibility for themselves

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    His work is closely connected to his views re political activism. His are is demonstrated in work that embraces photography, publishing, music, public art, & fashion. He has edited 2 publications. But his work does not touch me; maybe because I am not African, but even if I were African, it would seem beyond my day-to-day suffering to survive while black elites prosper.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    In 2009 Chiurai joined Goodman Gallery, exhibiting in the group exhibition Nation State & entering into world of African politics with solo shows like Dying to be men. Large-scale photographs critiquing representation & aesthetics of political power were at the core of Dying to be men. Personally, I don't get the link e.g. Dying to be men is not why I see young African men dying.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I'm not a big fan of Kudzanai Chiurai, but I can appreciate his work. Regarded as part of the “born free” generation in Zimbabwe – born one year after the country’s independence from Rhodesia – Chiurai early work focused on the political, economic & social strife in Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe had him exiled. So much for art changing Zimbabwe.



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