Zimbabwe's Kudzanai Chiurai: Can art change Africa?

  • 24 October 2011
  • From the section Africa
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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".

"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.

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