Amsterdam, Feb. 2014: You could see almost all visitors of Hauptbahnhof Kassel do a double take when confronted with Kudzanai Chiurai’s contribution to dOCUMENTA(13). Is it a photograph or did I just detect motion? No, yes, no, there’s definitely something stirring, very much slowed down but alive it is. And then the quaintness of what is being shown kicks in. It’s a contemporary African version of The Last Supper with witchdoctors, machine gun wielding rebels, and cool urbanites wearing designer sunglasses gathered around a female, black Jesus. It’s religion and social commentary rolled into one, doused in iconography and humor.
It was his blunt satiric treatment of Zimbabwe’s autocratic president Robert Mugabe, depicted in flames with horns on his head, which forced Kudzanai Chiurai into exile. From neighboring South Africa he has continued to criticize corrupt politicians, question stereotypes of gender, power, and culture, and expose xenophobia. Only recently he has returned to Zimbabwe. In his work he mixes imagery from popular culture with highbrow art historical notions. He’s an activist as well as a philosopher, just as freely spreading his message in stencils or photography as constructing elaborate video works for the international museum circuit.
The work included in dOCUMENTA(13), Iyeza (State of the Nation), falls in the latter category. Together with Creation and Moyo it comprises a triptych. This month’s Kunsthal Rotterdam presentation marks the first time the series will be shown as a whole in Europe. Simultaneously, Chiurai’s work is on show at Galerie West in The Hague and will be presented in the Galerie West booth at Art Rotterdam.
Kudzanai Chiurai, Moyo II , 2013, UltraChrome Ink on Innova Photo Fiba, 120 x 180 cm; Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery.
Edo Dijksterhuis: You only recently completed Moyo. How does it fit in with the other two works?
Kudzanai Chiurai: From the very start I knew I wanted to make a triptych. In the back of my mind there was always the idea that they would end up in one space. From initial research to execution is a very long process, though. It has taken me two and a half years. I have worked on all three videos simultaneously but finished the second chapter first, then moved on to the first and ended with number three.
Creation is about the origin of the world, of the stars. It’s about how light and dark were separated, good and evil. Iyeza shows The Last Supper as a political narrative. It shows the nature of violence and the idea of sacrifice. The final piece, Moyo, is about death and ends with peace. The series presents a circular whole, which after it ends starts up again. I explore the nature of conflict and resolution. Basically that’s the definition of life: conflict and resolution. Rebirth could be a solution but is also the potential start of another conflict.
ED: In the photo series Dying to be Men (2009) you focused on the images of African men in a wide range of contexts, presenting them as statesmen, pimps, guerillas. In these three video works it’s women who take center stage. How does this female focus tie in with the theme of violence and conflict?
KC: In Creation the central role of the woman is self-explanatory; she is the one giving birth. In Iyeza she is Jesus, the one to be sacrificed. In Moyo the women are mourners and observers. Violence is a very male phenomenon, while women usually play a central role in conflict resolution. And they are victims. We see it again today in Sudan. It’s not women making war, but they do carry a lot of the burden. It is crucial for politics to recognize and be sensitive to women’s role and to give them a voice.
Kudzanai Chiurai, Revelations VII, 2011, Ultra chrome ink on Innova photo fibre paper, 120 x 230 cm; Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery.
ED: When first confronted with the video works it’s hard to make out what you’re actually looking at. There are elements of theater in there, alongside performance, music and painting. What do you consider it yourself?
KC: The research I do is rather painterly. The way I do shoots and create sets is painterly. The actual work is a cross between a short film and a moving canvas. There is an element of theater in there as well. I have done a series of photographs before, Revelation, for which I created sets which were incredibly theatrical. The next step was to use moving images.
It took a while before I figured out the right way to use the camera, how to tweak the image just enough. I had to have some kind of narrative but did not want to be overly theatrical. By introducing extreme slow-motion I found a way to draw the audience inwards, like a painting. It’s not terribly expressive but it offers enough to engage the viewer.
ED: Could you expand a bit on the process of finding the fitting cinematic format?
KC: Well, it was trial and error. Initially I had the high-speed camera mounted on a dolly but that didn’t work. I had to use a still image; the viewer really has to lock onto it. Lighting is very important because it gives some sense of depth and volume. I didn’t want it to be overly dramatic; the figures in the picture and their expressions should be the focal point. I was aiming for an understated way of presenting so as to engage the viewer in a more interesting way. I am not trying to be a filmmaker. I am a visual artist searching for the best way to express an idea.
Surprisingly Iyeza was also selected for the Sundance Film Festival. That opened up a whole new and unexpected medium. The work was being looked at differently, cinematically. Maybe I’ll make a feature film at some point, but for now I want to concentrate on working with the gallery and museums. Only after that I want to see what other life a work might have.
ED: Why this focus on working within the formal art circuit?
KC: In my opinion the question of how to use space in order to fulfill its purpose is very important, whether it’s in a prison cell or a warehouse. A gallery encapsulates an audience which then becomes part of the work. This doesn’t mean the work has to be tucked away behind the high thresholds of an art ghetto. For the State of the Nation show in 2011 at Goodman Gallery I projected some videos outside, in the middle of the street, and accompanied them with live music. It would be interesting to project Iyeza in a cathedral, with the Christian iconography and all. I would like to see what kind of response it would draw.
ED: In the Kunsthal in Rotterdam the three parts of the triptych are being shown together for the very first time in Europe. How are you going to present the works?
KC: The positioning of the screens is crucial because it largely influences the way people are going to watch it. It’s a circular drama and I want the audience to become part of it. It’s emotional but also sculptural.
Having said that, I have to stress the importance of the size of the projections. The image is going to be much larger than at dOCUMENTA. In Kassel I was restricted to a flat screen TV; in Rotterdam the image is going to measure five by three meters. That makes for a different experience and a more direct interaction with the life-size figures. Because of the size you also pick up more easily on all kinds of details.
Kudzanai Chiurai, No one likes a bag of bones, 2010, Oil on canvas; Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery.
ED: A lot of your work comments on politics and social issues in Africa in general and South Africa in particular. How important is it for your work to also be shown abroad?
KC: The South African art scene has a pioneering role on the continent and a lot of artists from other countries are drawn to it. It gets a lot of international attention and that’s important because how people perceive South Africa is largely determined by the images produced by artists. Art also provides a language to describe what the country is going through. It’s a powerful tool for shaping the identity and image of South Africa. And when those images are shown in museums and at art fairs, that story is lifted to the level of a global platform.
ArtSlant would like to thank Kudzanai Chiurai for his assistance in making this interview possible.