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Kudzanai Chiurai

By Anna Stielau

Kudzanai Chiurai
Iyeza, 2012. Film still .

In 2011, GQ magazine asked Zimbabwean-born mixed-media artist Kudzanai Chiurai what he would consider the most dangerous thing he has ever done with a paintbrush. He answered, ‘I started painting’. Albeit to the point, that response is a fairly accurate summation of the nature of Chiurai’s practice: dangerous indeed. So far that very paintbrush has led to the threat of violence and arrest in his home country and forced the artist into self-imposed exile.

From his base in Johannesburg, Kudzanai Chiurai’s work bashes through the metaphorical bush of a contemporary Africa both real and imagined. Initially a scathing examination of the political turmoil in his home country, Chiurai’s interests have broadened to include economic and social justice concerns in South Africa and the continent as a whole. Inner-city rejuvenation, black economic empowerment and hip-hop culture have all come under his brush. Often humorous, sometimes cynical and always theatrical, the 32-year-old’s body of work of the past decade has earned him both national and international acclaim.

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Although primarily recognised as a painter, Chiurai’s oeuvre spans photography, text, sound, installation and most recently film. Tying such diverse modes of practice together is a central thematic engagement with the African urban experience, as set against the backdrop of an increasingly globalized world. 

While still a student at the University of Pretoria – and on his way to becoming the first black graduate from the school’s BA(FA) program – Chiruai exhibited a series of poster-works that marked his first foray into art-as-activism. Rau Rau and the Batttle for Zimbabwe, both produced in 2004, depict Zimbabwean dictator-president Robert Mugabe as a demonic figure. In Rau Rau, flames rage about the politician’s face and Battle sees Chiurai scrawl furious graffiti slogans across a stencil of Mugabe’s image. Besides evidencing a growing interest in political activism, these particular works make apparent the beginnings of the personal iconography that has come to dominate Chiruai’s visual language. Text and stencilled image co-exist on a densely populated picture plane, executed with the graphic sensibility of a magazine cover and the grit of graffiti on a city wall.

Soon after his work came into the public eye, Chiruai found himself on the receiving end of hostile attention from Zimbabwean officials culminating in threatening phone-calls made to his family in Harare. Rather than give in to pressure, Chiruai burnt his bridges and threw himself wholeheartedly into the murky waters of African politics.

2007’s solo show 'Yellow Line' interrogated his position as a foreigner during South Africa’s xenophobic attacks. The painted yellow line, a recurring motif, speaks both to the claiming of space through travel and to a delineated separation. Chiurai’s 2009 solo show 'Dying to be Men' again took socio-political circumstance as a point of departure – 2009 saw both the South African and the contested Zimbabwean national elections take place. At the core of the show, The Cabinet series (2009) envisioned a fictional African government in which each character was performed for the camera by TV presenter and fashion designer Siyabonga Ngwekazi. The resultant images are a wry critique of political power. The Minister of Health (2009), in an immaculate doctor’s coat, is burdened by a chain of skulls around his neck, while The Minister of Finance (2009) is decked to the nines in fur coat and gold teeth. Using the vocabulary of stereotype to his advantage, Chiurai reduces African leaders to the point of parody. There is also an undercurrent of sexiness in these large-format photographs; a brand of slick urban cool that winds its way through much of Chiurai’s oeuvre. Although distressing, the images are seductive, their vision of blatant corruption is both nightmarish and high-fashion. 

More recent works from 'State of the Nation' (2011) pushed this juxtaposition to new extremes. A series of untitled photographs pick up where The Cabinet series left off, but now glamorous soldiers armed to the teeth pose in the urban jungle. Chiurai’s Africa straddles the fine line between fiction and reality: it is the continent as it could be, as it may become, as we fear it sometimes is. The shows accompanying paintings are equally apocalyptic: in Corinthians (2011), a naked female corpse sprawls beneath the word ‘Hollywood’ and Procession (2011) depicts a religious ceremony taking place while a dog gnaws on a human bone.

Despite Chiruai’s dark and uncompromising vision, his work is not without humour. Like all interesting work however, that gentler edge is just the teaspoon of sugar to make this bitter medicine palatable. 



In Chiurai’s 'State of the Nation', the notion of 'state' is explored as a utopia and an action, a state of mind as well as a status. This new exhibition took place at two venues: a warehouse on Gwi Gwi Mrwebi Street in Newtown and Goodman Gallery Projects at Arts on Main. Between the two venues, the show featured photographic prints, drawings, large oil paintings, video, sound installation and performance with a focus on youth culture. 'State of the Nation' proposes fresh ways of looking at the socio-politics of Africa today. It explores the African condition by juxtaposing the past and the present of a continent in the grip of violent civil wars.

The title 'State of the Nation' is intended to explore aspects of a constructed African state that has just been ravaged by conflict.

On a continent that has experienced more violent conflict than any other, this exhibition follows an individual’s narration of events that lead up to the inaugural speech by the first supposedly democratically elected prime minister. This leader styled along many of our existing African leaders, retells the history of a people from another time, but still Africa’s time…

says the artist.

With Melissa Mboweni as curator of the project and collaborations with photographer Jurie Potgieter and singers Thandiswa Mazwai and Zaki Ibrahim, Chiurai references child soldiers, African liberation movements, and civil wars. He tracks the similarities in the societal, political and ideological fabric of states in tumultuous times of transition.

Notions of public and private are raised in performances taking place in the streets of Newtown and in basements with limited access. A sound installation scores the gallery experience. Representations of spectacle perpetuated by the media are brought to question. Scenes captured in photographs, drawings and paintings play into popular hip-hop imagery.

In a similar style to previous bodies of work (such as his Dying to be Men series of 2009), Chiurai’s constructed environments are enticing and seductive but explore very real casualties of African independence and democracy and the effects of globalisation on war. Chiurai’s nation asks, 'If we could write our history and chart our futures as we please, who would we be?'. Work from the series and will be presented at dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel this year.


Chiurai is a talented artist capable of drawing from a diverse multimedia palette. He is also able to grapple with a number of political exigencies. His ideological commentary is dry without lacking in humour and avoids notions of victimhood so often coupled with socially weighted art.
Catherine Green, Art South Africa, November 2007

For a man of few words, Kudzanai Chiurai is not afraid to speak his mind – which he does, loudly and brilliantly, through his art...Through his subversive statements, opinions, spoofs and observations, multilayered in arresting mixed-media works, he has been dubbed a poet, an anti-poet and a cultural philosopher. And yet Chiurai is not the kind of guy who would appreciate being put in a box. In spite of sell-out shows, exhibitions abroad and his art hanging on the walls of New York's Museum of Modern Art and in Elton John and Richard Branson's homes, Chiurai remains unaffected: a cut-off observer, clearly speaking his truth. Not surprisingly then, his only future agenda is to return home to Zimbabwe to teach kids about art.
Lu Larché, '200 Young South Africans' in Mail and Guardian, 2012

Here's the thing: Chiurai doesn't apologise for the modesty with which he speaks, or the self-confidence that underpins his art.
Sean O’Toole, ‘Starkest Africa’ in The Sunday Times, 16 October 2011


2012 has been a busy year for Chiruai. He was one of only three South African artists chosen to exhibit at dOCUMENTA(13), adding another international show to an already heavyweight CV that includes Art Basel and the Dakar Biennale. Never one to let his feet leave the ground, Chiurai’s local exhibition 'Left Behind' (2012) at the Co-Op in Johannesburg challenged the very international art world that had welcomed him with open arms. When asked about the title of the event, Chiurai said he would not be going to dOCUMENTA as he had 'lost his passport' and as such, 'Left Behind' was his way of celebrating all those without the privilege to attend.

In addition, this year saw the artist claim the FNB Art Prize



BAFA, University of Pretoria, 2006



BHP Billiton, London

Nandos, London

Patrice Motsepe, Johannesburg

Iziko National Gallery, Cape Town

Click Media, Johannesburg

MOMA, New York


Solo Shows

2011 State of the Nation, Goodman Gallery project space, Arts on Main, Johannesburg, South Africa

2010 Communists and hot chicken wings: the birth of a new nation, Goodman Gallery project space, Arts on Main, Johannesburg, South Africa

2009 Dying To Be Men, Goodman Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa

2008 Yellow Lines, Obert Contemporary, Johannesburg

2007 Graceland, Obert Contemporary, Johannesburg

2005 Y Propaganda, Obert Contemporary, Johannesburg

2004 Correction: The Revolution Will Be Televised, Obert Contemporary, Johannesburg

2003 The revolution will not be televised, Brixton Art Gallery, London


Group Exhibitions

2012 dOCUMENTA(13), Kassel, Germany

2011 Art Basel: Miami Beach, Miami, Florida, USA

Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photograph, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK

über(W)unden – Art in troubled times, Goethe- Institut South Africa

Impressions from South Africa, 1965 to Now, Museum of Modern Art in New York

2010 Cairo Biennale, Cairo, Egypt

Its greener on the other side, Co-op, Johannesburg, South Africa

In other words, Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa

Photo Ireland festival, Dublin, Ireland

SPace, Museum Africa, Johannesburg, South Africa

For those that live in it, MU, Netherlands

2009 ParisPhoto Exhibition, Paris, France

Us, Johannesburg Art Gallery.

Armory Show, Goodman Gallery, New York

Joburg Art Fair, Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg

Nation State, Goodman Gallery Cape Town and Johannesburg

2008 Melbourne Stencil Festival, Melbourne, Australia

Africa Now, Round Tower, Copenhagen; Northern Norway Art Centre, Lofoten, Norway; and Tampere art museum, Finland

2006 Dak’art, Dakar, Senegal

New Painting, KZNSA, Durban

2005 Melrose Art, Obert Contemporary

Reconciliation, University of Pretoria



2012 FNB Art Prize Winner

2011 Top 200 Young South Africans, Mail & Guardian

2005 Top 100 Dazzlers and Doers in South Africa, Mail & Guardian, South Africa

2003 Most Promising Art Student, University of Pretoria, South Africa

2000 Merit Award, The National Art Gallery, Zimbabwe