Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
31.08 – 14.10.2017
Africans have woken up to the realisation that we are still living with the effects of colonialism. We still find ourselves dealing with the experiences of being black and marginalised. Queer and attacked. Policies provide economic empowerment and yet we make up the minority in controlling our country’s economic power.
Kudzanai Chiurai’s exhibition entitled ‘We live in silence’ speaks to these conflicts. His work represents a waking up from the dream of Democracy with the crust of colonialism still in our eyes. His works make us look through a haze that could lazily be generalised as hauntingly ‘neo-colonial black portraitures’.
The gallery walls are mounted with what looks like Classical European works but with black subjects and their history at the focus. One such portraits show us a white suited figure on the cross with mourners at her feet. Next to this work we see references to the scene of the last supper where the same figure sits at the center of the table dining with her comrades. This is no last supper but a celebration, where women raise their glasses. A celebration of black life, perhaps?
The work also features distinct iconography referencing some of the pertinent themes to colonial history. It’s a history re-imagined with a woman as the center. We see her in a work standing with her arms out, addressing the crowd beneath her. We see her again, wearing white gloves and a fur skinned coat. We see the same figure in another work grasping the head of a terrified white man as she is about to cut his throat. This, in references to Caravaggio’s Beheading of St. John the Baptist, speaks to a brutal history but one of thought and strategy to a greater political goal. The lamb of white supremacy must be sacrificed and his blood spilled in offering for the realisation of our independence. Here the black subject is the doer to no longer to be reduced to the category of the subjugated.
Kudzanai’s exhibition is a lesson in African history, one which is often ignored. His work is both a telling as well as a re-imagining of such. Here black bodies are stylistically posed as though marble statues, presented as a classic work of art. We see a reference to Michael Angelo’s Pieta but with black woman’s bodies. We see a reference to the iconical Sarah Baartman, where a naked woman stands in a box, surrounding by guarding onlookers. But in this image Sarah looks back at us.
His works are a rejection of colonial images of black subjects reduced to static, ahistorical or the primitive anthropological study. This exhibition speaks to the agency that the black body has in dealing with adversity. It also speaks to those vulnerable moments where even a freedom fighter has to put down their weapon. We see depictions of intimate moments, a figure asleep in bed with their arms falling across the bed over a bowl of food. Images of the fighter so wary, that they fell asleep before eating. We also see women in bed, mid quarrel. Our political struggles also extend into those personal spaces where our quarrels express themselves within the interpersonal.
Kudzanai Chiurai’s works speak to the triumph of black spirit as well as the challenges that follow it. The way he lights the black skin seems to glow as if it is the source of the light. Here we see figures taking part in their own liberation and as consequence their possible demise. It would be an over-simplification to describes his works as disillusionment of black struggle in history, with its state despots and destructive the role of religion to her peoples. Yet there is also a warning. Behind these images are a backdrop of colonial anthropological images. I see a foreboding to what it truly means to be black and thrive. Whiteness is always present and watching. It is waiting for us who thrive to fall so as to re-assert itself in those spaces we call home.