When silence says it all: exhibition investigates Africa’s political history

27 August 2017 - 00:00 By SUE DE GROOT

When Kudzanai Chiurai speaks about language - a concept that consumes him - he does not refer simply to the written or spoken word, but to all the ways in which we experience our time and express our being.
Like many artists, he is of the opinion that people should "speak far less" about his work, because our word-based languages are so limited and so context-specific. He is uneasy when his striking photographic compositions are described as "beautiful".
"Is there a way of describing work by artists of African descent, who have experienced the devastation of colonisation, apartheid and segregation, as beautiful? I'm not sure."
The title of Chiurai's latest exhibition, We Live in Silence, speaks volumes about the elusive nature of identity and interpretation. It speaks for the voiceless whose stories and histories have been muffled by the broadcasting of colonial narratives.
We Live in Silence is the concluding exhibition in a trilogy that began with Revelations in 2011 and continued with Genesis in 2016."The first series took me a year to plan, the second one six months, this one probably three to four years," says Chiurai.
"This one concludes some of those early ideas: how we reflect upon our history and experience it. I needed to settle quite a lot of the visual and literary references and then how to put them all together, what I wanted to say with the images and how all the 19 photographs are essentially linked ... And it's films, too, so it was a lot more complex, a much bigger group of people than I've worked with before - camera team, styling team, the biggest cast I've ever had. It had to be planned properly."
The point of departure for the series was the film Soleil Ô, shot in the late 1960s by Mauritanian director Med Hondo, which had a profound effect on Chiurai.
"I watched it at a film festival in Berlin," he says. "It was about the first generation of African migrants that went to France, post-independence. It was very interesting how the director tried to communicate those changes in the experiences of people of African descent ... racism, the hierarchy of knowledge, institutions of capital and privilege ... But there wasn't a single black woman central to the film, and that caught my attention ... almost like this erasure of black women in political history."
This prompted Chiurai to recreate parts of the film with a black woman at its centre.
Creating counter-memories
In his photographs, Chiurai places his African subjects in the centre of imported and imposed environments in which each element is a key. Some works contain florid displays of hydrangeas. "You could look at them as the institution of an English garden and what that says about our political history," says Chiurai.
Born in Zimbabwe in 1981, Chiurai embodies many of the elements interrogated in his work. He went to a boys' school where, he says, "You are taught to be an English gentleman. Some of these things haven't changed. We don't have alternative models to education, especially for black people. It's essentially the same kind of colonial narrative, we pretty much still go to schools that turn us into British conservatives. It's a pattern in Zimbabwe. It's also a pattern in South Africa ... we kind of have the same student that was produced in the '60s and '70s being produced in 2017."During his schooldays, Chiurai spent a lot of time in the library of Harare's national gallery. "Initially I wanted to become an architect, then a town planner, but eventually I settled on visual art," he says.
Much has been made of his becoming the first black student to graduate in fine arts from the University of Pretoria, where he learnt to assimilate but not necessarily fit in.
"It was a very isolating place," he says. "I found the environment incredibly racist. In my experience it was very aggressive towards black students. I had to write and create stuff that made me fit in, it was only later on that I decided against it ... after a while you kind of get tired of Western history, so I started to do things slightly differently. I only did assignments based on black history or black visual cultures, and things became far more interesting when I started to do that."
Colonial futures
The student who felt like an outsider has become an acclaimed artist whose works have been shown in most of the world's major art centres, but he is diffident about where he belongs.
"You can belong anywhere," he says. "You don't have to have a physical address to belong to a particular place. But you also have to contend with the reality that you need a passport to travel, you need to be identified and documented so they can find who you are and what you are ... So what you think of as a state of mind is entirely different when you experience it in your physical body. "
Chiurai is frequently labelled an "activist" by commentators, but he hesitates to make definitive pronouncements and plays down his own ability to effect change. His view of the world is as complex and multi-layered as his work.

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