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Kudzanai Chiurai 2 - 16SNLV

Sex, Nudity, Violence

14.06.2013

“You can’t say I’m trying to provoke you by putting in a dead body, a dead body is there already!” declares Kudzanai Chiurai in his moderately-sized studio on Gwigwi Mrwebi Street in Newtown. I’ve just asked him about subtexts – does his work contain any? Is there even space for hidden messages in his framework? Does he feel that the themes he communicates through his paintings/photographs/films are ever received as intended? These are but some of the questions which sprint uncontrolled through my mind as the conversation unfolds between us – he, a critically acclaimed artist who’s just returned from Documenta, an exhibition of modern and contemporary art which occurs every five years in Germany. I, a lowly scribe anticipating to engage his incredible mind.

The half-closed garage door which serves as the entrance to his studio requires me to crouch in order to gain access. Upon entry, I see large painted canvases lining the walls; a small printer rests atop a medium-sized desk to my extreme right. He offers me a chair near the centre of his workspace; he grabs one too, positioning it such that we’re seated facing each other amidst the empty tubes of different-coloured paint which litter the floor, and the halogen heater next to his feet. Chiurai is calm and unassuming. It is only when an enthralling discussion ensues that he follows suite, settling into his chair while concurrently formulating a counter-point, then deliberating his way throughout a well-structured response. He speaks in a low, almost-hushed voice, hardly raising it for the duration of our conversation.

We are supposed to talk about his new exhibition, 16SNLV, an “exploration of his interest in violence and mourning in the public realm” opening on the 13th of June, 2013. Yet the scope of our exchange stretches from his days as a Fine Arts undergrad student at the University of Pretoria (he went on to become the first black student at that university to graduate with a BA in Fine Arts), to the ironies and contrasts which colour people’s existence in his adopted city,  Johannesburg. He tells me of walking up and down London’s upmarket galleries hawking his portfolio off to anyone who cared to look; of the Sandton-based gallery owner who gave him his first break; and of Michaelangelo’s Pietà, the starting point for his current body of work.

Writing in the collection of essays entitled “Positions: Contemporary artists in South Africa“, journalist Percy Zvomuya noted the following about Chiurai’s work: “…what oozes, as if from an open, suppurating wound, is the pain that derives from being a citizen of a troubled country. His landscapes are sad, dark, and forlorn, sometimes with the feel of a city that has barely survived a disaster.”

Kudzanai – Shona for “have respect for one another” – sees the art he produces as merely reflecting actuality: a minister of finance donning a fur coat, eyes cast admiringly onto the object held in his half-raised right hand and gold chains adorning his neck (the ‘Minister’ series, 2009); violent death and the mourning thereof, as witnessed in the dead-pan emotionless expression of the subject in his latest work, “16SNLV” (2013). What follows is an abridged version of our conversation.

How did you get started in the art field?

I’ve always been interested in it, since I was in primary school. I actually wanted to become an architect; I had initially put architecture as my first option and then art as my second at Pretoria University. I didn’t hand in that specific one, so I got a new form and re-filled it and put art as the first option.

Did your parents approve of your chosen field of study?

My dad not so much. My mom was like ‘whatever makes you happy’. My dad’s a banker, so I think he assumed that because I’d also had an interest in law, I was going to go into law or architecture.

Did you have to grow into the idea that you are finally an artist? When was that definitive moment when you decided ‘this is what I want to do’?

I think I decided in high school. After high school I spent a gap year where I was selling paintings to friends and relatives who worked in banks, so for a whole year I lived off of my art. A lot of my friends had gotten jobs, and I was painting. I knew at that point that ‘this is what I’d like to do’. I had initially wanted to study at the University of Zimbabwe, but I didn’t think their arts curriculum was extensive enough. That’s why I decided to apply [to the University of Pretoria].

So then you got in, obtained your degree, and then you had to make a living as an artist. How did you go about that?

I actually started in third year. I was able to pay rent from the end of third year, and help out my brother. By the time I was in fourth year, I had been invited to a biennale in Senegal. And I had my first solo show, which went really well, so I think by fourth year I was paying off tuition and accommodation off of the stuff I was making from paintings.

There’s always this undercurrent which questions the purpose of art. The poet Geoff Mphakathi once remarked that artists create for an audience, with commerce being the end-goal. Was that your aim?

You have to look at art as a currency, like everything else. At the moment you draw, it is a currency. Whether you’re making it for an audience or you’re making it to be commercially viable, you are creating a currency. People can trade off of paintings; it has monetary value. Some people make it for themselves, some people make it for an audience, some make it out of trying to have a conversation; it’s different for everyone. I wouldn’t necessarily speak for every artist.

Kudzanai Chiurai

But who’s your audience, and what message are you communicating to that audience?

I think sometimes I actually make it for myself, to know [that] I can actually make it, or I can create those kinds of images. Then as a by-product, yeah, there is an audience. Your art, the gallery, you have to exhibit the work, there’s a currency, someone wants to buy it. I would like to think that I make it for myself; out of memory, or out of discontent. Or it’s like ‘well, maybe by making it, it starts a conversation’; maybe, maybe not.

Would you then say, and this could be unintentional on your part, but would you say that your aim is to somehow provoke your audience?

No actually, it’s not to provoke. Some of the things are pretty obvious! You can’t say I’m trying to provoke you by putting a dead body; a dead body is there already. If I shot at someone and then painted it, there is a dead body there; I’m not trying to provoke, it’s a matter of fact! It’s almost like being a journalist – I’m not trying to provoke you, that’s not my job. I’m just trying to paint what I see, essentially. If you think it’s provocation, then maybe it is… on the other hand it’s how you interpreted that experience.

Do you then always leave your work up to people to interpret? Do people ever come to you with completely different impressions from your intended message?

I can’t say ‘no, that’s not the point’. I made it, I put it in a public space. I can’t really say ‘well, your opinion is wrong!’ Because there are [a lot of] points of reference; one image could mean something else to someone, it’s like two sides of a coin.

How does the art world work, from you creating in this space, to the art getting out to people? What is the process, and how did you get inducted into it? Did you ask around? Is there a handbook?

There’s no handbook. I was in London in third year, and I noticed something really interesting with the University setup there. At the time they got to their fourth year, I think a lot of them had had nine to ten solo shows, some had fourteen by the time they finished their fourth year. That didn’t happen here. All of the students that I knew, except for the yearly student stuff, I didn’t see anyone organising their own. So when I got back I started organising my own; I had borrowed money and had one at a café in Pretoria.

Let’s talk about the medium which you use to communicate your message. “State of the Nation for instance, consisted of a photographic series, a film, and other artefacts. Do you think about the medium, then the message? Which one inspires the other?

It has to be both, also depending on some of the references. I have to find a balance between the medium that I use and the narrative. So whether photography best suits it also depends on whether…the narrative is also based on media, essentially. So I’ll use photography specifically, or I’ll use film specifically, but using the same kind of plan. The medium always connects with the narrative, and then the narrative within the context of public culture. With photography what can you do? With film, what is the context of that film? I have to consider all of these things before I start making anything.

That process, one imagines, can take quite a while…

Ja, it can take a while. That “State of the Nation” show, that was two years of work. The first year I spent reading and doing research, looking for the images, trying to create a storyboard. Then shot everything and worked on everything in the second. It does take time.

When do you decide when it’s done?

You never know when it’s done, it’s hard to say when something is done-done.

But how far do you go until the point where you decide ‘okay, maybe I can invite people into this space’?

It’s a while. It’s a bit of a complex process. In one case, a painting can take six to seven months, others can take two weeks. So you’re never quite sure when it’s actually done. You kind of have to be very patient with it as to how it all goes. There’s no point rushing it, when it’s there it’s there.

Now onto your current body of work. When I first saw that title, the first thing that came to mind was ‘movies’! It evoked that parental advisory alert on television. What’s the motivation behind it?

It came out of a conversation I was having with the curator for the show. June 16th is also three days after the exhibition, I thought that would be interesting. How we can put 16, how we can use 16 in that context. Subject matters of the exhibition do deal with Sex, Nudity, and Violence; if you just shorten it in that way, then it makes perfect sense in terms of the title of the show. But then it’s far broader than ‘16’ and ‘SNLV’.

So what are some of the subtexts?

Some of the subtext is death. The whole project started out of the video I made; it was based on the sculpture called the ‘Pietà’ by Michaelangelo; Mary holds Christ just after he’s been taken off the cross. It’s been an iconic image, I still remember even from university. We were doing film studies, and this reference was used in The Godfather, when his daughter was shot and he was holding her by the stairs. Then also seeing it within the news, you find a very similar composition. It’s always been this iconic composition where you find…when they’re covering war or conflict, you always find a mother holding a child, or a mother holding a son or a daughter. The recent winner of the World Press prize (there was a whole debate sparked on whether the photo was manipulated with photoshop), it’s a similar image where a father holds his son. And that’s where its source was, where Mary holds Christ. And the idea, he thought of the sacrifice; he sacrificed himself. So within that context, how do you then look at that image?

An interesting, more recent one was the Andries Tatane one; his friend held him just after he’d been shot. So it’s pretty iconic, and it’s recurring. It’s almost understood in that way, associated with death and somewhere associated with a sense of sacrifice –whether it’s a person who’s died or the person who’s a victim of the sense of violence. It’s always in a public space where violence takes place, where the violence is actually documented. So that becomes the interesting part for me: if violence takes place in a public space, you should also starting looking at whether [you] mourn that same sense of violence publically, or is it done privately?

*Kudzanai Chiurai’s “16SNLV” opens on Thursday, 13th June at 18H30 and runs until Sunday, 16th June. The address is 50 Gwigwi Mrwebi Street, Newtown, Johannesburg.

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