Kudzanai Chiurai, Art as a Tool of Cultural Activist

Kudzanai Chiurai. Photo: afrika-news.com
Kudzanai Chiurai. Photo: afrika-news.com

Kudzanai Chiurai is an artist and activist born in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe in 1981, where he currently lives and works. He became the first black student to graduate with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Pretoria, South Africa where he has spent most of the last years. Kudzanai is part of the “free-born” generation, having been born after Zimbabwe’s independence.

Mixing art and cultural activist

Kudzanai Chiurai - Moyo II. Goodman Gallery
Kudzanai Chiurai – Moyo II. Photo: Goodman Gallery

Kudzanai’s work is mixed and encompasses the use of drawings, paintings, videos, and photographs that cut across social, political, and cultural issues in Zimbabwe. His work develops themes such as the political, economic, and social conditions of his homeland. It covers from the time of colonialism, Zimbabwe’s independence, till the present day.

He seems to want to confront the spectator with a complex psychological and physical experience of reality in the big African cities. His art has searched outside the boundaries of the visual arts and has extended to poetry, music, fashion, publishing, and activism, becoming what we might call a cultural activist.

Kudzanai is a courageous artist who does not hesitate to deal with some of the most delicate and difficult problems of his environment such as inequality, displacement, xenophobia, portraying the cycles of the social, economic, and political struggle that exist in post-colonial societies. To accomplish this task he uses tools such as painting, photography, video, and even large mixed-media works. He had converted into a multidisciplinary contemporary artist over the years.

A Zimbabwe contemporary artist

Kudzanai Chiurai - Genesis [Je n'isi isi] III. Goodman Gallery
Kudzanai Chiurai – Genesis [Je n’isi isi] III. Photo: Goodman Gallery

Kudzanai was born one year after Zimbabwe became independent from the United Kingdom. Much of his work reflects the dynamics at play between displacement, power, war, history, and contemporary culture. The psychological experience of urban spaces and the penetration of Western culture in Africa are also present.

In 2004 he was forced to leave his land after receiving threats of arrest following his exposure of Rau Rau and the Battle of Zimbabwe. Two controversial works of art that showed Robert Mugabe as a demonic figure during the preparation of the 2008 general elections in Zimbabwe. Kudzanai went into a self-imposed exile in South Africa after that. In 2005 he obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Pretoria and after this, he remained a resident in South Africa for several years.

Style and art tools

Kudzanai Chiurai - The Black President, 2009. Goodman Gallery
Kudzanai Chiurai – The Black President, 2009. Photo: Goodman Gallery

One can see that Kudzanai knows how to use his art to represent the political ambiguity of South Africa. Masculinity and power are a central part of the development of the style in most of his works. This is clearly shown in one of his group exhibitions entitled “The Black President”, “The Minister of Enterprise” and “Dying to be Men”, where the idea of masculinity and power are the main characters.

Kudzanai focuses on Johannesburg in most of his artwork. He uses art to represent his surroundings, such as the urban stores of this South African city. He has been able to extract images from downtown Johannesburg to produce paintings that confront the viewer with messages of black empowerment and urban rejuvenation.

Kudzanai’s video work addresses the gap between Western visions of Africa and the realities of the African continent. One of Kudzanai’s most original endeavors was to create a group of posters called “Conflict Resolution” that show the themes of dispute and violence, along with ways that people can resolve these disputes.

Achievements and exhibitions

Kudzanai had his first solo exhibition in 2003, since then his works have been shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Documenta in Kassel, Germany, the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and Forbes included him in the list of “Thirteen Africans to Watch in 2013”.

Kudzanai was listed in the Mail & Guardian’s 100 Best Dazzling and Performing Arts in South Africa in 2005. In 2011 he was again on the Mail & Guardian’s Top 200 Young South Africans list. In 2012 he won the FNB Joburg Art Award, and in 2014 he was shortlisted for the Future Generation Art Award in Venice, selected from 21 other artists from around the world.

He has also exhibited extensively since 2003 both in Africa and abroad. Highlights of international exhibitions include The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell Revisited, curated by Simon Njami at the Museum für Moderne Kunst (Frankfurt, 2014) and the SCAD Museum of Art (Savannah, 2015).

Before that, he was also part of the Conflict Resolution series included in dOCUMENTA (13) (Kassel:2012), and his film Iyeza was included in the New Frontier short film program at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013.

Solo exhibitions

2003: The revolution will not be televised, Brixton Art Gallery, London
2013: 16SNLV, Newtown, Johannesburg, South Africa
2015: Selections From Revelations, Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora Arts, Brooklyn
2016: Kabbo Ka Muwala / The Girl’s Basket, National Gallery of Zimbabwe

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