Kudzanai Chiurai is the artist calling for revolution in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwean artist Kudzanai Chiurai’s recently opened exhibition, “We Need New Names,” at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, aptly describes the Southern African nation’s current political moment. Earlier this week, the country’s military called a news conference to announce they were staging a coup d’etat. In deposing, President Robert Mugabe, the 93-year-old revolutionary who became Prime Minister of Zimbabwe after the country won independence from Britain in 1980, it seemed like the possibility of picking a new leader and thus making the artist’s demand a reality, was a real possibility. Yesterday, Mugabe announced his resignation.

It seems now, though, that the Zimbabwe military intervention is an effort to maintain the status quo. To succeed Mugabe, who has ruled for 37 years, the ruling Zanu-PF party has chosen his long-serving and recently removed Vice President, Emmerson Mnangagwa to assume power as the country’s next dictator, signaling that they do not want new names, but an existing one. Perhaps all this proves that Chiurai’s two exhibitions of photographs, video, and sculpture wrestle with ideas of Afrofuturism, gender and political freedom, are more necessary than ever to move these conversations forward.

In Chiurai’s photographic series, “Revolutions” and “Genesis,” the artist uses female protagonists to bend past and present in an effort to propose a new symbol for a real, post-colonial future. Other works in the exhibitions like “Popular Mechanics,” “Shopping for Democracy” and the series “We Live In Silence” are explorations of what Chiurai calls “colonial futures.” It’s the idea that African nations that fought and won independence from European powers are still being shaped systemically by the colonialist social and political institutions that presently govern the lives of Africans.

With the future of Zimbabwe hanging in the balance, we called Chiurai, who also has an early retrospective concurrently mounted at Cape Town’s Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art, in the country’s capital of Harare to discuss his art’s call for revolution.


ANTWAUN SARGENT: What are you trying to say about contemporary, post-colonial society with the art in your two current solo exhibitions?

KUDZANAI CHIURAI: I think of the issues that we have to address, this issue that we live now in a post-colony—I think this has been the fundamental idea, that we are in fact living in post-colonial societies. I doubt that we are in that situation at all. For me, we live in colonial futures. This is what we are grappling with.

SARGENT: How does, “We Need New Names,” deal with this idea of colonial futures?

CHIURAI: Well, the exhibition in Zimbabwe is based on a short story that I’d written, and I try and recreate the short story as an exhibition by taking various elements from it and then reconstructing them. The exhibition essentially is various aspects of the short story, of this particular central character’s life as drawings, as sculptures, and also through video. You walk through this person’s life in this post-colony as he tries to reflect upon it.

SARGENT: You being from Zim, is the National Gallery exhibition, in someway a more personal exploration of colonization?

CHIURAI: For me, it is because the short story is in some ways based on personal experience. Part of this is captured in the short film. He reflects upon his childhood and having gone through a Catholic missionary school. I went to a Catholic school. I worked that into the exhibition as to how religion has played an integral role in assisting the whole colonial process, the whole disarming process that took place. That is also where some of the photographs in “We Live In Silence,” the one with the crucifixion, for example, also came into the exhibition. There’s also religious iconography that was in the National Gallery that I then took from their collection and then incorporated it into the show. So, you almost travel through, listen to characters explain from a political perspective, a religious perspective, a personal point of view. Then he reflects upon what the future holds, and it’s the title of the exhibition: “We Need New Names.”

SARGENT: With the politics being what they are in Zim, what do you mean by the title?

CHIURAI: The title of the show, “We Need New Names,” is taken from the incredible book by NoViolet Bulawayo, a female author, that examines that same kind of colonial futures experience [seen in “We Live in Silence”]. I think one of the central issues in Zim is that we’ve had the same person [in power] for the past 37 years. For a dominant part of our history there’s only been, I think a single narrative or one particular individual on either side of  of our independence that came in 1980. So, that is a starting point for “We Need New Names,” but then also by needing new names, we need new myths. I think by only doing that you then start to correct the post-colony.

SARGENT: Right. I mean, Zimbabwe is essentially a dictatorship. Are you afraid that “We Need New Names” might be censored?

CHIURAI: I was actually surprised they let me use the title.

SARGENT: Did it surprise you because the title suggests Zim needs a revolution?

CHIURAI: In the sense that by saying we need new names I think it is indirectly inferring that we need new presidential names. So in allowing the name of the show, it was a massive surprise. I’ve heard that people who went to the show have also been speaking about it too, like, ‘Oh, new names and new myths. This is something certainly that we do need to create, those new names and new myths.”

SARGENT: The 2009 series, “Dying To Be Men,” up at Zeitz MoCAA also gets at this idea that we need new names.  You imagine one black male, you might encounter on the street, comically playing the roles of government officials like the  president, minister of finance, and foreign affairs and so on. It seems to be a warning against the way, African countries like Zim, have thought about new names in the past.

CHIURAI: So even when we have said we need new names, what has happened is we have created new myths about one person. That’s essentially what I was trying to get people to notice. It’s not that I used eight different people in the photographs. I used the same person over and over again in each and every image. It should have been eight different people photographed but it’s just one person. That has to change.

SARGENT: A series like “Genesis,” which is also in both exhibitions, how does that series seek to create a new myth about Zimbabwe?

CHIURAI: Well, in that series, in “Genesis,” it was based on David Livingstone and his exploration of Southern Africa. In telling that story and how it unfolds, I think his perspective has always been one of discovering Southern Africa, discovering Victoria Falls and naming it so. In that respect I try to change the conversation around. He came across indigenous people who were part of a matriarchy, what then would have happened, if their story had played out uninterrupted? So in bringing the series here to Zim, I am trying to challenge the perspectives about myth-making and the naming process.

SARGENT: So when you say Africa is still living in colonial futures, you are saying the institutions are still European?

CHIURAI: I think that’s very significant in looking at colonial histories. [Patriarchy] is one of the things that essentially has to be addressed, because if we don’t address it then we don’t have post-colonies existing in any form. We’re still kind of grappling with a colonial future, where it fundamentally shifts. We’re institutionalized on a very grand scale. By addressing those particular myths, by de-mything them in some way, we then start to move forward politically and socially and economically, because by just addressing that one thing, others can shift considerably. Like land rights, it was one of the first things to go for women when colonization happened. For me then, those land rights become a fundamental thing, because that was economic independence for women.

SARGENT: In your photographic work, you also grapple with the past, present and future by incorporating archival images from different local histories, to create, what you call, colonial futures. How did you come to that process of collaging?

CHIURAI: It’s essentially trying to look at the present without a linear sense of time. So, that’s like building one layer on top of another, on top of another. I’m trying to compress all of those different times with different points in our history and collapse them into one single moment.

SARGENT: Right, and so it allows you to see the present moment in a way that is conceptual but also real. You see all the history that led to that particular moment. Has making the art helped to give you any measure of personal liberation?

CHIURAI: Yeah, it has, I think. The process has been, I think incredibly informative because of some of the research I’ve had to do in understanding the impact of the colonial project at an institutional level and family level. So, understanding that process, how that came about, I think was probably one of the most liberating things to know. It helped me  to understand a particular psychology as to how we use our language within a family, how these relationships between father, son, and daughter, mother, son, and daughter, are essentially formed and function, which is a fundamental part of understanding African history and black history. This process has liberated how I understand, experience, and interpret blackness itself.