In ‘The Black President’ photographic series, Kudzanai Chiurai unpacks notions of masculinity and power, honing in on aspects of the image of a Cabinet of Ministers and a Head of State for an imaginary country that might or might not be African. The series originated at the coalescence of a number of major political events, when the public realm was awash with election posters and memorabilia: The failed Zimbabwean elections in 2008/2009, the South African elections of 2009, the shocking xenophobic riots in South Africa and the election of the first black president in the USA, Barack Obama.
Chiurai creates a bizarre and ridiculous charade of characters – each excessively playing out their various portfolios. The Minister of Health carries a string of skulls and a stethoscope, at once witchdoctor (or traditional healer) and scientist. The Minister of Education packs a gun, and a stack of books. The series exaggerates stereotypes, with many of the poses and postures borrowed from an archive of popular culture representations and official photographs of African leaders, and Chiurai satirically subverts this visual history. The poses are carefully constructed, and uncover the staged performance of power and authority promoted through official ‘court’ photography, most notably referencing the late Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.
The genre of leader’s portraiture has of course a rich tradition in art history – ranging from the heroic representations of Napoleon, to Stalin’s aggrandising posturing in Soviet propaganda and public artwork, and Adolf Hitler’s careful masking of his shortness, all of which amounts to an aesthetic manipulation of public perception. It is not only the villains that use portraiture to communicate political clout, and the successful campaigning around the friendly image of Barack Obama is a prime example. It is within this continuum that Chiurai posits ‘The Black President’ series, utilising exaggerations and manipulations to subvert and cajole.
Underlying the overtly political motivation for this series is an interrogation of contemporary African masculinity. The works were exhibited for the first time during a solo exhibition titled ‘Dying to be Men’ at Goodman Gallery Cape Town in July 2009. The title of this exhibition evocatively offers various readings: men are dying, for being men, or more camply, men are desperate to be male, shifting attention to the performative aspects of gender identity. Following from this, ‘Dying to be Men’ offers the reading that these men are ‘dying’ (both desperate and literally dying) to perform the masculinity they are expected to in order to be validated by the historical white, European power structure.
The photographs importantly also talk about race: Black and White, Western and African, civilization and anarchy – these dichotomies are presented but not necessarily accepted. Thus, while Chiurai has his tongue proverbially stuck in his cheek and the work is a critical look at the African ruling class, he simultaneously mirrors and critiques the prejudices held by many in the West.
Chiurai’s creative endeavours are not limited to his gallery-based practice – he is also an activist, locating his practice in informal networks and situations. His political involvement started while studying Fine Art at the University of Pretoria, where he became active with nongovernmental organisations protesting the political situation in Zimbabwe.
In the lead-up to the 2008 presidential election in Zimbabwe, Chiurai distributed stencils highlighting the political situation at solidarity meetings, creating a viral campaign in the streets of Johannesburg. In addition he set up a ‘voting station’ and a mock election in the Johannesburg central business district, complete with a series of open-edition posters – not only providing the Zimbabwean refugees in the city an opportunity to participate in the election they were excluded from, but also giving the general public a chance to register their desire for change.
The posters, designed in a style reminiscent of African election posters and Soviet-era Agitprop and immediately familiar to viewers, feature an image of Robert Mugabe’s face with the text ‘ABUSE OF POWER – ENJOY THE TASTE OF SELF DESTRUCTION’, a supermarket trolley filled with AK-47s with the text ‘SHOPPING FOR DEMOCRACY’, and armed policemen in riot gear with the text ‘VOTE AT OWN RISK’ and ‘WE ALWAYS HAVE REASON TO FEAR’.
The ostensible directness of the posters and their economy of form belie their potency; meanings are layered into the works almost surreptitiously. The visual shorthand making reference to political slogans and clichés borders on the iconographic, and the use of a language of advertising guaranteed to resonate with anyone who has been exposed to mass media creates works that are immediately decipherable to the casual viewer on one level, while simultaneously resisting any easy interpretations. The posters are metafictional, tracing the points of intersection between politics, art and commerce. Slogans turn in on themselves, and opposing layers of context fight to render the messages meaningless while at the same time investing them with new significance.
The artist does not hold himself beyond reproach in the work – the posters protest against a system that has betrayed its principles and politicians who have ‘sold out’, all the while knowingly marketing themselves as art commodities for sale.
Despite their immediate anger, there is a self-reflexive detachedness about the works. They occupy a radically ambivalent position; engaged yet ironic, calling for protest while contemplating the futility of dissent, and problematising the notion of art as a positive force for change.
Co-authored with Zach Viljoen. First published as ‘Kudzanai Chiurai’ for ARS 11 (Exhibition Catalogue), 2011, Kiasma Art Museum, Helsinki, Finland