At the centre of a maelstrom of colour
For Tatenda Chidora in his new body of work colour is a motif to rejuvenate and revitalise. It is a retour au source prompted by Covid, a once in a generation pandemic, that forced us all to pause, if not to stop completely in a dreary state. Chidora is bringing little nuances of colour that gives us energy. Perhaps, that’s where the genius of this work lies. It is a poetics that combines composition, perspective and the imagination.
Instead of seeing Covid as a blanket of dread and grief, Chidora uses it as a canvas. It is the invisible backdrop. When it is on the surface, the pandemic is given bold imagery. He utilises its symbolism beyond the clinical, and transforms the symbols into icons that represent this moment in a whimsical way.
Tatenda Chidora, Self Isolation, 2020. Ilford Smooth Cotton Rag, 310gsm. 660 x 800 x 50mm. Courtesy of BKhz Gallery.
The real revelation becomes the shocking visual splendour of Chidora’s photography. There is a way he likes to contrast the hue of black skin with surfaces, or other elements. It creates a tantalising feeling. Contrast mesmerises. The photographs’ crisp outlines give them a tense, glossy feeling, like a tightly set mosaic. Portraiture is one of the main strands of Chidora’s artistry. It is a characteristic of his style – a relentless pursuit of beauty with no imperfections. Everything is where it is expected.
Chidora is also playing with registers of photography: he uses props and model(s) as he would in a commercial or fashion shoot. His vibrant portraits and conceptual images fuse the genres of art and fashion photography in ways that break down long-established boundaries. Yet, what he is after is not a spectacle but reflection. He wants a deep pause. The art of conjuring feeling and meaning.
Rather than putting across the character of his subject, these photographs reflect Chidora’s creativity – his portraiture subjects are often avatars for his vision. In all of them, he transforms the body into a site of power. The arch of the body may suggest movement or a sense of vulnerability, and the composure may signify confidence, while the mosaic of masks or gloves draping the body, or used as background, enhances the sense of performance and sculpture. In all of this choreography and placement there is emphasis on perspective.
Tatenda Chidora, Mask Conversation II, 2021. Ilford Smooth Cotton Rag, 310gsm. 600 x 800 x 50mm. Courtesy of BKhz Gallery.
The work grew out of a period of lockdown: ‘I have never spent this much time in my apartment, life slowed down for everyone, but this was a good time to reflect.’ It is photography that evokes the moment beyond the catastrophe. Chidora turns surgical masks, latex gloves into props and costumes making them fashionable icons. This sits well with his philosophy, ‘I find distortion quite beautiful in a way,’ he says. ‘I needed to start seeing daily moments through different eyes.’ It is also a work of introspection. This is such a unique time to live, and we need a collection of images to look back upon beyond the tropes of dead bodies. With this series, Chidora forces us to ask: what does Covid look like? .
Chidora elevates the black subject in his photography beyond pure documentation or tedious clichés. ‘I’m still obsessed by the beauty of black skin, that’s one thing for sure.’ But his focus is not just ‘black is beautiful’ but it’s a rendering of a psychologically complex and emotional work that is humanising. In these new images, as in his portraiture, Chidora is creating imagery that shows the black body as a site of magic. The series explores the physical and conceptual nature of the black body, and its relationship to photographic agency. The photographs both challenge us and present us with images of classical beauty.
Tatenda Chidora, Mask Conversation III, 2021. Ilford Gold fibre Pearl, 290gsm. 450 x 600 x 50mm. Courtesy of BKhz Gallery.
‘If covid was a colour’ is an injunction. The layered materials and references used in most of the images create a portrait of black resistance. In the series, there is a mix of highly stylised and representational images juxtaposed with inventive explorations of belonging and vulnerability. If this is chaos, then Tatenda Chidora is a master of beautiful chaos.
Tinashe Mushakavanhu was born in Harare, Zimbabwe. He is a writer, editor and scholar.