It is clear that Kudzanai Chiurai’s artistic persona overshadows his art. Celebrated as the first black fine arts graduate from the University of Pretoria, as well as being barred from his home country of Zimbabwe for his outspoken criticism of the political situation there, Chiurai has invited controversy and publicity with great commercial success.
Despite attempts to avoid such framing, on my first visit to his latest exhibition, Graceland, I was greeted with a television crew instructing the artist to walk in and out of the gallery. Chiurai graciously obliged but seemed rather uncomfortable in playing into the puppetry of the media mill.In a way there is an awkward fit between Chiurai’s visual vocabulary and the gallery context. Stencilling and graffiti, both stylistic techniques used by the artist, have become shorthand for anti-establishment political street art, disseminated in the public domain since its use in revolutionary counter cultures of the late 1960s. What vitalises this mode of art is its fluidity, adaptability and its capacity to be replicated, something which is stunted in traditional gallery spaces unless creatively curated. Stencils allow cultural and intellectual information to be spread to a broad spectrum of people, subversively challenging the status quo. However, the nature of cultural production is its constant evolution and what was subversive becomes appropriated into mainstream culture. A tool of critical comment becomes one of commercial co-option. In many ways Chiurai’s career maps this arc.Few artists have been able to maintain the potency of the stencil/graffiti medium in the locale of fine art; Jean-Michel Basquiat is a notable example. The gallery is by nature exclusionist and non democratic. I am not suggesting that the bridge between more public forms of expression cannot be successful in an institutional framework. However, I would suggest that the capacity to slip into simplistic answers about political situations or limiting labels (such as ‘black’ or ‘political art’) is much greater. Having established that all art is political, is it necessary to frame it as such? Graceland is a difficult exhibition to assimilate given the discourse surrounding it.Chiurai is a talented artist capable of drawing from a diverse multimedia palette. He is also able to grapple with a number of political exigencies. His ideological commentary is dry without lacking in humour and avoids notions of victimhood so often coupled with socially weighted art. His work We is a particularly arresting piece. Three stencilled figures, which resemble street children, bridge the gap between a starkly divided composition. On one side a white washed canvas, on the other a darkly hued urban Johannesburg landscape, rendered in expressionist jagged strokes, creates a visual map of the individuals who do not fit in the scheme of urban renewal.Many of Chiurai’s pieces are cityscapes, populated by slogans, words and figures from our urban culture. His gaze grapples with issues of black economic empowerment, xenophobia, the urban landscape and its inhabitants. Sex, which takes the form of a Drum magazine cover, shows a woman straddling a faceless man. The accompanying text is laced with sexual ambiguity. Drum has become an exemplar for urban black South African identity to be imagined and expressed. In the 1950s, the Drum generation used films, magazines and music to empower themselves. Chiurai’s contemporary re-imaging of the Drum cover, in the context of an emergent black bourgeois culture and the AIDS pandemic, takes such idealism with a pinch of salt. To use his own words from the canvas itself, “we say one word they say another”.