Redeemers and posers

August 2009 -

Until 2003, works made by Zimbabwean artist Kudzamai 'Kudzi' Chiurai (Harare, 1981) were a-political. "I painted city landscapes and portraits. I really always wanted to be an architect," says Kudzi, who went to Pretoria in South Africa to study art in 2001. Two years later, however, he was shocked at what he saw when he returned to Harare. The country was in the middle of a period of violent invasions of land owned by whites, economic crisis and President Mugabe's monomania. Kudzi ran into an old friend. "He had always been much smarter at school. But I had had the opportunity to study, and he was living in the streets, starving with a broken arm. His life had completely changed: from a brilliant student to one of the homeless."

From: Dying to be men
© Goodman Gallery Cape, Kudzanai Chiurai

It was at that point that Kudzi's work became explicitly political. He concentrated on large canvases - often two by three metres - in which he combined painting, stencilling and texts: a kind of satirical Afro-pop art inspired by Jean-Michel Basquiat and the British guerrilla graffiti artist Banksy. One of his best was a painting of President Robert Mugabe's head in orange flames against a blue background. Kudzi became an ultra-popular bestselling artist. His work was often already purchased by collectors and multi-national companies, including PHP Billiton, Hollard and Nando's, before his expositions even opened.

His latest exposition, Dying to become Men in Cape Town's Goodman Gallery, includes not only his now somewhat dated street art but also eight large colour photographs of finely-dressed black men. These represent Kudzi's interpretation of an imaginary African cabinet. One president and seven ministers: extreme stereotypes who look like hip-hop artists, rebels or pimps, photographed against a background of gold-coloured, flowered wallpaper. His inspiration: Amercan fashion photography.

Irrespective of the implicit criticism of African empty noise-makers and Western fears and fascination, the cooperation in itself was interesting: a Zimbabwean director, an African photographer and a Xhosa model. The timing was also perfect: South Africa, Zimbabwe and the United States had just elected new governments, with Zuma, Tsvangirai and Obama as "black redeemers". Or posers?