“A black woman as Jesus”

in conversation with Kudzanai Chiurai

Guilt (Issue II/2019)


The artist Kudzanai Chiurai. Photo: die arge lola für ifa-Galerie Stuttgart

In your work you depict different scenes from Southern Africa’s colonial history in completely new ways. Why?

There was always this one, single narrative about colonialism. In iconographic pictures, you mostly see black African males who suffer. It is very clear cut who is the victim and who is the perpetrator. It is also a very gendered perspective: Black females are largely invisible. That’s why I experimented with changing the point of view. In my film “We live in silence”, the central female character plays all the roles. This offers an interesting opportunity to look at how history is gendered and to challenge those histories. If you suddenly see every male part, even the parts of white colonizers, being played by a black woman, what is the effect of that?

What effect are you aiming at?

I am trying to understand various aspects of our history and to find new ways of looking at it. That is basically the idea within my work: To subvert the colonial histories by creating counter narratives. I can’t rewrite colonial narratives, but I can provide an opportunity to re-evaluate them.

How is your work linked to colonial guilt?

Colonial guilt has nothing to do with me. Maybe some people feel guilty about their connection to colonial history when they look at my art, but there is very little I can do about it.

In your photo series “Genesis” you use collages to bring together pictures from different times …

I often use this image from the slave archives in Cape Town, the Zulu dinner party, as well as a colonial tapestry and scenes from David Livingstone's life. You're looking at an image of the past, present and the future. It is not about a linear history; there is no set ending point. It evolves with the time. History is ongoing. Colonialism is not a topic confined to the past.

Why does the missionary and explorer David Livingstone play such a central role in your work?

I’d refer to him as an adventurer. Calling him an explorer brings us back to the idea that he discovered something. The naming of the Zambian city Livingstone, his naming of the Victoria Falls, that’s what comes of being an explorer: renaming things that already had names. Livingstone laid the groundwork for what was to come in later centuries, including missionary schools and centres of commerce. Others expanded or capitalized on them later. I looked at it as a way to understand the history of Southern Africa, that is South Africa as well as Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Tanzania and Malawi. Livingstone was an essential part of that history, and in the colonial structures. To some extent Africans were also incorporated into this system.

What traces of colonialism are still visible in Zimbabwe today?

First and foremost, the violence. The police are very violent in Zimbabwe. People are beaten and abducted, dogs are set on citizens by the police. That was all part of the colonial history, where violence was used on people by colonial institutions. Those practices still exist today. But there are a lot of other remnants: memorials, churches, places named after colonial personnel, missionary schools ...

What role did missionary schools play?

They were an essential part of one’s African history, of one’s upbringing, even today. My mother and my grandmother went to missionary schools. For them, it was a fundamental part of forming their perspective on the world. It is not the most forward-looking education system, but it fulfils a purpose: To propagate Christianity, to educate people who would then become a part of colonial institutions. In some sense, it created a generation of people who were subservient to the colonizers and their institutions. It created a sort of whitewashed obedience. In a lot of cases, Christianity was used to disarm indigenous populations. It was used to disarm them of their own practices, understandings and cosmologies.

How can Zimbabwe finally overcome these traces of colonialism?

I think Zimbabwe's main problem relates to nationhood and its post-independence history. Those things haven’t been discussed in a very open or critical way.

Is that because it was not possible to speak openly about the colonial past or current politics?

It is not a matter of open censorship but rather that these conversations simply don't take place. That’s what I tried to express in the title of my film “We live in silence”: How do you change problems in a context where you don’t even speak about it? Art is my way of addressing them. But there is very little that I can do. I can only create counter narratives and counter images. These aim to provide a space for people to consider their opinions from a critical point of view. Change needs to happen throughout the whole society.

an interview by Gundula Haage.

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