Kudzanai Chiurai’s practice visualises history and its tendency for repetition. The cyclical nature of history is as much a subject as Colonial and Post-Colonial southern Africa and its governance. He shows us history outside of the limitations of linearity and its related belief of progression or digression. This representation is particularly potent within the African context, largely because its position as ‘inferior’ within the binaries of First World and Third world — and White and Black — relies upon the belief that Africa and Africans are connected to the ancient past, while the West has been portrayed as having a monopoly on modernity and postmodernity.
Africa is the West’s foil. While Chiurai’s practice is not necessarily Afro-Futuristic, it does share a desire with Afro-Futurism to resist this narrative. However, Afro-Futurism still conceives of time through the Western notions of evolution and devolution, predicated by the connotations of the word ‘Futurism’. The cyclical nature of history offer us an out from a mode of thinking that increasingly appears, at turns, idealistic and reductive as we move deeper into the turbulence of the 21stcentury. We are able to conceive of history as a series of events and phases which, though they are affected by geographical and historical context, are seemingly endless repetitions of events that have happened and will happen. Chiurai creates an archive of violence within the context of Colonial and Post-Colonial southern Africa. In doing so, the work shows the varied potential of perceiving history as a series of repetitions.
Derrida, in the text Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (1995), pathologizes the tendency to archive: “It is to have a compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for the return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement.” He frames repetition as a conservative gesture that preferences the past over the present. While this is part of the potential of repetition, it has more radical capabilities. Rather than a conservative gesture of ‘homesickness’, Chiurai’s archive fever serves to reconstruct the past to insert the viewer into the emotional and psychological inner workings of the oppressors and the oppressed. The works reveal some of the nature of systematic violence and power, both in the wider context and specifically as it relates to southern Africa’s colonial era.
In the artwork entitled We Live in Silence XIIII (2017), Chiurai riffs on the theme of Judith Beheading Holofernes, most closely resembling Caravaggio’s and Artemisia Gentileschi’s representations. He changes the identities of the subjects: Judith and her maid become two black women, both dressed in modern, monochrome ‘power suits’. Judith’s sword becomes a panga, the east and southern African equivalent of a machete, a weapon connected to violent conflict in the region. Within this context, Holofernes is changed from Old Testament military general into a symbol of Colonial government. It is rooted in African geopolitics in the Colonial and Postcolonial eras. It speaks to the role of women in anti-Colonial liberation movements, the rise of the black middle class in the region, and the fears of the white minority as the majority black population took governing power. These are issues that are present throughout Chiurai’s practice. This contemporary context is marked as a repetition through the reference to the Book of Judith, which narrates the occupation of Israel by foreign invaders and the heroic actions of Judith, who infiltrates the enemy camp by ingratiating herself to their general and then beheading him in his tent.
Chiurai took the parallel between events in Colonial Africa and the Book of Judith further in his most recent solo exhibition entitled Madness and Civilization (2018) at Goodman Gallery in Cape Town. Included in the exhibition alongside We Live in Silence XIIII was an altar which synthesized elements of Christianity and African spirituality. Included in the installation is a Bible covered in handwritten text and drawn images, such as the words ‘Book of Nehanda’. Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana, the descendant of an ancestral line of spirit mediums channelling the oracle spirit Nehanda, played an important role in the First Chimurenga (resistance) of the Shona and Ndebele people in Zimbabwe against British Colonial invaders during the late nineteenth century. Following the imposition of a series of taxes from the Colonial government, a rebellion was encouraged by spiritual and political leaders including Mbuya Nehanda. When the rebellion ended in 1897, she was arrested after being accused of ordering the beheading of a representative of the Colonial government, for which she was hanged. The story of Mbuya Nehanda became an inspiration to liberation fighters during the Second Chimurenga in the 1960s and 1970s.
The parallels between the Book of Judith and the ‘Book of Nehanda’ are clear. Both stories illustrate the underestimated role of women in political resistance. By integrating past events for their symbolic power, and diverging from the source to add emotional, psychological, and theoretical context to historical ephemera, Chiurai makes use of history and its repetition as a material. However, he does not equate these histories. Instead, their similarities and differences play upon each other and the narratives that surround archived events. In turn, the viewer is encouraged to rethink what they believe about religion and myth, civilization and savagery, and power and oppression.
Deleuze wrote in Repetition and Difference (1968) that while repetition is commonly understood to be the reoccurrence of the same thing at a different moment, repetitions are inherently different. Their sameness is superficial and can be unravelled to reveal differences, just as repetitions can be found where there appears to be only difference. The view of history as a cyclical rather than linear risks obscuring difference and change, which would be as reductive as the view of history as existing within a binary of progression and digression, “rise and fall”. Chiurai visualises this ambiguity between repetition and difference in regard to historical events.
The Genesis [Je n’isi isi] series (2016) reimagines black women in positions of power that were historically held by men and white people: the Chief being petitioned; the King being bowed to; the Priest being kneeled to. These swaps simultaneously reimagine the past, critique the present, and envision the future. The images can be interpreted as implying that “the more things change, the more they stay the same”, that despite superficial differences, the nature of power is essential and unchanging. This view could be supported by the insidious corruption of governments in Post-Colonial southern Africa. And yet, each photograph is grounded by backdrops that offer context in the form of an ethnographic depiction of pre-Colonial Zimbabwean women, a Colonial gentleman’s portrait, and a Renaissance painting of Christ. While there are parts of human nature that appear to be unmalleable, such as our responses to power and oppression, difference remains and change can occur.
The value of framing history as a series of nuanced repetitions is not only relevant in freeing Africa of its role as a foil to the West’s modernity and postmodernity, but in freeing the West from its own hegemonic cage. Based on the capitalistic ethos of infinite growth, the linear model of history continues to be maintained, even as it is questioned in literature and art. Encapsulated in this belief of infinite growth is an implication that the present is superior to the past. This expectation is unsustainable, and we seem to know it based on the common fascination with the idea of apocalypse. While societies have ebbs and flows, belief in the beginning or end of an era disregards the longevity of each historical moment. Whether or not it is recognised, each moment is haunted by past and future repetitions. Biblical-era Judith is present in the story of Colonial-era Nehanda, both of which are alive in past, present, and future events of civil resistance. Thought of in this way, there is no singular, original event, no beginning, and so there is no end, even as the differences that lie between these repetitions can radically shift the context. Just as repetition can obscure difference, so can difference obscure repetition. No era is too good to see the return of past violence. Faith in change or cultural ‘evolution’ does not prevent history from repeating itself. Chiurai’s archive of violence serves as a necessary reminder.
Khanya Mashabela is an art critic with interests in art history and historiography, new media, and contemporary African art. She also has an interdisciplinary, collaborative practice as a poet, working in textual, visual, and aural media. She lives and works in Cape Town, South Africa.