PIXELS OF UBUNTU/UNHU. Exploring the social and cultural identity of the 21st Century Zimbabwe pavilion of the 56th Venice Biennale 2016. At the AVA Gallery, 35 Church Street, until March 6. DANNY SHORKEND reviews
CHIKONSERO Chazunguza, Masimba Hwati and Gareth Nyandoro have produced intriguing works that deal with the confluence of tradition and struggle amidst the homogenising effects of modernity.
In this clash, identity is not static, but shifts and yet there is a constant, a common thread, and a unified semblance of self.
Yet, surprisingly and paradoxically, this manifests when self is part of a social network. That is not to say self is obliterated. Rather there is but interaction and relationship.
This relationship, connectivity and creative oscillation is developed stylistically in each of the artists’ work: Chazunguza’s repeated motif of Chimurenga heroes Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi and the chiefs in their rising up against the British Empire are superimposed, clad in changing fashions and graphically portrayed or even symbolised.
Hwati works with silkscreen on denim and questions ones sense of identity amidst consumer Capitalism and the concomitant incessant branding.
Nyandoro uses flimsy paper and tape and yet it is stretched over canvas. In all these cases, traditional oil on canvas methodologies is not favoured.
Rather, in investigating the nature of identity via alternative materiality within a historicized point in time – economically, politically, psychologically – the artist seeks empathy with the plight of the street vendor, a sense of the heroism of the freedom fighter, even as rampant consumerism and symbolic icons take root, which while claiming individuality merely appeal to false, alienated, self-replicating and vacuous signs; a body without a soul as it were.
Furthermore, Nyandoro’s paper works are a kind of tattooing – and one can perhaps associate tattooing with rebellion – however it is also simply a fashion, an aesthetic device.
However, for me the artist does mean to comment on Zimbabwe’s on the ground difficulties and the need to both give and take from other cultures.
In Hwati’s work there is similarly a political and cultural angle on Zimbabwe, particularly in the glasses worn by Nyandoro, the subject or specimen, in that they refer to the Zimbabwean secret service. And the lens’ merely filters the “light” of consumer culture and contemporary signs and symbols that as hitherto stated, are in fact empty, mere egotistical grumblings of a society bent on profit and self-glorification.
And this is why Chazunguza’s work (he in fact taught the other two artist’s under discussion) is so potent in that in engaging with history and bringing it into the present as such, history itself is (re)made!
These knowledge systems or language games are clouded by the overwhelming presence of products threaded through our very being (it may even be spurious to determine whether a person thinks at all, a kind of Warhol redundancy), hence the artist actually weaves discarded cans of soda in intricate detail in order to define the figures.
In the process, self is submerged is an anonymous group, the warriors mere silhouettes so that there is no correspondence to reality; reality is already a representation.
His fierce lines iterate endlessly as simplification or rather a clear cut, individual voice is not forthcoming.
Zimbabwe achieved independence in 1980, and as is known, the country is beset with many problems.
Nevertheless, this exhibition is a positive gesture as it is “only through sustained participation and notable interventions of Africans in global events can we assert our presence, visibility, recognition, contribution and most importantly stake claims for our merited place and shared global citizenship within cultural spaces and artistic accounts of global contemporary art” (Thembinkosi Goniewe).
Who “we” and “our” points to are always problematic, but it appears that a resolution can be sought in local and universal identity in a spirit of Ubuntu/Unhu!
A well-curated exhibition by Raphael Chikukura, chief curator at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe and a rewarding experience is on offer for visitors to the show.
l 021 424 7436, ava.co.za