The grime sublime

Amid grimy edifices in Doornfontein, where clothes flap forlornly in the wind on the roofs and balconies of buildings (abandoned structures seemingly untouched by urban renewal), squats August House.

It’s where Zimbabwean-born artist Kudzanai Chiurai has lived for about two years after a five-month stint in Melville. It’s a building that houses other artists and a Wits University academic: “A very complex space,” Chiurai calls downtown Jo’burg, “not suburbia. It’s a transitory space, a place where people are in transition to somewhere else.”

Downtown is usually the first frontier laid claim to by migrants evading poverty and misery on the continent. When they arrive, they huddle in national enclaves, creating microcities and microeconomies, and sometimes never venture beyond set, but invisible, boundaries. “All these people bring their own selves in their interpretation of this city,” Chiurai says. “Sometimes the microcities can be a building or a street.”

When I ask him why he chose to live in this part of town, Chiurai says he is inspired by the “noise”, “the constant movement”, the different energies that result when “people’s presences are always changing”.

The University of Pretoria-educated artist has exhibited works that feed off the rough graffiti aesthetics of street signage in downtown Johannesburg: the luminous paints and (sometimes) odd mixes of colour, the cursive twirls and the bold lettering, the “rotten” grammar and orthography. Chiurai likes the personal touch, the nation-specific aesthetics of the handmade signage that’s lacking in the corporate-produced stuff.

Small wonder he scoffs at the idea of Johannesburg as a world-class African city. “I don’t think a world class exists,” he says. “It’s pretty hard to say that because every city comes with its own aesthetics and every city is a result of a particular set of reasons and circumstances. Johannesburg is the City of Gold,” he says.

“Each of us carries ideas of what a city should be like and when we meet millions of others — each with his own ideas — what results is organised chaos,” he says in a soft-spoken voice devoured by his cavernous residence that doubles as a studio. Once or twice I ask him to speak up. Johannesburg, he points out, should be seen for itself, “otherwise we’ll have monotonous cities” — one thinks of spaces endlessly replicating themselves wherever they occur.

Chiurai is noncommittal on the subject of urban renewal. He’s uncertain whether the 2010 agenda means that everything is being “sanitised for tourists”. He contrasts the sleek, urbane, almost soulless Marshalltown district occupied by banks and mining houses with downtown Johannesburg, at once attractive and repulsive for its chaotic ambience.

Before the interview began I had a chance to scout around his home-cum-studio. His flat is curtainless, spacious and partially partitioned. On one side is the rather dusty studio stacked with paint canisters, industrial-type machinery, planks, paper and other tools of his trade. On the other is a lounge, bedroom and dining room occupied by a long metallic table. On a rack, next to his bed, is a tennis racket (he’s a keen sportsman and was once in the Zimbabwe national rugby team).

A TV nonchalantly sits on a wooden crate; on a handmade desk rests a computer; on one of the shelves close to the window overlooking the city is an mbira and art books, neatly stacked. Other slanting shelves are just above his desk, holding critical works such as The Elusive Metropolis by Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttall and fiction. (Some are first editions of African classics, including Es’kia Mphahlele’s Down Second Avenue, Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease and Coming of the Dry Season by Zimbabwean Charles Mungoshi.) It’s clear — Chiurai is a multidimensional investigator of the African present.

His latest poster series shows his preoccupation with politics. It’s inspired by what he calls “the big-man syndrome” and how politics affects ordinary folk. The glossy series, conceptualised by Chiurai and photographed by Jurie Potgieter, features a model dressed as various ministers (defence, finance, arts, education and such) — official roles have been reinterpreted, setting them up for ridicule. His light yet cynical take is reminiscent of Frantz Fanon’s criticism of the bourgeoisie of formerly colonised countries: their unproductive nature and love of ostentation.

There’s a finance minister in funky dreadlocks, a fur coat and bling, perhaps more appropriate on a hip-hop artist than on a bureaucrat. Perhaps it’s born out of his belief that we have to begin to look at politicians anew and refashion Africa’s power structures. “We look at these people as the fathers of the nation. We are their children. [People like Robert] Mugabe look at themselves in this way. We look to them for solutions.”

The result is that the populace “indulges” these “champagne breakfast” politicians. Chiurai talks about an issue close to his heart — Zimbabwe and the absurdity of its politics; how ministers splurge on luxuries amid the squalor. The ruled can’t be innocent because “we let them do it. It’s like a reality show. It makes for entertainment, but its effects are detrimental for ordinary people.”

In my almost two-hour interview with Chiurai it seemed we talked mostly about the city and Africa’s politics. To move away from the moaning, I prefaced my question about what he thinks should be done with a dictum from an Achebe novel — “writers don’t give prescriptions, they give headaches” — to which Chiurai replied: “If artists don’t prescribe solutions then the politicians are the leaders.”

The uncontested cult of leadership hasn’t exactly served the continent well, but can an artist such as Chiurai really unsettle the monoliths of power? I wondered as I made my way through the maze and squalor of downtown Jo’burg.

Kudzanai Chiurai’s work forms part of the exhibition titled US, showing at the Johannesburg Art Gallery and at the Goodman Gallery Project Space at Arts on Main. On October 11 at 2pm attend a walkabout at the Jo’burg Art Gallery with curator Bettina Malcomess. The show ends on October 25

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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