Interview with artist Kudzanai Chiurai

A. Will Brown: Tell me where the idea from this work came from. What brought you to create Iyeza?

Kudzanai Chiurai: The idea for the video came from a charity dinner I had read about, hosted by Nelson Mandela. The dinner became infamous because it was attended by Liberian warlord Charles Taylor and Naomi Campbell, whom he was reported to have sent uncut diamonds to afterwards. Some of the invited guests would later testify against Taylor at The Hague.

It was an interesting dinner, a paradox of virtue: figures with distinguished backgrounds in politics, entertainment, and humanitarian causes all gathered for a charity dinner, also attended by a man who was rumored to have “eaten the hearts of his enemies” and would later be convicted of war crimes. In some way it had notions of the Divine, and [it seemed] the biblical Last Supper would be a great representation of that dinner.

AWB: What are the specific stereotypes [in the film]? Some are obvious, and others need a bit more decoding.

KC: The stereotypes you might be referring to only narrow the perception of a continent that is diverse and complex. You will find stereotypes if that is what you are looking for, but if you applied this work to a different context, you would find similar stereotypes throughout history: the Spanish Inquisition, one of many prominent examples, but the list of crimes against humanity behind a thinly veiled pretext of religion is endless.

The Christian faith was an ally and accomplice to the colonial project; it restructured and reorganized the lives of indigenous populations by centralizing them around churches and the missionary. This can be said of almost all colonized territories. All thought and production would emanate from the churches and missionaries, and the submission of the peasant population was one of the church’s objectives. In essence, the video has very little to do with the stereotypes you are thinking of or alluding too.

AWB: I understand. Thank you for clarifying the central idea… . My interpretation wasn’t based on religion as problematic and as a driving force for your work.

Might you have a few more specific examples about religious colonization, particularly in Zimbabwe or the region, that would bring more clarity to the heart of the video? Perhaps too there is something interesting in interrogating the stereotypes that surround missionaries.

KC: By interrogating the role of religion, we get to understand the destabilizing nature religion had on indigenous communities, and its consequences. When missionaries centralized the activities of the community around the church or mission, it often resulted in displacement, leaving room for colonial expansion in the spaces once occupied. In some cases, the indigenous people became a source of free labor for the missionary. Religious instruction also set them at odds with their beliefs and ontology. This would ferment in resentment and conflict in the years that followed.

What is central was how knowledge was ordered by the missionaries and then transferred to the indigenous communities that were centered on these missionaries. This knowledge emanated from the religious instruction. Jomo Kenyatta, Kenyan nationalist leader, summed it up when he said, “When the missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the missionaries had the Bible. They taught us how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible.”

AWB: Why the Last Supper? Surely there are many historic still-life and religious scenes you could have used, but why this one in particular?

KC: Why not the Last Supper? Yes, there are many historic still-life scenes, but the Last Supper represents European history and politics and its imperial power; the use of religion as a colonizing instrument, the long arm of its influence on Africa and its strong-arm tactics.

The Church set out to convert the population under false pretenses, using its power to betray the followers it promised to save and protect. If we consider the following, Drink this wine for it is my blood, eat this bread for it is my body, it does bear connotations of an oath of submission being taken, of centralizing power. You are because of my being and sacrifice. This is very much the narrative of power and its central role in our lives; whether you are European or African, the pervasive role of the Church still remains with us, and any dissent will not be tolerated.

So why not the Last Supper? It so succinctly represents European and religious hegemony.

AWB: How has the work been received by viewers, critics, fellow artists? I’m curious if you have had people who are confounded, or even unsettled, by the work?

KC: Some people have been confounded by the video, others have found it sobering. The underlying feeling is that it represents a microcosm of the relationship between a state and a nation, dissent and submission.

AWB: Tell me about the figure in the middle, who plays Jesus in your remaking of the Last Supper. Why is the figure dressed in such contrast to the other figures?

KC: A woman plays Jesus. She is dressed in a suit, a symbol of masculinity and power. We are assigning gender-specific roles that are often impossible to delineate from, the outcome of which we still live with.

AWB: What artists, and what works of theirs, do you look at most? What are artists doing, making, or interrogating that is intriguing for you right now?

KC: I think there are intriguing conversations taking place in Germany and the Netherlands on migration, derived from their colonial histories. There is also dialogue on Afro-futures which I find interesting in artists’ work.

AWB: Are you making more works that feature historical religious or culturally significant scenes?

KC: I am making more work that features historic religious significance such as the Last Supper.

Religion continues to underpin much of our socialization, much of which can be attributed to the colonizing project if you to look at Africa, and in some cases as an ally. So there is a lot to learn, explore, and interrogate.

A. Will Brown
Curatorial Assistant, Contemporary Art

Kudzanai Chiurai: Iyeza is on view from November 27, 2015 – May 15, 2016