Salt Instead of Icing Sugar

“It does not surprise me when black artists succumb to the pressure and end up ridiculing themselves in return for some degree of acceptance…take the show that opened at Goodman last night ‘dying to be men’ which showcases works by a Zimbabwean artist.” These words appeared in a comment here the other day, when we were all having a big barney about race in South African galleries, referring to the show Dying to be Men by Kudzanai Chiurai. And to be specific, I’m pretty sure the reference was to the Cabinet series of portraits (Minister of Foreign Affairs pictured above). The commenter went on to say that the work thoroughly objectified the black body. I’m by no means supporting these statements, or entirely disagreeing either and I’ll put some of my own thoughts about it later, but they did get me thinking about a white artist who made very similar work this year and was almost universally panned for it:Xander Ferreira’s Status of Greatness tried to examine the iconography of power in Africa, especially the dictator style of things (leopard hat, white suit). It just seemed that he forgot that he was white, and the irony that a lot of the crap that happens in Africa is because of the colonial movement of Europeans into Africa didn’t exactly make itself apparent. But I remember going easy on the images, mostly because to my mind they played out in the realm of pop, where such close readings don’t count for much. The images were playing with style with politics dusted on top, and that they tasted of of race and colonialism was a bit of an accident. It’s like dusting your cake with salt instead of icing sugar, it’s a fuckup but not the end of the world.

I feel much the same about Kudzanai’s Cabinet portraits. They’re fun and pop and fashion, with the body politic a byproduct. The goofiness and stereotypes do make me twinge. But it’s not that bad. Some of them are pretty funny. They do make reference to a rather long history of African studio photography, which as far as I understand was a very empowering aspect of the camera (although made popular as “gallery art” in Europe, works by Masters of the genre such as Malick Sidibe and Seydou Keita can be interpreted as being about a positive, autonomous, post-colonial, modern black identity. Michael Stevenson gallery once did a big show on studio photography topic which is worth looking at, even if the contemporary stuff they put up is tendentious). Seydou Keita, example below, developed with his models a very complex system of symbols related to fashion. This was the most interesting aspect of Kudzanai’s series, the serious reference was in tension with the playful model.
Like a an overinflated Samuel Fosso. A little short of Fosso’s complexity and incisiveness.

The paintings on the show looked like they would sell, but the layering seemed a little too easy.

My favourite images were a series of three photos of the same office at different times of the day. They had the downside of being badly photographed, but were interesting because they made a more subtle critique of bureaucracy (and by extension power) by absenting the body entirely. They needed some tweaking (the window was overexposed, leaving a massive and intrusive white square across the top of the image) and I couldn’t even find them on the Goodman site. It’s a pity, because they had a sadness about them, which was a welcome relief from the saturated pop portraits.

The pop critique aside, the sheer energy of all the works on the show, while needing some taming and shaping and perhaps growing up, will stand the artist in good stead. One’s just wants to see it taken to the next level.

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