VISUAL artist Kresiah Mukwazhi, who represented Zimbabwe at the Venice Biennale last year, continues to spread her message across Europe as she currently makes a stopover in Vienna, Austria.
Her last stop was in Cologne, Germany for her solo exhibition.
After Vienna, Mukwazhi’s exhibition goes to Nottingham, England, from May 27 to September 3.
Curated by Jeanette Pacher, Mukwazhi’s current exhibition at the Secession, that runs until April 16, also marks the publication of her first monograph.
The publication contains interviews, photographs and other writings focusing on the restoration of women to a position of power and dignity that is equal to their male counterparts.
Running under the title Kirawa, Mukwazhi’s exhibition presents textile paintings, mixed media collages and videos.
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The title of the exhibition is a term used by apostolic religious sects to refer to a holy sanctuary where members and pilgrims find healing and deliverance.
The artist translates the idea into a symbol for the struggle against patriarchal norms and recreates the sanctuary as a space for activism.
“Kirawa is a place of sacred resistance, where I expose and push back against (this) colonisation and socio-political issues forcing women into precarious labour,” says Mukwazhi.
The artist’s practice is concerned with the wellbeing of women. She views the role that women play in the process of life as putting them adjacent to God.
Because all human beings are born from the womb of a woman, the artist expects it to be natural for mankind to appreciate women.
Mukwazhi holds the view that strife and disharmony in modern African society were seeded through patriarchy, a system imposed on Africans through Christianity, which genders God as a Caucasian male.
She advocates that bringing an end to oppression, discrimination and sexual abuse of women and girls will end wars, poverty and environmental catastrophes.
To Mukwazhi, abuse of women is a self-negating practice, healing of the world comes through healing of the woman.
“As an artist, my role is to share insights that will urge people to engage with the thought that we are now prioritising our survival at the expense of our humanity and the women,” she noted.
Some images of the female body in Mukwazhi’s exhibition may seem crude and disturbingly sexualised.
It is a deliberate strategy employed by the artist to elicit discomfort similar to that of the objectified subject.
Assuming the male gaze, Mukwazhi adopts the disguise of the patriarchal archetype in order to disempower it without having to assume the role of a victim.
The technique is not without justification. It is a defence mechanism that may have partially evolved through public performances.
In Harare at Village Unhu and Njelele Art Station, Mukwazhi’s performance art, Please Tip the Dancers, would in some instances elicit doe-eyed gazes from stray members of the audience who watched the performance in a limited capacity.
That attitude may filter through to a sensitive artist together with offhand remarks.
As a last resort, turning the mirror back to the crude male perspective creates an awkward moment of self-awareness.
When Mukwazhi is not impersonating the male gaze for shock effect, the prospects can turn dark.
Some of the abstracted female bodies in her work seem to be caught in a vortex of terror.
Other depictions of the nude female body are positioned with a backdrop of vibrant colours that draw attention to unabashed sexuality that refuses to back down from slut shaming.
The artist says her work is inspired by personal experiences, and witnessing the trauma of other women, which she could not freely talk about out of respect for their privacy.
Finding the space to speak out through her work becomes a form of therapy for the artist.
In her performance videos, Mukwazhi’s body becomes asexual through the baggy pink overalls that she is dressed in, the gloves, and the mask covering her face.
The body is gendered by the ostensive neon blue wig, and the pink of the overalls that is often considered to be a feminine colour.
The costume allows the artist to maintain the narrative for female bodies, while avoiding sexual objectification.
In the third act, the dress is feminine, but the sitter is cropped to a head and shoulder portrait.
The videos carry a mimetic social commentary on the female body as in one performance, it is showered with money, in another the subject distractedly sings Zimbabwe’s national anthem while she is seated casually in a swivel chair with a fancy whisk.
In the third instalment, a woman obsessively consumes a piece of fabric that seems to be a bra strap.
The Shona titles for two of the video films have a playful and irreverent aspect that lightens the mood for the depressing subject matter.
Rakazvirova Rikazhamba and Simuka Tiendzane are both riddles that most Zimbabweans learn from early childhood.
As suggested by their titles, the videos can be read as traditional riddles too.
The answer to the first riddle is “the cockerel”, which beats its wings before crowing, and the answer to the second riddle is cooked “okra”, whose slimy thread stretches as if to compete with the height of the one consuming it.
Both answers may bear no direct relevance to the theme of the videos, but serve as a playful departure.
The exhibition is anchored by an installation from which the title of the show is derived.
Composed of video installation, HD video, 7:38 min, colour, sound, trees, stones, wooden bowl, river water and cotton fabric, the piece titled Kirawa Renguwo Tsvuku (the red cloth of sacred resistance) replicates a common sight around Harare.
The clay bowl (mbiya) and red cloth, laid on a pile of stones, under a white cotton banner, are an almost exact match to the original kirawa found all over Harare, which are installed by a religious sect commonly referred to as Vapositori Venguwo Tsvuku (apostles of the red cloth.)
In their original context, the kirawa are often established and led by men, who sometimes abuse women that come seeking help.
Creating her own kirawa is an act of subversion by which Mukwazhi flips the axis of power.
Mukwazhi’s paintings, collages and performances carry the essence of her home country through Shona titles such as Zvemanjemanje Ndirikupisa, Tsvukukuviri and Ura Mutsime.
There are layers of meaning behind the colloquialisms common to Harare where she gets her inspiration and does most of her research.