How Zimbabwean artist Kudzanai Chiurai has reinvented the idea of a library

The Johannesburg version of the library.
Anthea Pokroy/Courtesy Kudzanai Chiurai

Tinashe Mushakavanhu, University of the WitwatersrandZimbabwe born artist Kudzanai Chiurai is a phenomenon. He is one of the most challenging and inventive figures in contemporary African art. From large scale photos of fictional African dictators to experimental films and protest posters, rich oil paintings and minimal sculptures, his work is housed in the world’s top galleries and collections.

Chiurai, though, frequently shrugs off gallery spaces to show in warehouses, on the street or in urban locations. His latest project, The Library of Things We Forgot to Remember, is housed in a boutique shopping complex, 44 Stanley, in Johannesburg. It is built around his collecting practice focused on preserving archives and memorialising social and cultural history from southern Africa. He’s turned his own personal library and archive into a public art project.

It’s an idea informed by Chiurai’s obsessive interest in history and accumulation of artefacts such as books, pamphlets, zines, newspapers, vinyl records, political posters, audio recordings and other ephemera – materials that explore the relationship between cultural production and social movements.

The work takes a pointedly nontraditional approach to archivism. The selection and acquisition is determined by interaction. It is managed as a kind of commons where people can share and benefit from the artist’s collection and what is donated by others. Whereas most archives and libraries stress the preservation of materials, Chiurai’s library promotes access, physical engagement, and active use of the materials to maintain their continued relevance.

Read more:
How artists have preserved the memory of Zimbabwe’s 1980s massacres

The library reflects Chiurai’s artistic repertoire, which deploys the use of mixed media to address social, political and cultural issues. It calls to mind his groundbreaking 2011 exhibition State of the Nation which explored conflict by constructing an African utopia that enabled him to merge forms and mediums, juxtapose political ideas, evoke historical figures – like a speech by slain Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba delivered by artist Zaki Ibrahim – alongside a performance by contemporary musician Thandiswa Mazwai.

In his work Chiurai imagines new ways to activate, share, present and reinvent the archives, as he does with his latest project, the library.

The library

Initially, in 2017, The Library of Things We Forgot to Remember was of no fixed abode, usually incorporated into the artist’s own exhibitions. But the concept of a mobile library was altered by the COVID-19 pandemic, which restricted movement and live events. The library is about gathering, not just materials, but people. It is supposed to be a meeting place.

Now, Chiurai also invites others to curate this archive, to re-arrange it for regular public viewing in a rented space. He considers the library to be:

Itself a form of liberated zone. It functions independently – I find a different librarian every time … and different people see the process of cataloguing differently. Some look at it visually, and some aurally – and so different librarians bring different things to my attention.

a structure within a room, two smaller rooms. One contains a large filing cabinet and the other a couch, record player and political posters. A man sits on the couch listening to a record.

Anthea Pokroy/Courtesy Kudzanai Chiurai

The library includes the artist’s extensive collection of vinyl records associated with liberation movements in southern Africa from the 1970s-80s, notably Zimbabwean Chimurenga and South African anti-apartheid struggle music. There are also recordings of speeches by historical political figures such as Ian Smith, Kwame Nkrumah, Mobutu Sese Seko, Dr Martin Luther King and even a dramatic re-enactment of the trial of Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale.

The collection has continued to grow. In 2018 it obtained digital recordings from the US-based educational project, Freedom Archives – radio interviews with political figures and women involved in the liberation movements in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia, Guinea- Bissau, as well as the US civil rights movement. Other materials are donated by individuals and institutions.

Accordingly, Chiurai treats these traces of struggle with great care. Some of these historical documents and posters are now framed and hung on the white walls. Once, these materials chronicled life in Black Africa or Black America as it happened. Now, they are artefacts of frozen moments in history. His library is conceived as a place of contemplation and reflection. There is a big green couch and listening stations.

against a backdrop of angular colour block paintings, a bald bearded man in glasses smiles as he talks into a microphone.
Kudzanai Chiurai in Accra, Ghana, 2018.
Linus Petit, CC BY-SA

The art of remembering

The Library of Things We Forgot to Remember is part of an effort to expand ideas of what a library can be and its decolonisation. It is an extension of new ways people are using the ‘library’ as a place of inquiry and conversation with the past.

Perhaps, what is fascinating is that Chiurai’s library is not static, but re-arranges in the hands of a guest librarian, and has travelled from its first iteration in Harare, to Cape Town, Kalmar, Södertälje and Johannesburg. Previous librarians have been the political writing platform Chimurenga in Harare, writer and DJ El Corazone in Cape Town, and film director and deejay Sifiso Khanyile in Johannesburg.

A depiction of The Last Supper with a black female Jesus figure.
A still from Kudzanai Chiurai’s film Iyeza.
Screengrab courtesy Kudzanai Chiurai

What Chiurai is doing is to incubate a new model for artistic creation and knowledge production that interferes with the circulation, display and preservation of cultural objects. Who has a right to assign value? Who decides what is history? What kinds of materials should be collected? How can access be expanded to new publics?

Visitors also have a responsibility. They are not just passive observers, but collaborators, interpreters, and readers. The library becomes a place of provocation that allows multiple registers of value, because value is negotiated. It’s also about the reinvention of the library as a space for multiple forms of contemplation. It is still a destination for artists, scholars, curators, and collectors to research and engage with southern African history.

Remembering is a virtue that Chiurai extols. In Black communities it is often an expensive luxury, a privilege. But through this new space arranged in the form of a hybrid gallery, community center, library and archive, remembering is translated into a collective process of reimagining and of sharing heritage. It is also testament of the generosity behind Chiurai’s art practice, of care and community.The Conversation

Tinashe Mushakavanhu, Post-Doctoral Fellow, University of the Witwatersrand

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Tsitsi Dangarembga and writing about pain and loss in Zimbabwe

Tsitsi Dangarembga.
Jemal Countess/WireImage via Getty Images

Rosemary Chikafa-Chipiro, University of Zimbabwe

Tsitsi Dangarembga has made a name for herself as a writer, filmmaker and activist in Zimbabwe. She gained international acclaim with her debut novel Nervous Conditions (1988), which became the first published English novel by a black woman from Zimbabwe. The BBC named it one of the top 100 books that have shaped the world.

Now, over three decades later, Dangarembga’s latest novel – This Mournable Body, the third in a trilogy that began with Nervous Conditions and the subject of this review – has been placed on the longlist for the 2020 Booker Prize. The news broke a few days before Dangarembga’s arrest for demonstrating against the government amidst a clampdown on critical voices in the country.

There have been other Zimbabwean women writers of note after Dangarembga, such as the late Yvonne Vera, and more recently NoViolet Bulawayo, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma and Petina Gappah. Most of their works have won international awards, with NoViolet Bulawayo being the first black African woman and the first Zimbabwean to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for the novel We Need New Names (2013).

Reading Zimbabwe/The Women’s Press

What distinguishes Dangarembga is her centralisation of burning issues concerning the freedom of women in Zimbabwe’s patriarchal socio-economic and political milieu. Besides her three novels, she has written plays, the best known of which is She No Longer Weeps (1987) and has played various roles in Zimbabwean filmmaking including writing and directing such films as the popular Neria and Everyone’s Child.

The return of Tambudzai

As a trilogy, Nervous Conditions was followed by The Book of Not (2006) and This Mournable Body (2018). Nervous Conditions, with its girl child protagonist, Tambudzai, is an introductory representation of British colonisation of Zimbabwe and how people, particularly women, coped with the intersectional oppressions of the racial, classist and gendered structure of relations. It ends with hope that Tambudzai, in her resilience, will triumph – only for The Book of Not to present her as a “non-person” who goes through some form of psychic self-annihilation that reduces her to an “I was not” as she struggles to cope with the racial exclusions at her white boarding school. The Book of Not thus annihilated Tambudzai for me and I hoped that another sequel would resuscitate her. That is why I was excited to hear that Dangarembga had written another sequel and promised myself I would buy a copy.

Ayebia Clarke Publishers

However, a few friends had thrown in spoilers and I also felt very apprehensive. I was torn between wanting to read the book and not wanting to. I love happy endings. If I read a book and it does not end as I expected, it weighs down on me and I take a long time to unwind myself from the story while trying to write my own suitable ending. As fate would have it, a student asked me to supervise their dissertation on Dangarembga’s trilogy. The book was literally haunting me, mourning for me to read it, but I held out until I was asked to contribute to a published roundtable on the trilogy.

The painful reading

I borrowed a copy from a colleague and began the painful reading. I was horrified by the Tambu in This Mournable Body. She was unrecognisable from the rural, disciplined girl who subtly fought to get an education like her brother in Nervous Conditions; the girl who daringly uttered, “I was not sorry when my brother died”. I could easily identify with the young girl in the 1960s, when patriarchy preferred to send boys to school and raise girls for marriage. That young girl reminded me of my own mother’s tenacity in trying to acquire an education for herself and later for my brothers and sisters in the harsh economic colonial environment of Rhodesia.

A book cover with an illustration of a black woman's legs in red and white shoes and stockings with human heart patterns.

Jacana Media

I could identify with Tambu’s victory on going to the mission school. Unlike her cousin Nyasha, she had a solid African background that would enable her to remain culturally rooted. She would even be more versatile and relevant than her uneducated aunt Lucia. She would not be as docile and submissive as her sister Netsai, who lost a leg in the liberation war in The Book of Not. The ending of Nervous Conditions was thus a happy ending for me, because of this promise of growth.

I now know that I had only driven myself to these conclusions in search of my own happy endings. No African novels I had read before Nervous Conditions had happy endings for “integrated” African characters. White contact had become synonymous with ngozi, a vengeful spirit.

I felt angry at Tsitsi Dangarembga for writing This Mournable Body. It was a very difficult book for me to read. The Tambu of This Mournable Body is like a wounded animal. I was even horrified by the aloofness in the narration and the spectatorship of rape and its trauma, to the indifference to violence and abuse.

I am Tambu

I have since realised that I am only angry at the reality of the Zimbabwean body of pain that This Mournable Body evokes. I did not want to read the novel because I did not want to face the individual realities that are so familiar among many men and women in my country. Like with Tambu, pain has been simmering in us over time.

Two women holding placards get into a military vehicle as policemen usher them.
Tsitsi Dangarembga’s arrest on 31 July 2020 in Harare.
Zinyange Auntony/AFP via Getty Images

This Mournable Body blurs the boundaries of time. The Tambu of Nervous Conditions was one I could envision through my mother’s past, from a colonial history that I only knew by my connection to her. As I read This Mournable Body, I was aware of the conflation of the immediate post-independent period and the contemporary moment. Lucia’s and Christine’s war scars have easily defied temporalities. Many a Zimbabwean is hopping on Netsai’s single leg. There is no affluence even for the anglicised like Nyasha. I am Tambu.

Read more:
How artists have preserved the memory of Zimbabwe’s 1980s massacres

This Mournable Body resonates with individual Zimbabweans at a personal level. Both the nation and its people become mournable bodies whose “grievability” is exhumed through the text and especially now when #ZimbabweanLivesMatter is taking shape after the arrest of activists.

Tambu’s jealousies, her tears, and her madness are not ngozi. The Zimbabwean pain body courses through the novel like a daughter’s shame and a mother’s love and memory, packaged in a sack of mealie-meal. Who knows if it is a question of not knowing the womb or one of not knowing how to come back to it? This Mournable Body has a happy ending after all. Tambu comes back home. And as Dangarembga herself states:

Writing a pain body and also reading such a body are acts of resistance and triumph.The Conversation

Rosemary Chikafa-Chipiro, Lecturer, University of Zimbabwe

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Zimbabwe minus Mugabe: two books on his fall and Mnangagwa’s rise

File 20181211 76956 5ex5kg.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Zimbabwe’s former president Robert Mugabe.
EPA-EFE/Yeshiel Panchia

David B. Moore, University of Johannesburg

Penguin Books has released two books by Zimbabwean journalists in time to celebrate the first anniversary of the coup that finally put Robert Mugabe’s ruinous reign to an end. These are Ray Ndlovu’s In the Jaws of the Crocodile: Emmerson Mnangagwa’s Rise to Power in Zimbabwe and The Graceless Fall of Robert Mugabe: The End of a Dictator’s Reign by Geoffrey Nyarota.

The books, about the end of Mugabe’s nearly four decades of ruling Zimbabwe, arrive at a time when journalists have to constantly rush to beat tweets and Facebook posts. This haste can work against their claim to be offering something closer to truth’s complexities than can be rendered in 280 characters.

At the time of the coup the international community, the long-suffering urban unemployed and rural peasants, and the business players itching to embrace the graces of a régime “open for business”, hoped that a long-delayed nirvana was just over the horizon.

That vista remains distant: if there was a rainbow – President Emmerson Mnangagwa promised Zimbabwean whites their place back in Zanu-PF’s good books – the pot of gold keeps receding. The long lines of fuel-starved vehicles indicated more about the first birthday of Zimbabwe’s “Second Republic” than Zanu-PF’s comparatively muted celebrations.

‘Queuing after the coup’ seemed an alliteration appropriate to this review of the two books, neither of which does justice to the enormity both of events in Zimbabwe as well as the sheer scale of what’s required to rebuild the country.

The coup

‘Romancing the coup’ could also characterise such tales. Ndlovu’s chronicle of Mnangagwa’s adventures bears the hallmarks of a roller-coaster thriller. In the Jaws excurses excitedly through “The Crocodile’s” firing from the vice-presidency, forced exile and escape, his Pretoria-based saviour, corrupt police (contrasted with brave soldier-saints), and his triumphant return to the treasures surely to follow his presidential inauguration.

Nyarota’s more sober historical take characterises former First Lady Grace Mugabe as someone whose treasure map bore little relation to the route she and her fellow plotters in “Generation-40” – the faction conniving to rid their party and country of “Lacoste” (a play on Mnangagwa’s nickname) group – took when they persuaded then President Mugabe to fire his longtime lackey.

Could military commander Constantino Chiwenga save the day and grab the treasure? Now a Vice-President, many credit Chiwenga with organising the “militarily assisted transition” allowing Mnangagwa to cross the river. In The Jaws celebrates the bromance between Chiwenga and Mnangagwa. But circumspection regarding such claims is cautioned.

The real gold lies under Zimbabwe’s putrid piles of economic ruin. Thus hopes are pinned on Mthuli Ncube, Zimbabwe’s new finance minister. These hopes are tied tightly to Zanu-PF’s factional fights for pieces of a Zimbabwean pie as ethereal as the electronic “money” used in the absence of real currency.

Ncube’s fantastical neo-liberal solutions are eerily reminiscent of the economic structural adjustment policies that during the 1990s’ precipitated Zimbabwe’s nosedive. Even the International Monetary Fund had to restrain Ncube’s exuberant “Austerity for Prosperity” plans. Matched with the ruling party’s scrambles and the poor’s impatience, roiling ensues.

Keynesians and neo-liberals alike have little to which they can look forward, although the Confederation of Zimbabwean Industry proclaims that industrial capacity rose by 5% in early 2018. Yet just after mid-year, the little electoral legitimacy on which the global citadels of finance and investment banked slid away. The military killed at least six demonstrators while, as many say, its intelligence corps took over counting the election’s votes.

Neither of the two books portend much of the coup’s consequences. They improve on an unhappy catalogue of books on Zimbabwean politics. But the bar is low. The best that can be said of them is that they are good in parts.

Map still missing

Nyarota’s enthusiasm for the new régime is muted, but he’s very happy to see the back of Mugabe and his unruly wife.

Graceless is more about their drawn-out fall than the coup per se. The elder Nyarota’s world-weary schadenfreude contrasts vividly with Ndlovu’s youthful exuberance. Nyarota’s historical depth, if meandering, gives necessary context to last year’s events. His insight into the near-coups in the 1970s that Ndlovu misses completely – when not misconstruing history – are valuable indeed.

Graceless has no interviews: Mugabe’s minders refused Nyarota’s requests. Yet Ndlovu’s one-on-ones are mostly with the victors.

Of course, purported “Generation-40” leader and former cabinet minister Jonathan Moyo’s unstoppable stream of tweets and interviews from wherever resides his physical self, features prominently. But since they are accessible to anyone with internet they need deconstruction, not replication.

One would expect journalists to criticise Moyo’s nefarious role in his information portfolio (and many others). The elder and the younger don’t disappoint. Unsurprisingly, when the born-again constitutionalist Moyo was interviewed recently he judged Ndlovu’s work as a hagiography for Mnangagwa. Unfortunately, Nyarota’s unpacking of Moyo’s past looks too much like Wikipedia to satisfy.

Moyo’s criticism of In the Jaws goes too far. But both books suggest more questions than answers. Even given publishers’ and the media rushes to keep up with insubstantial and fake news circulating via billions of clicks, this is not enough. Zimbabwe’s treasures haven’t been dug up yet, and these journalists-cum-authors haven’t drawn the map.The Conversation

David B. Moore, Professor of Development Studies and Visiting Researcher, Institute of Pan-African Thought and Conversation, University of Johannesburg

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.