October 2015

“Artists are the voice of the voiceless” – An Interview with Raphael Chikukwa

by Nicola Brandt

Raphael Chikukwa is the Director of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe and Curator of the Zimbabwean Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale, 2015.

Brandt: Can you tell me about the theme of this year’s Zimbabwean Pavilion at Okwui Enwezor’s Biennale?

Chikukwa: We established an advisory committee and proposed a shortlist of 10 artists, out of which came three: Chikonzero Chazunguza, Masimba Hwati and Gareth Nyandoro.

There are different links between these artists, but we were primarily interested in the idea of ‘Ubuntu’, which means ‘You are because I am’. It forms part of the title of the exhibition Pixels of Ubuntu/Unhu at this year’s Zimbabwean Pavilion. Ubuntu is a Southern African philosophy, which is to say ‘there is no way I can eat here at this table, if you are hungry’. And yet the exhibition questions what world we are living in today, especially as we are inheriting a (western) consumer culture. In a sense, ‘Ubuntu’ is pixelating.

Brandt: I saw in the exhibition that Chikonzero Chazunguza references Namibian archival material, including images from the Herero-Nama-German War. What is the motivation behind this work and what is the artist’s relationship to Namibia? 

Chikukwa: Chikonzero has a significant link with Namibia. He is a mature artist, and works a lot with the Namibian artist Papa Shikongeni. He has done research and residencies in the country, and has also looked into Herero history, drawn from the archive. In some of his works he plays with names. ‘Mataturu’ is an Herero word that means ‘the place we don’t want to be’. He plays with words, ‘Matatura’ and ‘Katatura’. Katutura is the only township in Windhoek where a larger population of black people live. You see, as Bantu people we are linked in one way or another, you notice it in the roots of our language, food, and history and as Africans we are one. Because of artificial colonial borders that separated people, we increasingly lost our ‘Ubuntu/Unhu’—our ‘oneness’ as people of similar origins.

Brandt: Can you tell me about your experience working with these artists on this particular project?

Chikukwa: When I visited the artists I challenged them. I told them to think big, to think outside the box and act outside the box. Gareth developed his technique further—his work is sophisticated and architectural. This ‘thinking big’ also came out clearly in his work. There are also other kinds of links in the exhibition; for example, the portraits by Masimba entitled Urban Totems are actually portraits of Gareth Nyandoro, one of the artists in the exhibition.


Brandt: Okwui Enwezor titled this year’s exhibition All the World’s Futures, reflecting his interest in a wide range of media—from a nonstop reading of all three volumes of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital by a group of actors to the copper installations that Congolese artist Sammy Baloji built to criticize Belgium’s exploitation of Congolese copper mines. How does the Zimbabwean Pavilion respond to these larger themes?

Chikukwa: Okwui is a very sophisticated curator and also an experienced curator. When he was appointed to be the curator of the 56th Venice Biennale I knew he was going to surprise the Biennale audience. One of the ways he did this was by bringing in the Karl Marx works into the Biennale. Similar to this performance piece, the work in the Zimbabwean Pavilion questions the ideologies of consumerism and materialism, and where it will eventually take us. When we were thinking about this exhibition, we were questioning similar premises. Why Pixels of Ubuntu/Unhu?  The notion of pixels in the title of the exhibition refers to how pixels can distort or enhance your image. Consumerism does that as well. Over the years we have seen how people lose themselves because of so-called globalism, which as we know is not global, but is why our Ubuntu/Unhu is pixelating in the face of globalisation.  In another way it’s also restrictive. Capitalism creates division. Look at the western world, they can tell their citizens to go all over the world, but they tell immigrants not to come here. They don’t even learn the languages of the places they go to. So this also questions this so-called globalisation.


Brandt: It has been said that one of the roles of the artist is to be on the side of the weak, and in representing those who cannot be represented? Obviously this is a controversial notion, but what are your thoughts on it?  

Chikukwa: Artists are the voice of the voiceless; they are the newsletters of any society. Their role is to unearth submerged histories and untold stories that remain buried in the face of humanity. The history of Zimbabwe is very painful, especially during the period of colonialism. It is the artist’s role to unearth these memories. Contemporary art has a role to play in our societies and all we can do is to create a platform for artists to showcase their work locally and abroad.

If you think of the African diaspora in the United States—if you dig deeper you will find a history of slavery that is linked to the far reaches of Africa. I was in Antigua, and I found people there that have links to Zimbabwe.  It is rich with stories like this. The world is a fragile, interconnected place, and the artist is a memory bank. I sometimes get frustrated with art that it does not do enough, and yet I love artists’ work and the power of what they can do. It can change people’s perspective in life.  Artists are special, especially their role in communities, and I have not heard of a community without artists.

Brandt: All three artists are men. Can you tell me about the role of women in this exhibition?

Chikukwa: Women played an important role in the liberation of Zimbabwe. Chikonzero Chazunguza draws on a symbol of Nehanda, a woman who rose up against British colonial forces. She was captured and her court was heard in Bulawayo; she was then brought back to Harare to be executed in 1896. Many of the younger generation do not know about her. In the Angolan Pavilion they draw on the symbol of the Queen Anna Nzinga as an example in a giant mural by the Angolan artist Francisco Vidal. Think of the Queen of Sheba, Nehanda, and Nandi, the mother of the legendary Shaka, King of the Zulus—they were the most powerful people in Africa. What we are fed by western history is that the women in Africa are suppressed, and yet a woman, Nehanda Nyakasikana, led the first uprising in Zimbabwe.

Brandt: And yet is it possible to know this history by simply looking at the work?

 ChikukwaChiko’s work is called ‘everyday people’.  As much as we live today and might not know this history, our spirits are part of Nehanda.

Brandt: I have read that Okwui draws on ideas of how our ethnicities and borders inform our identity, and in some ways, so do our bodies and gender. Do you think that artists try to break free from these stereotypes and try to create something more complex?

Chikukwa: The western construct ‘African artist’ puts artists into one box. They are global citizens and are informed by so many travels around the globe. ‘African’ art is often a construct. For example here at the Biennale, we see how the different pavilions talk to each other and exchange ideas. Artists do too. It is a positive experience to build relationships in this way. I gave a talk at the Swiss Institute at Dorsoduro in Venice in 2013 and one of the Swiss artists came to do a residency in Zimbabwe. She had an exhibition at the National Gallery. Artists from Africa are hopping off at airports in major cities around the globe and we are no longer strangers in these cities.

Brandt: Why do you think it is crucial to represent work (and Zimbabwe) at the Venice Biennale?

Chikukwa: Art, artists and the experience of the Biennale build international bridges. The reason why we have came back this year is because we did not want to say hello and goodbye to the international audiences who come to the Biennale. Also, the visibility of Africa at the Biennale has been controversial, critical and overlooked for many years. When we mooted the idea of the Zimbabwean Pavilion in 2010, it was never to do it as a one-off pavilion—we wanted continuity. It remains our hope that we will be able to continue this Zimbabwean Pavilion project. This is the Olympics of the contemporary art world. This is for us as Zimbabweans to claim our piece; otherwise, others will do it for us with their own perspective. National pavilions are important for emerging countries to promote the local art, artists, and the country as a whole.

The African Pavilion that was co-curated by Fernando Alvim and Simon Njami in 2007 was very controversial but also important because it motivated us to do the Zimbabwean Pavilion in 2011. The idea of having a single pavilion to represent an entire continent when the Venice Biennale is traditionally based on the format of a pavilion per country was clearly problematic. We need to guard ourselves so as not to fall into these traps. Look at the controversy around the Kenyan Pavilion in 2011 and this year! Remember, Africa is a very fragile and sensitive continent—we have to think carefully about what we do. The Magiciens de la terre in 1989, curated by Jean-Hubert Martin had similar issues. Even going further back, to the 50s and 60s, with the exhibition called Harlem in my Mind, which too was a misrepresentation of Africa, was shut down. Most of the countries and people in Africa are very sensitive about these issues.

Going back to Africa Remix and Magiciens de la terre—these exhibitions were received with anger.  That is why Okwui Enwezor, Simon Njami, Olu Oguibe, and Salah Hassan emerged and questioned the validity of Jean-Hubert Martin for putting up that kind of exhibition. Can we have a European Remix or a European Pavilion and if so who should be included and excluded in this European Pavilion?

Brandt: Going back to representation, and the issues raised with Jean-Hubert Martin’s exhibitionhow do we move forward from that?

Chikukwa: The key is also in language, embracing the richness of different languages in Africa, and in collaboration. So that when the artist is inside, he or she is not in-between language, which can create dangerous missing links. Most of the British descendants in Zimbabwe don’t speak Shona-Ndebele.

In any country there is a dominant group, but remember the programme of divide and rule by the colonialists. The colonial setup was made to divide people—in Harare; the northern suburbs were the white suburbs. There was Arcadia, the Indian suburbs, and then the townships, which is near the industrial area. Children from the townships breathe the bad air from the industries. When those from the townships go to work, they are facing the sun, and when they walk home they face the sun. After 6 o’clock you were not allowed to be in certain areas.

Brandt: How is it possible not to be angry at these injustices? And how does one move towards more reconciliatory approaches?

Chikukwa: It’s not easy, especially as to how Africa’s heritage was looted during the colonial era and the colonial traumas that the continent went through. I have an essay about how African objects were taken during this period. I call these European institutions ‘houses of stolen goods’. Colonial laws like the witchcraft suppression act were employed to justify taking these works. For example, the British will never return the Elgin marbles to the Greeks. It is a dark past. My father fought for the British Empire and so did my grandfather—they both were given only ten pounds. My father was taken by force from a village in his early twenties and then crossed over Tanzania, Burma, and all those places. He was part of the occupying forces in Japan during Hiroshima. He died a poor man. The whites were given money for investment—there is nothing ‘common’ about the Commonwealth. Some groups remain more powerful, and others less. London was built on African labour and blood. Similarly, much of America was built on slavery. African-American literature was not available in Zimbabwe during the colonial period. It came now after independence and opened our eyes to these bigger links. The axe that cuts the tree can easily forget, but the tree does not forget. The pain will live in Africa for a very long time. The trauma remains there and keeps coming back. However it is important that we now can tell our own stories for in the past our story was always told by others.

I collaborated with the Imperial War Museum in London on a project called African Heroes, where I interviewed Africans who fought for European forces in World War II. The museum acknowledged that there is a need to get the other voice and it is the story about the African Heroes and many other colonised countries. If you, especially as a white African of European descent want to tell stories from Africa, collaboration is key. People’s histories are important and it remains my hope that telling one’s story is important and it should be given an opportunity without limitations as it was in the colonial days. We no longer want to be passengers on our own ship.

Artist Tafadzwa Gwetai and curator Raphael Chikukwa, Venice, 2015 Photograph by Nicola Brandt

Artist Tafadzwa Gwetai and curator Raphael Chikukwa, Venice, 2015
Photograph by Nicola Brandt

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