In his inaugural project as filmmaker, Mpumelelo Mcata (guitarist of the South African alt-rock group, BLK JKS) steps away from the familiar territory of making music to present us Black President. The film revolves around the Zimbabwean born artist Kudzanai Chiurai whose work divides opinion.
The film is a bold project. What Black President achieves is to document the life of an artist in real time. It has managed in fact, to allow the artist to speak; and in so doing it gives us the rare opportunity of getting a clearer idea of what goes on in his mind – certainly beyond the confines and lofty language of art history and interpretation.
As its central theme, the film has Chiurai’s State of the Nation exhibition. (In it, Chiurai invents a state and gives it a revolutionary and female leader played by the singer Zaki Ibrahim.)
In a radio interview before the exhibition, Chiurai speaks of how the political is in everything, how we cannot avoid it and why it is necessary to reflect this particularly in his own work. “You don’t want to be a generation that is forgotten,” he says, an obvious referencing of Fanon’s admonition that “each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.”
Early in the film Chiurai paints a mural along the entrance wall in the 12 Decades Art Hotel in Johannesburg’s fashionable Maboneng Precinct. The mural’s white and vulnerable woman, accompanied by (black?) balaclava-wearing men, is a powerful image.
Reactions to the mural vary, including some who think the image is disrespectful to white women and therefore in bad taste. The hotel, despite its professed artistic temperament, buckles. It issues a letter to Chiurai; it wants to respect its guests. Soon workers paints over Chiurai’s work.
Consider this incident in how recent exhibitions and works like Exhibit B and The Spear by the white artists Brett Bailey and Brett Murray were received inside (and outside) South Africa. The negative reaction to these bodies of work by predominantly black audiences, has generally been met with a certain kind of dismissive indignation – even in those instances where an attempt at explaining the context or relevance of the works has been made.
The protestors, for their part, have been painted as oversensitive and incapable of understanding the works. Chiurai’s mural experience therefore illustrates just how political art “censorship” in South Africa is.
Chuirai also comes under scrutiny from black audiences. Mcata films a young black man pushing Chiurai: “Kudzi…..whose Africa is that, where is it going, who consumes it? Explain to me how you came to that grotesque vision of ourselves, for whose pleasure?” The young man is clearly uncomfortable with Chiurai’s bleak vision of postcolonial politics; of political betrayal. Chiurai rebuttal is that “in most people’s lives you’ll probably be remembered for three things. The day you’re born, the day you start a revolution and the day you die.”
But there’s more to Chiurai’s conviction; he has a spiritual calling as a healer. This turns out to be something that is part and parcel of Chiurai’s lineage, a calling that you cannot deny if it is meant for you. We follow Chiurai back to Zimbabwe, his home country. Chiurai’s curatorial collaborator, Melisa Goba, tries in vain to explain what all of this (the calling) means to “The White Queen,” another central and symbolically used character in the film and some of Chiurai’s work, but some cultural divides are not so easily bridged.
Fortunately, spiritual callings seem to be something that has become susceptible to contemporary times. One need not abandon life as we know it in order to answer this calling. Seen in this light, Chiurai’s work takes on a significance that transcends the simple but complicated classification of political art and indeed the very act of being political. His artistic and spiritual callings become one and the same.
Of course, and despite all the high points of the film, it is not without faults. While it is apparent that Mcata is the director, the film itself is a collaborative project that derives much of its weight from presence of Chiurai as subject. There are moments when Chiurai is uncomfortable with this position—moments when the dialogue seems stagnant and the director is at a loss for words during his informal conversations with Chiurai. Compared with the exchanges between Chiurai and Goba in the early part of the film for example, Mcata comes off looking as if he is still figuring it out. However this is not necessarily a bad thing because in the greater scheme of things it does not deter from the film’s value. Perhaps then, it is precisely this that makes the film work as successfully as it does – an aid, to help the rest of us figure it out as well.
*Film Stills Copyright End Street Productions