17 January 2013

Zimbabwe: Whabira's 'Kiss Kiss' a Masterpiece

book review

WHAT a lot of people do not realise, even within Zimbabwe itself, is that Zimbabwe has an abundance of creative capital. From the famous Shona sculptures to international music maestros such as Thomas Mapfumo and Oliver Mtukudzi. This weekend I found myself at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, this national institution is currently exhibiting work by emerging artist whose work explore the "Idea of Self", in particular the work of Central St Martin's College of Art and Design educated Visual Artist Dana Whabira, making her Zimbabwean debut.

If African art grew up, visited the galleries of London, Paris and Madrid and then came back to Africa. It might just turn out a bit like Whabira's Kiss Kiss. There's a sense of worldly maturity and an uncanny ability to dissect society's underbelly in how this piece of art is presented.

The title "Kiss Kiss" is taken from a collection of short stories by the Welsh writer Roald Dahl of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory fame. The installation that is on the east wing of the Gallery has 79 mannequins laid out together on a huge bed. At first glance the mannequins look normal, like the pretty type you find seducing you from a shop window.

However, on closer inspection the illusion sinks in, the mannequin's paint is peeling off as if it's seen better days. My Jungian mind, which likes to psycho analyse art takes the veneer peeling off as marriage been a false reality, exposed to reveal the shadow (Infidelity), which lies underneath some marriages.

It's as if the artist is digging deep into the crevices of the perfect marriage and then putting a magnifying glass to reveal flaws slowly taking over the perfection. As a television buff, when I looked at the mannequins, the thing that instantly came to me was 80s TV series V (V for Victory).

In V, the Aliens look like normal human beings but underneath the perfect porcelain skin, when peeled off is the dry, scaly skin of a lizard. Maybe V was a bad reference but "Kiss Kiss" shows how African society is constantly shape shifting itself into its "Idea of Self".

The "Idea of Self" in this instance is regressive to the perfect loving contemporary marriage. Zimbabwe, which over a century ago was a normal polygamous culture, had Western marriage ideals of one man for one woman imposed through colonisation. "Kiss Kiss" looks at marriage in post-modern Africa and how men have improvised extra-marital relationships into unofficial second marriages.

In Zimbabwean street slang these are called "small houses" the explanation is that the official wife is the "big house" and the mistress slash second wife is the "small house", confusing I know. I wonder, where a man who gets caught by the "big house" in this cheating triangle ends up, maybe in the "dog house". Kiss Kiss is a masterpiece in social commentary, a piece that looks at society from the inside out. Whabira's work is a diagnosis of Africa's schizophrenia (contemporary over tradition) symptoms that are breaking down the sacred fabric of marriage.

The artist brings a sense of humour to this very serious subject of "infidelity", which has become sort of normal. I asked a few Harare men (with their beer bellies puffed out) what they thought of Whabira's bold statement and they told me "My grandfather had six wives, why should I have one?" and " You are not a real man if you haven't got a small house".

The work forces the viewer to look into the mirror in the "I am starting with me" Michael Jackson type sensibility. I feel that works of art should play a role in making us question our society and Kiss Kiss achieves that.

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