In the mid-19th century, Scottish missionary, abolitionist and physician, David Livingstone, in his official role as “medical missionary” set out on an exploration of Africa, arriving in Cape Town, South Africa in 1841. By 1856, Livingstone had gone across the continent from west to east, arriving at the coastal region of Quelimane in what is present-day Mozambique. Livingstone has been positioned as a staunch abolitionist who believed in the dignity of Africans, the viability of commercial enterprises for the continent and the imposition of Christianity despite indigenous spiritual beliefs.
Currently showing at the LagosPhoto Festival, the photo series Men of Livingstone, is part of a larger series titled Genesis [Je n’isi isi] by Zimbawean-born artist and activist, Kudzanai Chiurai. It is a brief recount of the men that ventured with David Livingstone into unexplored territories in Central Africa – they included other Europeans seeking similar adventures and the porters and guides who bore the weight of their supplies. Slaves freed from the Arab slave traders also joined the Livingstone party and would later provide testimony to his character, his courteousness, kindness and an inflexible determination in his faith and purpose, and lastly his abilities as a leader of men and liberator.
These expeditions would change the trajectory of the social and economic foundations of the parts of Africa he explored. Leaving behind civilised vantage points from which to regenerate a continent, Livingstone envisioned a new colonial future that would flourish from the marriage of missionary gospel and commercial enterprise. His findings contained hitherto unknown details about the continent that led to European nations seizing African land in imperialistic zeal.
Through the series Men of Livingstone, Chiurai digs into the genesis of the problems of the postcolonial state, exploring the corruption of traditional African culture. The photographic series starts with stone reliefs that commemorate David Livingstone’s expedition into Africa. In a complex symbolic staging that references Livingstone’s championing of religion and commerce to ‘civilise’ the continent, Chiurai imagines an African future that the colonial project could never entertain: one which attempts to re-establish the connection between contemporary Africa and its rich past. Chiurai attempts to overturn the widespread notion of a singular perspective of history and that a white patriarch like Livingstone can save Africa and its people, denying the history of the continent. He also attempts to disrupt the kind of colonial future narrative preached and envisioned by Livingstone, and overturns his gospel with an alternative narrative, imagining an Afro-future that Livingstone could never have foreseen.
Chiurai is best known for his collection of mixed media works that address the social, political, and cultural issues in Zimbabwe. An exile from Zimbabwe (after producing an unflattering portrait of Robert Mugabe), he spent most of his later years in South Africa where he became the first black student to graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts from the University of Pretoria. Though known primarily as a painter, he is also a photographer, producer, editor, and designer.
Churai’s career began with paintings of landscapes and portraits but has over the years evolved to the point where he uses his art as a form of activism. His work is focused on tracing the trajectory of political, economic and social conditions in his homeland from colonialism to independence, and post-independence. He tackles the most pertinent issues facing his generation of southern Africans, that is corruption, xenophobia and displacement.
Chiurai who was born in 1981 in Harare has had multiple solo exhibitions with Goodman Gallery and exhibited at several notable museums around the world, including Museum of Modern Art, Victoria and Albert Museum amongst others. He was also listed on Forbes among “Thirteen Africans to Watch in 2013”. His short film, Iyeza, was screened at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
Men of Livingstone is exhibited as part of LagosPhoto Festival 2016 currently showing at Eko Hotel, Victoria Island Lagos. The photo festival will run till the 21st of November, 2016.