All art, worthy of the name, is subversive, subversive of civil society, of civilization.
– Stanley Diamond
Plato revealed himself in Republic (c. 375 BC) when the poets are banished from the idyllic city. He reveals himself in his thinking of the Artist as dangerous to the establishment and worth removing. While Plato saw the knowledge of the Artist as subpar to that of God, their exile gives away his awareness that the Artist sees too much. “They see too much because that is all they desire to do.”More outwardly, Plato saw Artists as imitators; tricksters that simply rearrange the concepts and realities created by God. However, in our more secular world, we now understand that while the Artist borrows and imitates, they then reconfigure, interpret, and create from what has been taken in order to form new images, and in some cases, reveal new truths.
The history of art as subversive may be as old as the history of art itself. The hidden details and messages within the works of Leonardo Da Vinci or Michelangelo are impossible to ignore. Latin American Church walls painted by enslaved peoples hold hints of once closely held beliefs erased by their colonizers. Andy Warhol’s use of iconography not only referred to the status quo of popular culture but also the hidden realities of a gay man in the 80s. It is through subversion, that the artist may reveal that which falls within the cracks between the collective and the establishment.
While our Greek ancestors focused on the poet, we now have an endless array of content, material, narratives, aesthetics, and mediums from which to choose and discuss. It is through the careful selection of these by the Artist that the subversive act begins. Every material, every shape, and every color has truth and meaning that seeks to be disclosed. For artists, Kudzanai Chiurai, Roberto Diago, and Bonolo Kavula the truth lies within the materials and images they create. Each unique to their specific narratives and contexts, their work is often subtle and in other instances, rather direct.
Bonolo Kavula uses carefully chosen pre-existing textiles that refer to specific instances, whether personal or cultural, to reconfigure them into delicate new shapes that play with semiotics. Cut into identical small circles that structurally and graphically hang on delicate strings, she creates her works through repetition and design. Kudzanai Chiurai’s drawings refer to cultural and political realities present in Zimbabwe while confronting the structural establishment that he observes. Referring to both the body and concepts of power, his expressive drawings reveal truths that dangerously dangle between both. Roberto Diago refers to the jarring reality of his blackness in a racist Latin American context through minimalistic material and aesthetic choices that refer to a lineal ancestry. Often using found materials, his work reveals what others seek to hide.
It is through the selection of materials, imagery, and narrative that these artists reinterpret to create and cease to be copyists as alluded to by Plato. While some Artists are still pushed out into the periphery, the contemporary artist is inherently a subversive one and encouraged to be so. However, it is the job of the collective, the rest of the city dwellers in the contemporary metropolis, to find the underlining meanings within the artwork. To read every symbol and interpret once more what the Artist has created. Subversion in Art is only successful when we engage in the act of looking and Chiurai, Diago, and Kavula offer us this opportunity.
Kudzanai Chiurai (b. 1981 in Harare, ZW) is a multi-disciplinary artist working in photography, drawing, film, painting, and sculpture. His practice is largely focused on cycles of political, economic, and social strife present in post-colonial societies. Combining expressionist gestures with images and texts from popular culture, the artist tackles pressing social issues, such as xenophobia, exile, displacement, inequality, as well as the continent’s emancipation.
Roberto Diago (b. 1971 in La Habana, CU) is a contemporary artist who, influenced by his own past, confronts the Cuban official racial narrative, rewriting history to include the slavery and shame the country has tried to forget. Diago’s practice has been marked by his use of reclaimed materials like cement, wood, and fabric, among others. With these, he looks to highlight the harsh realities inherited from slavery and the marginality they still experience within Cuba.
Bonolo Kavula (b. 1992 in Kimberley, ZA) is a contemporary artist working predominantly in print media and textile-based sculpture. Kavula incorporates video and installation in her practice using found objects to explore the concept of ‘obfuscation’: darkening and obscuring the sight of something. In her work, Kavula looks for stillness through repetition and the visual presentation of her delicate abstract work.