By EMMA RIVA October 11, 2023
Not every artist could pull off the lofty theology of Akudzwe Elsie Chiwa’s Divinity/Femininity—let alone pull it off as their first show in the United States. Chiwa, originally from a small asbestos mining town near Masvingo, Zimbabwe, created a sweeping catalogue of work out of velvet, hair, and vinyl on view at 937 Gallery in downtown Pittsburgh. The exhibition is Chiwa’s work and New York-based curator Dominique Seneca’s vision brought together by artist and curator Tara Fay Coleman, since Chiwa and Seneca met at Coleman’s solo show at here gallery. Chiwa (who uses she/they pronouns) came to Pittsburgh with their partner and connected with Seneca over a shared interest in feminism and spirituality. “Akudzwe said right off the bat that she was a feminist artist,” Seneca said. “That was really unusual to me, since not a lot of people declare that so upfront.”
It was Seneca’s first independent curation project, but she was so taken with Chiwa that she went for it, with help from Coleman, a close friend and creative collaborator. The resulting show, Divinity/Femininity was borne from two years of Chiwa’s spiritual struggle with a masculine, Christian God and their attempts to reconcile their own culture and beliefs with the harsh binary of the western world. Divinity/Femininity is a spiritual struggle and a new pantheon. But lest you think Chiwa’s personal theology is a judgmental one, her collaborator Seneca is a Catholic who sees God as a capital-H Him. Social commentary shows are, for better or for worse, a dime a dozen in the art world, and what sets Chiwa and Seneca’s efforts apart is the nuance and neutrality they approach their concept with. The idea of the “divine feminine” often veers into the same sort of binary it’s trying to combat, think Ursula K. Leguin’s criticism of a “cult of women’s knowledge […] women’s deep irrational wisdom, women’s instinctive knowledge of Nature, and so on. All that all too often merely reinforces the masculinist idea of women as primitive and inferior.” Seneca and Chiwa worked together to create something that doesn’t simply replace one fetishism with another, but rather uses art’s universal power to provoke thought, emotion, and reflection.
Likewise, there is a certain fetishism among western viewers of African religion, African art, and African people as being part of some sort of matriarchal utopia. It’s as exoticizing to pretend as if Africa fits into a neat, western progressive lense of good and bad. Chiwa wants to blur the lines between art objects as decorative pieces for viewing and art objects for ritual purposes, since westerners so often see African art as historical objects to gawk at. “I put my intention and my story into my art. I want to make you question what you know about yourself. That, for me, is as important as people intellectually understanding it,” she said. She resists any sort of absolutist thinking about good and bad, male and female, order and chaos—she once proclaimed to me: “I never want to be put in a box. Even when I’m dead, don’t put my body inside of a box!”
I could fill an entire piece with quotations from Chiwa herself. But her work has its own voice. In her hands, fabric is like paint. Part of what makes her body of work so fascinating is that she takes the materials of everyday life and In Ndakuwona Mwanagu (I Have Seen You My Child) (2022), the plush velvet of a mattress cushion is interspersed with torn up scraps, bringing to mind an unmade bed. One of the materials of that particular piece is “memory foam,” which is of course just a mattress. But a big takeaway from Chiwa’s show is how we leave impressions of our beliefs and values in everything we see, touch, and engage with. The whole world is a sort of memory foam and fabric the site of deepest memories. There’s a tender, intimate quality to Ndakuwona Mwanagu (I Have Seen You My Child)’s rumpled fabric. Much of Chiwa’s work draws on the idea of “embodied knowledge,” that there are things in the world that rather than writing down or analyzing, we know intrinsically. Chiwa is more concerned with the questions that arise in people when they look at her fabric and braid pieces than whether they understand intellectually the Shona language title or her own. Those impressions in viewers’ personal memory foams are what can spur that research within them.
In Katipo, Nyami Nyami’s Wife (2022), braided hair and fabric takes on the quality of water to represent a Zimbabwean myth about a river dragon or serpent, Nyami Nyami, and his wife, Katipo. Katipo is often sidelined in the story, and Nyami Nyami an image of masculine power. But, as Chiwa notes, “It’s assumed to be masculine, but how do we know? Have you looked down a dragon’s pants? I haven’t!” Katipo, Nyami Nyami’s Wife leans into the flowing, soft quality of water without sacrificing the rage and power that come from the oceans and rivers. Soft pinks and iridescent black flow into each other. The velvet shimmers and a material from Cape Town that Chiwa calls “mermaid fabric” glows and sparkles. Looking at her artwork gives a new definition to something being “moving”---the colors actually undulate in changing light.
One element of the exhibition was a spoken performance in which Chiwa “activated” one of the artworks, In The Beginning (2023), a centerpiece of hanging beads and shells. The performance involved a group of black women writing intentions on a piece of paperTogether with I Come In (2023), a “wingless angel” on six legs, and Praise be the great ngeke (2023), a hanging fabric work, Chiwa made her own holy trinity. “A lot of the things people fear are objects. From African perspective the sculptor is a god maker - if you are a god maker, what does this make you?”
On the day I spoke with Chiwa about the exhibition, it struck me that the entrance to 937 is right beside a Planned Parenthood. Nearby signs proclaim “YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO THIS TODAY. ASK ME ABOUT ABORTION PILL REVERSAL, “Blessed Virgin said War is a punishment for Sin,” and “…because they ripped open pregnant women (Amos 1:13).” The gaggle of protesters are a regular sight outside of this particular Planned Parenthood, but they make Chiwa’s point about male domination and female subjugation in Christianity for her. A figurine of a bloody fetus makes for a macabre entry point into Chiwa’s vision, but it provokes thought from the very start.
Seneca and Chiwa were not interested in the “girlboss” kind of feminism that replicates male power fantasies with female ones, but rather with a larger, more universal question of power itself. Something that stuck with me the most from my conversations with Chiwa was this anecdote: “In the western world, everything is a straight line. In Shona culture, we think in circles. There are no straight lines in nature,” she told me. It would be very easy to write an art-speak Mad Lib about Chiwa’s work’s political implications, the identity boxes she fits into, so on and so forth. But she triumphs in connecting the depths of her own pain and loss with the larger decolonial movement, and through that mixture of influences creating something entirely her own. “You’re you, you’re everyone, and you’re no one,” she said to me in one of our talks over coffee. A circle is non-hierarchical. It’s a sort of neutrality. “To me, and in the artwork, God is not all good or all evil,” she explained. “A curse isn’t necessarily a bad thing, a blessing isn’t necessarily a good thing. A blessing in the hands of a sadistic person is a curse to someone else, and a curse in the hands of a radical humanist can be a blessing to someone else.”
Writing about Chiwa’s work required me to push myself to articulate things difficult to put into words. Shona, Chiwa’s own first language, has no “he” or “she.” Jira reNdangariro (Shroud of Remembrance) (2023) engages overtly with that loss of language and the inadequacies of English to express her thoughts. But what’s so refreshing about Chiwa and her artwork is that she’s not focused on answers or articulation. Divinity/Femininity is the opposite of a preachy, limousine liberalism art world circlejerk that offers an empty answer without really engaging with the questions. Questions are how the radical empathy Chiwa wants to produce gets put into practice. Rather than ending on a note of conclusion, a straight line, I want to end with questions. How do we honor the differences between men and women while providing resources for both? Is there a way to connect with the natural world again when we’ve desecrated so much of it? What power does each of us have, and how can we share it with others? In the end, what makes Chiwa’s conception of God radical is that it gives power rather than taking it away.
Divinity/Femininity is open through 11/19 at 937 Liberty Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA. WM
Emma Riva is an art writer, author, and curator based in Pittsburgh, PA. She serves as the managing editor of UP, an international online and print magazine covering street art, graffiti, fine arts, and their intersections in popular culture. She is also a masthead staff writer at Belt Magazine and a contributor to Bunker Review, Widewalls, Carnegie Magazine, and Rust Belt Girl. She published her first novel, Night Shift in Tamaqua, in 2021. More about her can be found on her website and Instagram.view all articles from this author