14.09.19 – 19.10.19
Street Slang and Guerilla Tactics:
Gareth Nyandoro’s Kuchekacheka
BY RUTH SIMBAO AND MASIMBA HWATI
All over the world there is so much happening on the street.
Gareth Nyandoro (2016)
Gareth Nyandoro’s large paper-based works are often displayed on the pristine walls of white cube galleries. At times the bustle of the street scenes or marketplaces that he portrays are contained by frames, but other times the works are deliberately frayed at the edges, or appear to slide down the wall and spill onto the floor. This encroachment of his paper-based works into the three-dimensional space of viewers—particularly the space in which viewers usually stand to scrutinize two-dimensional artworks—reflects the ways in which informal business in Zimbabwe spills onto the street, as a fragile economy demands entrepreneurial agility. Nyandoro’s use of materials and his hanging technique that allows works to slip off the wall, converge with his portrayals of everyday street life in the context of economic slide.
ZIMBABWE’S ‘KUKIYA-KIYA ECONOMY’
Due to hyperinflation and recession, previous ways of making ends meet are suspended, and Zimbabweans are forced to wander down new paths in a “‘zigzag’ search for opportunity in the hardened face of reality.” Referred to by some as kukiya-kiya—that is, to resort to “strenuous or difficult activity with an eye to fulfilling basic needs”—this agile economic logic can range from the buying and selling of legal or contraband goods, to the act of ordering/hording goods (kuhodha) or engagement in fraudulent deals. The Minister of Finance who served from 2009 to 2013, was nicknamed Tendai ‘kiya-kiya’ Biti by some and Mr Kiya Kiya by others, revealing both negative and positive translations of kiya-kiya—that is, a crooked dealer or a resourceful Mr. Fix It.
Importantly, moralistic notions of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ associated with hierarchical divisions between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ are turned topsy-turvy in a ‘kukiya-kiya economy’. In Nyandoro’s representations of the spilling of various occupations onto the street, he draws from stories of university graduates who become street vendors; touts (mahwindi) who sometimes earn more than teachers, and stylish sellers of mealies (corn) who resist stereotypes of poverty, revealing the ways in which the values usually associated with particular professions are in certain situations rendered obsolete.
SHIFTING LINGO AND REDUPLICATION
On the streets of many African cities—Harare, Johannesburg, Maputo, Lusaka, Gaborone or Luanda—the flexibility and ingenuity of the informal economy is manifested in the suppleness of ever-changing lingo on the street. New forms of slang involving code switching, code mixing and patterns of redoubling have developed alongside Zimbabwe’s shifting economy. Shona and English words are expressively mixed together to both reveal and confront oppressive circumstances and ongoing struggles to survive. For example, the slang word
zvakapressa alludes to the pressing down action of a difficult situation, and the phrase ndiri patight suggests that ‘I am in a tight spot’ . When people say they have hitched a ride in a Mitsubhutsu, they play on the words Mitsubishi and bhutsu (the Shonalized word for boots or shoes) to convey the reality that many people walk to work because they cannot afford public transport.
An increase in reduplication—the morphological device that expresses frequency, continuation or a heightened sense of intensity by repeating parts of a word such as kiya- kiya—articulates an increase in improvisation, which refers both to the sense of managing (‘making do’ in a tight spot) and to the sense of being creative and inventive. This increase of reduplication in street slang suggests a manifestation of urgency in a context of precariousness. Economic hardship has forced many Zimbabweans into diaspora, and those who remain sometimes speak disparagingly of diasporans who end up doing rese-rese, that is, any job available no matter how degrading it might be.
A number of the titles of Nyandoro’s works draw from street slang, at times including patterns of redoubling, such as the work he exhibited at the 2015 Venice Biennale titled Mushika-shika Wavanhu (2014). Importantly, redoubling registers a shift in meaning: kiya-kiya, for example, is far more evocative and open to poetic interpretation than the word kiya (slang for key) from which it is derived. Significantly revealing the impetus behind these shifts in language, Nyandoro has deployed redoubling in his own way in order to develop a new word— kuchekacheka—that describes his unique artistic technique.
Kuchekacheka alludes to Nyandoro’s training as a printmaker in Zimbabwe. While the word kucheka means ‘to cut’ (an action associated with many forms of printmaking), kuchekacheka employs the reduplication process in a way that expands this word beyond the simple act of cutting. Inventively, this word alludes to the lingo of the Harare streets as well as the logic of recycling that feeds into ways of making a living (often in the street) in a ‘kukiya-kiya economy’. More than just reflecting the action of cutting into paper, Nyandoro’s kuchekacheka is about reusing materials, and in doing so it is about redefining meaning; reinventing what it means to be, to survive and to thrive.
In the kuchekacheka process, paper is treated as a piece of lino, a plate or a woodblock and is sliced with a blade. However, instead of producing a printed impression from the remaining image and discarding the fragments that have been cut out, the pieces of paper ‘waste’ are returned to the artwork as part of a process of gluing, staining and layering. The very act of naming this technique becomes part of the improvisational process, as naming and making— renaming and remaking—are fundamentally entangled in the shifts of street slang, the slide of the economy, and the inventive logic of ‘making do’.
Despite surface-level political shifts since the 2017 “coup d’état that was not a coup,” little has changed in terms of Zimbabwe’s economic crisis, and the inflation rate remains exorbitant. Zimbabwe’s inflation rate is currently the second highest in the world, being only second to the inflation rate of Venezuela. Since the reintroduction of the Zimbabwean dollar, the country has “suspended calculation and publication of annual inflation rates until February 2020.” Further economic decline is expected, and the majority of ordinary
Zimbabweans find themselves trapped within the country. In July 2019, the Zimbabwean government announced that it had run out of foreign currency to acquire the paper needed to make passports. The registry office, which has a backlog of about 280 000 applications for passports, has declared that the earliest batch of passports would only be printed in the year 2020.
Despite this apparent helplessness though, Zimbabweans continue to demonstrate an extraordinary resilience, which is hinted at in the perpetual cutting, rubbing and pasting of Nyandoro’s working process. Notions of pain and healing are suggestively mashed together as he scars the surface of the paper and rubs ink into the cuts to create marks that are saturated with ink. This process is reminiscent of the redemptive process of nyora or scarification. Nyora incisions are both curative and preventive. This process of healing involves cutting marks on parts of the body and rubbing medicinal portions into the cuts for healing and cleansing purposes.
As Nyandoro’s artistic process seems to reveal the troubled urban situation in Harare, it also registers and projects an elusive yet possible state of healing and repair that many Zimbabweans tenaciously aspire to.