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Issue 218

Kresiah Mukwazhi Gives Sex Workers a Voice

At Jan Kaps, Cologne, the artist highlights the economic precarity of sex workers and the movements encouraging positive change

BY Noemi Smolik in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 02 MAR 21

Certain images, once seen, remain seared on our minds forever. Such is the case with Harare-based artist Kresiah Mukwazhi’s excellent film Thirst (all works 2020), currently screening as part of her first European exhibition, ‘Mukando’, at Jan Kaps. On a chair set against a leopard-print curtain sits a woman, empty bottles strewn at her feet, framed by lengths of the bright-pink fabric often used to decorate rooms in Zimbabwe. Her black dress and red jacket contrast starkly with her neon-blue wig. Her cheap artificial hair recalls the lurid hues of the wigs worn by women in Kenneth Gyang’s prize-winning film Òlòtūré (2019), about the trafficking of Nigerian women and girls to Europe, where they are forced to live in abject conditions and earn money as sex workers for gangs of men. The disturbing intensity of Gyang’s film resonates in Thirst. The woman we see is played by the artist herself. Wearing white gloves, she fidgets with the empty bottles, with bundles of Zimbabwe’s hyperinflated currency and with a glittering pompom that she brandishes threateningly one moment before fondling it lewdly the next. In the space of just two minutes, Mukwazhi’s video addresses some of the key issues faced by enforced sex workers: alcoholism, corruption and split personality.

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Kresiah Mukwazhi, Kwadzinorohwa matumbu ndikokwadzinomhanyira and Choices became Chains, 2020, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Jan Kaps, Cologne

In her practice, Mukwazhi draws on her conversations with Zimbabwean sex workers, who frequently operate in humiliating, exploitative and violent conditions. For this exhibition, the artist interviewed inhabitants of Hopley Farm Settlement, a Harare neighbourhood that offers shelter to those who lost their homes during Operation Murambatsvina: a 2005 Zimbabwean government slum-clearance programme that made more than 700,000 people homeless overnight. Many of the dispossessed ended up living in poverty at Hopley Farm and working in the sex trade.

Elsewhere in the gallery hang five large textile collages, in which the artist has sewn and glued together fabrics – some of which previously belonged to sex workers – and then painted over them. Mostly Indian, the fabrics are brightly coloured, cheap, shabby, often see-through and decorated with lace, sequins or leopard print. Visibly used and neglected, these are rags with stories to tell. In Not Everything that Glitters Is Gold, a woman places a purple hand with long, gold-sequin nails between her widespread legs, as if she’s masturbating. Choices became Chains features a leopard-print clad figure weighed down by a large chain and, above, a series of dates alongside which the word ‘YES’ has been written several times on a separate piece of fabric. Hung in the middle of the room, the work also serves as a projector screen for Please Tip Your Dancers, a short film in which gold coins are thrown into a container shaped like a high-heeled shoe as a reference to the economic precarity of women who perform in nightclubs and have to rely on tips to supplement their low wages.

Kresiah Mukwazhi, Please Tip Your Dancers, 2020, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Jan Kaps, Cologne

While Mukwazhi’s works criticise the conditions in which sex workers are forced to operate, she never stigmatizes the women themselves. Rather, she looks to highlight their plight and to bring attention to those movements encouraging positive change in Zimbabwe. Recently, for instance, several sex workers from Hopley Farm founded Mukando, a group offering mutual financial support, which Mukwazhi spotlights by using its name as the title for her show. ‘This exhibition’, states the press release, ‘is a theatre of women who are more than physical barometers of the toxicity of a system; women who are fierce protectors of all they hold dear, breaking down walls and surviving at all costs.’ I couldn’t agree more.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Kresiah Mukwazhi, 'Mukando' runs at Jan Kaps, Cologne, until 13 March 2021 

Main image: Kresiah Mukwazhi, Kwadzinorohwa matumbu ndikokwadzinomhanyira, (detail), 2020, fabrics, petticoat, cotton, sequin, satin, paint, acrylic, puff paint, fabric dyes, 218 × 245 cm.  Courtesy: the artist and Jan Kaps, Cologne

Noemi Smolik is a critic based in Bonn, Germany, and Prague, Czech Republic.