Saturday, February 6th, 2010

Notes from…Harare, Zimbabwe

Masimba Hwati in his studio, Harare, Zimbabwe. Photo by Eugene Ulma
Masimba Hwati in his studio, Harare, Zimbabwe. Photo by Eugene Ulma

In November last year I was invited to visit Zimbabwe. Being neither a geographic adventurer by nature nor an African art specialist, the major drawcard, besides giving lectures and workshops at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, was to discover what contemporary art means in a country usually seen through the prism of political and economic crisis. I was looking to be surprised and challenged and was not disappointed.

At my very first meeting with a Zimbabwean colleague, Heeten Bhagat, a curator at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, I was asked: “How do you feel about the distinction between art and craft?”  I attempted to dismiss the question as not being pertinent in the context of contemporary art practice but was promptly advised: “Oh, you better be prepared to answer that, because it is a big issue in Zimbabwe.”

My experiences over the following weeks confirmed that and other “anomalies” to the occidental view of art. They also forced me to temper my critical agendas by absorbing and addressing the economical and historical realities of artists living in Zimbabwe.

While we can relate to the fact that the visual arts being perceived as elitist, the origins and operations of this elitism are very different. In Zimbabwe, art’s reputation suffers from having been originally sponsored and consumed primarily by whites compared with popular artforms like music and the performing arts. Ironically, however, this perceived elitism actually allows the visual arts to fly under the radar of government censorship, giving visual artists in Zimbabwe a freer hand in terms of political critique than many of their thespian and musical counterparts. What the censors “give” in freedom of expression, however, poverty takes away.

Struggling to support your practice financially and reaching broad audiences are the most common concerns for artists everywhere. In Zimbabwe, however, artists are not a marginalized minority but part of the disenfranchised majority. The whole country is in a state of having to fend for itself. The country has around 85% official unemployment, so the frictional jobs in sales and hospitality on which artists in the developed world commonly fall back on to subsidise their art practice are simply not there.

The domestic market for art is negligible, most of it dominated by diplomats and NGO workers who want “authentic Africana” to decorate their apartments. The only properly operating gallery representing contemporary artists, Gallery Delta, barely makes ends meet and relies on sponsored exhibitions to keep its doors open. Moreover, there is no art funding from the Ministry of Culture . At most exhibitions staged by the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, all the works are for sale!

Misheck Masamvu, Dirty Nest oil on canvas, dimensions not known, courtesy of the artist.
Misheck Masamvu, Dirty Nest oil on canvas, dimensions not known, courtesy of the artist.

In a Catch-22 situation, while artists cannot sell their work, they also cannot afford to “waste” materials on work that is not for sale. This means that work that is purely experimental or political is by and large out. Many artists are reduced by poverty to making tourist souvenirs. The “art versus craft” debate was not one of historical evolution or cultural debate so much as harsh economic imperatives.

During the question session of my lecture, I was asked “Do you think any foreign person has an ability and a right to judge what is and what is not good in art in Zimbabwe?”

I replied that, to the extent that it is part of the universal tradition and history of Visual Art, I or anyone can approach and understand it on that core universal level which transcends place and history. Otherwise how could we feel Venus de Milo, without being Ancient Greeks? By way of example I chose to speak about the works of Zimbabwean artists that I had encountered by the time of my lecture.

I first saw Misheck Masamvu’s paintings in the rough and tumble of a 50-artist strong group show at Gallery Delta. Their striking expressive power spoke loudly and clearly even if I had no context for knowing the painter or his world. Their passion and pathos were eloquent and unmistakeable.

The very fact of choosing painting as his medium is in some ways a form of defiance, because in Zimbabwe artists are expected to carve. He is uncompormising and angry in a country culturally averse to discord and violence. The titles of his works, for example Dirty Nest and Post Election Results, are unambiguously political. His figuration is a Molotov cocktail of folklore, sharp wit, insight and protest. Masamvu confidently takes on European painting on its own terms, having spent several years at the Kunstacademie in Munich. His colour, brushstrokes and composition are poised, creating a dynamic, tense equlibirium. Defiantly anti-exotic, he rejects entirely the illustrative approach to painting utilised by most of his contemporaries in anthems of pain and anger.

Misheck Masamvu, Post Election Results oil on canvas, dimensions not known, courtesy of the artist.
Misheck Masamvu, Post Election Results oil on canvas, dimensions not known, courtesy of the artist.

Another young Harare based artist who speaks cogently and eloquently about his time and place is Masimba Hwati. Like Masamvu, he breaks with market expectations. Hwati is a sculptor who negotiates his way out of traditional wood carving with  its utilitarian or ritual designations. In the mid-20th Century, white Rhodesians sponsored popular and market friendly Shona sculpture – highly polished serpentine or soap-stone carvings of mythical stylised African animals or such subjects as the mother and child, lovers, horses charging –beautiful, labour intensive apolitical work defying any sense of time or place.

Hwati works in found objects. ceramics and carvings in an evolving conversation between tradition and present reality. Implicitly conceptual, Hwati’s work is also meditative and poetic. It is rooted in Zimbabwe but it is driven by concerns and questions that are bigger than strictures of his quotidian survival. His major ongoing series of works is Shoes – hanging on the wall in a row at just above eye-level are shoes that Hwati has been “collecting” by methodical selection from people he has encountered over the years: traditional and modern, handmade and manufactured, sandals and boots, men’s, women’s and children’s shoes. The metaphor of worn and weathered shoes does not require an explanation. In this country, where people often have only one pair of shoes at a time, a pair of shoes given up to an artist is a pair of shoes that carries a palpable amount of living and survival. Like human hands, the leather speaks through the creases and as little as we know, we can all intuit the stories that they tell us.

These young Zimbabwean artists have not had the luxury of having grown beyond and away from the nexus between art and the immediacy of concerns of their fellow citizens. Moreover, understanding, the raw poetry of their work does not require some deconstructionist thesis in post-colonial aesthetics. What is it does require is heart – black, white, human, which is sometimes a surprisingly challenging standard for art in the developed world.