Monday, August 15th, 2011

Paris-Harare: Focus on Inner Vision

Report from… Harare, via Paris

Jeune Contemporain et Zimbabween at Pavé d’Orsay

May 9 to 21, 2011
48, rue de Lille
75007 Paris

Moffat Takadiwa, Circumcised Bombs, 2011. Metal, plastic, glass, dimensions variable. photo by Silver Simphor

Moffat Takadiwa, Circumcised Bombs, 2011. Metal, plastic, glass, dimensions variable. photo by Silver Simphor

Two shady blocks away from the Musée D’Orsay, Galerie Pavé d’Orsay played host this spring to a Parisian first: an exhibition of five emerging artists from Zimbabwe, all from Harare’s visionary First Floor Gallery.  “Jeune Contemporain et Zimbabween” was curated by Belorussia-born, Paris-based, Australian curator Valerie Kabov and Zimbabwean musician and cultural impresario Marcus Gora.  Judging by the mixture of paintings, prints and sculptures on display, Zimbabwean art looks to be developing an independent streak after years of colonial subjugation that can be characterized as a tinkering with high modernism.

Purging themselves of the old dichotomy of the raw versus the cooked, these artists are engaged in a re-contextualization of found objects. Their capacity to scavenge is borne of poverty and concomitant necessity. There is a sense of earthiness and a playful, DIY attitude to their sculptures and assemblages. The draftsmanship of the pictorial works could be called Art Brut coming in from the cold.

Wycliffe Mundopa’s paintings stitched onto the heels of leather shoes fuse a bricolage aesthetic with minimalist scrawl. His bright, thick ink monoprints and stenciled collages, on the other hand, look like 1950s Soviet book illustrations.  Brian Banda’s Empty Promises series of porcelain cups on board are also wonderful examples of a functionalist, spare minimalism, although his matching paintings of the same hanging cups do not hold together as well.

Zacharaha Magasa’s metal sculptures consisting of wires and ceramic bottles with intricately constructed globular torsos resemble mid career Lee Bontecou. The clear audience favorite, however, were Moffat Takadiwa‘s elongated totemic lamps fashioned from plastic bottles.  With ceremonial handles referencing traditional African motifs, ‘heads’ made of ceramic bulbs and bodies connected with tape or wire, they proffered a magisterial seriality when lined up by the dozen.   Terence Musekiwa’s complemented these with small works on a similar theme, with figureheads attached to household utensils such as screwdrivers.

These young artists, ranging between twenty and twenty-seven, the average age of art students in the west, are grappling to replicate developments in Western art since Cubism.  The results are outstanding in comparison to their relative youth: the urgent need to feed their families concentrates the mind and the hand, according to the curators.

The show steers away from traditional ethnographic concerns of western surveys of African art. While specifically African-influenced works in the show are probably the most compelling, there is also a sense that these young artists are moving away from particularism to more universal aesthetic concerns, to join the mass contemporary art market. With the stencil works and the cubist collages on newspaper especially, we take away the sense that Zimbabweian art is passing through a healthy phase of fragmentation and formal recontextualization of the subject  that the west passed through decades ago.

Looking at these pieces one finds that the prism of political developments is unavoidable. Zimbabwean’s passing to majority rule in the early 1980’s was more traumatic and bloody than South Africa’s and has resulted in political stalemate. The post-apartheid social landscape falls radically short of the democratic ideals that drove the revolution, with glaring economic inequalities between black and white citizens remaining.  Some of the painting’s witty references to work and manual labor contain a critique that is unmistakable even several decade’s on.

Brian Banda, Empty Promises, 2011. Acrylic on cardboard.  photo by Silver Simphor

Brian Banda, Empty Promises, 2011. Acrylic on cardboard. photo by Silver Simphor

Kabov is strident and idealistic in her denunciation of the ‘neo colonial’ attitudes she continues to encounter and the endemic lack of professionalism of the Zimbabwean art world. “There is much to be angry about when the National Gallery together with the EU mission, holds an exhibition asking young artists to respond to the history of the work of the EU in Zimbabwe, with a grand prize of $300.”

‘”The other gallery in Harare, Gallery Delta, has become a philanthropic trust living on donations,” Kabov explained to me. As a result, they are forced to seek sponsorship from local NGOs and Embassies, which in the past have resulted incongruously themed exhibitions such as the 2009 Berlin Wall competition, where young Zimbabwean artists are asked to make works responding to the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

After a similar appeal to the Spanish Embassy they ran a Don Quixote competition. “You can see how relevant all that is to Zimbabwean contemporary young artists, right?”

Kabov also confirmed my suspicions that Zimbabwean artists continue to grapple with the problem of ingrained expectations.  The demands of the European collectors skew their artistic development. But Kabov remains optimistic about the capacity of Zimbabwean artists to transcend the historical hindrances set in their paths. “The First Floor Gallery is the first in which Zimbabwean artists themselves are running things and have an agenda which is not designed to play up to sponsors or donors. Young artists can never get an idea of what it means to develop a body of work of their own or an independent vision if they constantly have to imagine what some ‘white person with money’ would like to see,” she says.  Art that looks like it is conforming to this pattern “is the first thing that we throw out the window. The artist has to focus on their inner vision and build from that. To look at their world and respond to that.”