Portraits of the fall
Zimbabwe’s end-of-era art
Sprawled on a chessboard with its legs in the air, head lolling off the edge of the table, the rooster in Richard Mudariki’s painting The Passover symbolises the demise of Zimbabwe’s ruling party under former president Robert Mugabe, who sits martyred behind it. Now that Mugabe is gone, will Zimbabwe rise again like a phoenix, the troubled years of the rooster over? Inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, Mudariki’s painting is the centrepiece of a new exhibition at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town titled Five Bhobh — Painting at the End of an Era, in which 29 Zimbabwean artists contemplate the past, the future and their own vulnerability.
Five Bhobh curator Tandazani Dhlakama says Five Bhobh is an everyday metaphor that fits a nation at the beginning of a journey that may be a rocky ride. The minibus is Zimbabwe, the artists are the passengers.
“Five Bhobh is the cost of an average taxi fare in Zimbabwe, which the driver takes when he is ready to go, and the engine is roaring. The passengers have paid and hope the driver will take them where they want to go.
“The exhibition is about how the artists have captured this moment in history, the anticipation, the angst and the hope, no matter who you are or what party you support.”
Mugabe had just been ousted from power when Dhlakama and her advisory board, including curators from prominent Zimbabwe galleries, started conceptualising the exhibition. The change in guard during the creation of the exhibition infused it with added tension.
For example, one of three artists in residence for about six weeks ahead of the exhibition, Kufa Makwavarara, would add elements to his piece as the headlines changed, including bullet holes in pots when soldiers shot at protesters.
The 33-year-old Mudariki, another of the resident artists, produced a massive piece for the show called Patriotic Stereo Tape. When you walk towards it, the Zimbabwean national anthem starts to play in Shona and Ndebele, and the question arises: who is in the choir now? Old cassette tapes spool out, asking: is the leadership going to fast forward, or rewind and replay what’s gone before?
“I grew up in the ’90s with cassette tapes of Tupac and a Walkman,” said Mudariki.
The huge piece, on the third-floor gallery at Zeitz MOCAA, would not have fitted into his narrow, skylit studio in Woodstock where he normally works. Here the Z$400 note he received for his first sale 10 years ago is framed. It was worthless within weeks due to the crash of Zimbabwe’s currency.
Five Bhobh is mostly about painting, said Dhlakama.
“This show is using a broad definition of painting: any pigment on any surface, manipulated in any way. We chose artists who were pertinent to the sociopolitical climate but also those who were questioning the boundaries of painting.”
There are canvasses slashed to ribbons with a knife, pieces composed of silicone and artificial hair, blankets decorated with lace doilies.
Doreen Sibanda, executive director of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, said: “Artists in Zimbabwe have improvised for years because of lack of access to traditional art materials. They have recycled anything and everything in a creative spirit and expanded the boundaries of painting.”
One 3-D composition by Kresiah Mukwazhi, composed of dirty brassieres in reds, pinks and skin tones, hangs from the roof. It is like an unwieldy punchbag, challenging the objectification of women, sexual violence and discrimination. Mukwazhi was doing research by working in a Harare bar frequented by sex workers when she made this piece. Another, called Send Me Your Nudes, is made of tattered petticoats.
A major theme of many works is land. Dhlakama said: “Land has always been contested, more so today. Land has different meanings and histories for everybody and is a catalyst for politics. For some it is about the seizure of tribal trust lands, people being forcibly moved on to barren land; for others it is about the land redistribution programme in the early 2000s.”
Cryptic images by Berry Bickle, with inscriptions over paintings of the Victoria Falls, challenge the colonial history that explorer David Livingstone “discovered” the falls.
The impact of poverty is captured in clashing colours and chaos by the brush of Duncan Wylie, whose piece reflects the devastation following forced removals in 2006 to “restore order” in Harare.
Cosmos Shiridzinomwa has tackled the theme of politics fists first. His painting of a hospital ward, with dead and dying patients and an exhausted doctor, symbolises Zimbabwe in crisis at the height of hyperinflation.
Another of his stark images is titled Party of Crooks, with twisted chairs composed of snakes. The Last Moments, or Mugabe’s Closet, shows a tattered, empty coat hanging alone from a rail.
“Is the closet door about to be slammed shut or will it remain open for transparency?” Dhlakama asks.
Many of these artists have experienced instability as Zimbabweans and are part of the diaspora in places that include Joburg, Cape Town, London and Miami.
Mudariki travelled with fellow artist Wallen Mapondera to Cape Town in 2008 when the Zimbabwe dollar collapsed. They arrived at the height of xenophobic violence and had to take refuge in a house for migrants.
“Sometimes it is easier to be patriotic in another country than when you are at home,” he said. Patriotism and choice are themes also explored by artist Rashid Jogee, who was conscripted into Zimbabwe’s pre-independence army. He reflects on how this affected him through a spiritual prism.
Alongside this is a space dedicated to female artists. “Some may view a section dedicated to women artists as regressive,” Dhlakama said, “However, it was important to include this section as a provocation to the local Zimbabwean art scene, which is still very patriarchal.”
Gillian Rosselli's work falls under the theme of memory, with pieces from a visual diary she made after a break-in at her home outside Harare. Rosselli lost her sight for 10 days after her face was bashed in, and painting proved cathartic.
She loves to walk around the city, which gave rise to another painting, Colonial Cemetery, a graveyard where people live, the dead and the living rendered in bold blacks and reds.
“I was drawing on Zimbabwe’s colonial past and exploring the concept of race,” said Rosselli. “Even in death, the races do not mix.”
Admire Kamudzengerere explores race and identity through a video installation in which he paints his own face into a rigid mask.
“For centuries migrants have been putting on masks to be acceptable,” said Dhlakama. About 4-million Zimbabweans have left the country since 2001, many of them moving to SA.
“People say: ‘My son is in the diaspora in Canada, or Australia, or SA,’ like he is in the next village,” Dhlakama said.
Not all the personal reflections in the exhibition are painful, however. There is also space for nostalgia. Looking at a portrait of two girls in their Sunday best, Dhlakama said: “That could be a picture of me — that pose, those shoes and dress, about to go to town.”
Zimbabwean artists have mentored each other for generations. Helen Lieros of Gallery Delta in Harare assisted many of the Five Bhobh artists, who speak warmly about her, said Dhlakama. Successful artists like Kamudzengerere have expanded their home studios to make room for young artists to work.
“For the past eight years we have been taking painters to Venice, fairs and exhibitions around the world,” said Sibanda. “Five Bhobh gives an understanding of the depths from which we draw. This is a thrilling platform to show the spectrum of painting in Zimbabwe.”
‘The Last Moments, or Mugabe’s Closet’ by Cosmos Shiridzinomwa
END OF AN ERA ‘The Passover‘, left, and ‘The new farmer and his wife’ by Richard Mudariki are part of an exhibition by 29 Zimbabwean artists in which they contemplate subjects such as the post-Mugabe future and the land issue.