Por­traits of the fall

Zimbabwe’s end-of-era art

Sunday Times - - Insight - By CLAIRE KEETON Five Bhobh: Paint­ing at the End of an Era is at the Zeitz Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art Africa, Silo Dis­trict, South Arm Road, V&A Water­front, Cape Town, un­til March 31 2019

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.

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