Thursday, March 28, 2013

Creators, Contents and Contexts: A short introduction to the visual arts of Zimbabwe

This was a one hour short presentation of the visual arts sector in Zimbabwe prsented to an audience in Cape Town, South Africa.  Its gave general overview of the art forms in the country, with a specail focus more Zimbabwean painting and sculpture.
Richard presenting this paper at AFAI (2011)
Introduction to Zimbabwe
This landlocked country in the southern part of the African continent, between the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers. South Africa borders it to the south, Botswana to the southwest, Zambia to the northwest and Mozambique to the east. The word Zimbabwe, translated from the Shona language means “large houses of stone”, with reference to the ancient Great Zimbabwe Stone Ruins in Masvingo, south of the country. In southern Africa, Great Zimbabwe forms part of the  more than 200 sites in which display the local architectural tradition of mortaless monumental granite walls. It is important to say that this site is a very symbolic site for Zimbabwe, thus it is a national heritage site that is protected by law. Images of this site  as well as some artifacts found there feature on national symbols, court of arms and flag. 
Map of Zimbabwe

Independence from British colonial rule was gained on 18 April 1980. The population of the country consists largely of a significant number of  black ethnic groups with the majority being of the Shona tribe and the Ndebele tribe being the second most populous ethnic group in the country. There is a minority of whites, mostly of  British ancestry.  The official languages are Shona, Ndebele and English.

The Arts Industry
The arts and culture industry in Zimbabwe is a creative and diverse one that encompasses a variety of art forms including theatre, dance, music, poetry, literature, the visual arts and film. This industry in is both a source of employment and entertainment.

Of the many art forms found in Zimbabwe, theatre/drama, combined with dance and music, are most popular. Possible reason for this maybe because the average Zimbabwean can relate to these art forms as it is a source of social commentary. Most drama or theatrical plays comment on pressing issues around HIV/AIDS, poverty, abuse, domestic issues and politics.

About a hundred theatre groups exist in Zimbabwe, representing a wide variety of forms of expression, depending with each group’s origin, language, place and audience. Most of these groups are found in Harare and Bulawayo and are part of a number of theatre companies such as Rooftops Promotions, Amakhosi, Reps Theatre among others. Plays in English are common, but sometimes they also include songs in local languages.

Creative writing is also another art form that exists in the Zimbabwean arts and culture industry. Zimbabwe is home to writers that are of international statue who have won prestigious awards such as the Commonwealth Writers Prize, the NOMA Awards, and the Pulitzer Prize. These include Charles Mungoshi, Yvonne Vera, Ignatius Mabasa, Chengerai Hove among others. The Zimbabwe Women Writers (ZWW) and the Budding Writers Association of Zimbabwe (BWAZ) are organizations that are helping shape young and upcoming writers through networking and workshops.

The visual arts are not as popular among the general populace as compared to theatre and other popular art forms. The visual arts, for example fine art painting and sculpture, are viewed by many as elitist, inaccessible and having no direct link to the common man’s life. This is however a misconception as the general populace is generally ignorant of the art form. The National Gallery of Zimbabwe, which has branches in Harare, Bulawayo and Mutare hosts a number of fine art exhibitions and workshops for local and international artists. A number of private art galleries such as Gallery Delta, Verandah Gallery and Richard Reine also exhibit artwork

Another area that is fast growing in the Zimbabwean arts industry is film. The Zimbabwe International Film Festival (ZIFF), which is in its 14th Edition this year and ran from the 30th of September to 7 October under the theme “Finding Common Ground” as well as the International Images Film Festival for Women (IIFF) are international festivals that showcase short films, feature films and documentaries. They also bring together film producers, directors, script-writers and performers/actors from around the world for workshops with the aim of sharing ideas and expertise to improve the industry.

In addition to these a number of local international festivals encompassing almost all of these art forms also take place on an annual basis. The most popular one is the prestigious Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA) that has been running in the capital city for a record 12 years. Its takes place around April to May. HIFA is now the largest cultural event in Zimbabwe and among the eight major festivals in Africa. It is a 6 day annual festival and workshop programme that showcases the very best of local, regional and international arts and culture in a comprehensive festival programme of theatre, dance, music, circus, street performance, spoken word and the  visual arts.

Visual Art Institutions

In this section l am going to concentrate on the most important art institutions that have made a great impact in the visual arts scene in Zimbabwe, that is, the National Gallery of Zimbabwe and Gallery Delta.

1. National Gallery of Zimbabwe
The National Gallery of Zimbabwe was officially opened on July 16, 1957 by Queen Elizabeth, the Queens Mother with an inaugural exhibition that included a mixture of original artworks by old European masters drawn from the collections of the Lourve in France, the National Galleries of England, Belgium and Holland.
The National Gallery is an institution established by an Act of Parliament and falls under the auspices of the Ministry Of Home Affairs. It is situated in a prime area of the city of Harare along Julius Nyerere Way. It also has branches other parts of the country, that is in Mutare and Bulawayo.

Frank McEwen was the first Director of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe. He was very instrumental in the development of local sculpture. He retired in 1973. Then Professor Brian Bradshaw took over the position in 1974 followed by Christopher Till in March 1980. Then from 1985, Professor Cyril Rogers was the director. Professor George Kahari was appointed to take up his post in October 1994 when Rogers retired in 1993. Professor Kahari was the Director of the National Gallery until the end of 2003. Mrs. Doreen Sibanda then took over as the Executive Director of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe from January 2004. Mrs. Doreen Sibanda therefore is the current Executive Director of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe.

The National Gallery’s mandate is to be the local, regional and international epicentre for the dynamic representation, presentation and conservation of Zimbabwe’s contemporary art and visual art heritage. It collects, preserves, exhibits and interprets artworks from the country and from other parts of the world.

The gallery is purpose build to host separate and interconnecting exhibitions. It represents the best of the respected traditions of Zimbabwean stone and metal sculpture as well as traditional and contemporary painting. Apart from this, it also seeks to present a wide spectrum of contemporary art occurring in Zimbabwe, the region and beyond.

2. Gallery Delta
Gallery Delta is a privately owned art gallery in Harare that was established 18 years later after the National Gallery on Zimbabwe in 1975 by artist Helen Lieros and her husband Derek Huggins in Manica Road (now Robert Mugabe Road) but latter on moved to Robert Paul’s Old House on 110 Livingstone Avenue in 1991. 
Opening Night at Gallery Delta 

The gallery (which has recently become the Gallery Delta Foundation for Art and Humanities) has made a significant contribution to the development of art, particularly in respect of contemporary painting in Harare and in the country general. Exhibitions of paintings and mixed media sculpture are held regularly at the gallery. It promotes artists and artworks that are seen to be the best in the country.
According the Derek Huggins, the aim of setting up the gallery was initially to provide exhibition space for the encouragement, support and promotion of painters and their work as an alternative to the popularity of Shona stone sculpture that had dominated the local art scene. It was also meant to prove wrong notions that black artists could not paint.
Gallery Delta has over the years established itself as an important art institution that provides exhibition space for the encouragement, support and promotion of the Zimbabwe’s visual arts, particularly painting and serves the needs of Zimbabwean artist painters. Apart from displaying artworks, it also hosts many other events involving book readings, music concerts, dance and theoretical acts.

The Visual Arts of Zimbabwe
Historically, in Zimbabwe, the visual arts stretch back to thousands of years, starting from the Late Stone Age to the present. The earliest manifestations of a visual culture in Zimbabwe are seen in the architecture, rock painting and the Great Zimbabwe soapstone birds. Whilst the visual arts today do not have any direct aesthetic origins within historic aspects of visual expression, they are however important in giving an insight about the cultural conceptualization of the society that made it.

The earliest recorded tradition of painting in Zimbabwe began in the nineteenth century with Victorian travelers and explorers who did not consider themselves as artist painters. Their paintings were largely pictorial and topographic recordings of their experiences in Africa. These travelers and explorers included people like John Guille Millais, Thomas Papenfus and Thomas Baines, whose main subject area was the African landscapes and animals. Most of their artworks today form part of the collections at the National Archives of Zimbabwe in Harare.  

From the 1970's to the 1980's the most promising and experienced artists in the country (then known as Southern Rhodesia) were local white artist painters who had undertaken art studies elsewhere. These included Marshall Baron, Robert Paul, Arthur Azevedo, Helen Lieros, Henry Thompson, Thakor Patel, Stephen Williams, Rashid Jogee, Simon Back, Berry Bickle, Richard Jack, Gerry Dixon, Jean Danks amongst others. Their works reveal pronounced individuality and articulate use of media, and the development of a personal style. Many of the paintings by artists like Henry Thompson, Mashall Baron, Jean Danks, Helen Lieros depicted the landscape. The physical environment, that is, the terrain and the natural environment had a great impact on most of these artist. 

On the contrary, during this same period, the majority of local black artists were stone sculptors or wood carvers. Efforts were made to promote a new form of African art that succeeded largely in the promotion and development of Shona stone sculpture. There were very few aspiring local black artists who would rather be painters than sculptors. Moreover, there were very few facilities for serious art study. 

It took quite a long period, until towards the end of the 1980's when the potential amongst young black student painters was discovered. This occurred as a result of the establishment of the National Gallery Visual Art Studios (then BAT Workshop) under the directorship of Christopher Till. The emphasis at the studios was on drawing and painting. 

One of the key figure to emerge as a promising painter was Luis Meque. He was the catalyst for the beginning of an African contemporary painting movement and exhibited his work at Gallery Delta from the late 1980's. His contemporaries included George Churu and Richard Witikani. Later, during the 1990's they were joined by Hilary Kashiri, Fasoni Sibanda, Ishmael Wilfred, James Jali, Lovemore Kambudzi, amongst others after finishing their studies at the Studios. The decade of the 1990's was active and Gallery Delta made a huge investment in support of these artist and their artwork.

By the middle of the twentieth century, there was growth in the number of local black indigenous artists as well as much competition, energy and zeal amongst both black and white artists, and many exhibitions took place. According to the owners, Gallery Delta hosted between fifteen to seventeen exhibitions in a year. The National Gallery also hosted Annual Heritage Exhibitions in the early 1990s and its first Biennale in 2004. A large and enthusiastic following of local and foreign collectors and clients developed.  

Shona stone sculpture dates from 1950s. It does not have any recorded historical roots in the country nor is it derived from a recognized indigenous tradition of object making. Zimbabwean stone sculpture is a collective expression of the beliefs of societies represented by artists. The history of the Shona stone sculpture movement and its international acclaim is well documented. It was during the 1960s and 1970s that the master stone sculptors emerged and produced innovative and creative works of art that drew heavily on Shona traditional beliefs, practice and ontology.

Shona stone sculpture initially emerged through the work of sculptor Joram Mariga, who was recognized by Franck McEwen, the then first Director at the National Gallery and Tom Blomefield at Tengenenge. Franck and Tom can be seen as the European catalyst for the worldwide recognition of the art form. Franck succeeded largely in the promotion and development of Shona sculpture under the patronage of the African Workshop School while Tom was successful at Tengenenge, a sculpture village near Guruve.

The development of sculpture in Zimbabwe is divided into generations – the first, second and third generations. Here I use the word “generation” to describe people of an age who behave, act and respond to circumstances in a similar way. Among sculptors the term is used to categorize the context, content and form of a sculptor’s work. 

The first generation included sculptors like Bernard Matemera, Nicholas Mukomberanwa, and Henry Munyaradzi among others.  These sculptors work were generally in the round, fully embracing the three dimensional in all manners that expressed human narratives in a universally appealing form. Simple in appearance, most of the sculptures produced by first generation artists excelled in the formal elements such as line, form and shape. More importantly the sculptures were largely personal readings of traditional ontologies and cosmologies of the sculptor’s culture.

The second generation included sculptors such as Arthur Fata, Eddie Masaya, Lazarus Takawira and Gladman Zinyeka among other sculptors.

The third generation of sculptors were exposed to new challenges to be more creative in the use of materials and techniques. There is a tendency to move away from monochrome sculptures to the realization of the richness of colours and textures of stones. Sculptors from this generation express their own worldview and feelings for social change. They include Dominic Benhura, Victor Nyakauru, Christopher Casina, Gideon Gomo, Nobert Shamuyarira, metal sculptures like John Gwisinu, Richard Jack, Arthur Azvedo and other sculptors.

The patronage of stone sculpture in Zimbabwe was mostly from the National Gallery of Zimbabwe. Apart from this government institution, it also came in the form of other reputable private galleries and the corporate sector. After independence in 1980, private galleries in Harare worked towards the promotion of the art form and individual sculptors. These included the Gallery Shona Sculpture, Matombo Gallery, Stone Dynamics, Chapungu and Vukutu Gallery. The Nedlaw Group of Companies, Mobil Oil Zimbabwe, Cairns Holdings and British American Tobacco (BAT) were the major corporate patronage for the promotion of Zimbabwe’s visual arts. 

The Contemporary Visual Arts
The new millennium also brought its new breed of semi realist and abstract artists who continue to contribute to the development of a creative visual art scene in Zimbabwe.  There are currently a number of talented visual artists in the country. These contemporary artists artworks are influenced, to some extent, by the economic and socio-political issues in the country. Most of their themes center on issues like HIV/AIDS, poverty, politics, prostitution, love and modern day life events.

Due to time constrains, l shall briefly present to you only a few of the best visual artists in Zimbabwe.

1. Helen Leiros
Helen Lieros has been referred to as an early purveyor of post-colonial African art, and a world-acclaimed visual artist and educationist. The diversity of her skills encompasses graphics, paintings, sculpture, ceramics, engraving and all forms of lithography. Born in Gweru, a town in midland Zimbabwe, of Greek parents, she studied art in Geneva, Switzerland, for five years where she attained a Diploma in Fine Arts Degree (Honours). Then in 1962, she was awarded a scholarship to further her studies in Florence, Italy, where she excelled in painting.
Helen Lerios

In 1987 she capped with a Doctorate in Philosophy in Geneva. Her art works combine the many experiences through which she has lived, taught and experimented, and the mastery of techniques at her disposal enables her to work with great assurance and freedom. Known for her signature hypnotic figures that simultaneously glow and merge with the subdued tints of earth colours, Lieros' art confirms a lifetime search, in her depth of meanings and multiple readings of the human figure in its environment. She creates a resonance in the form and colours of the human figure in a suspended realm of the psychological and environmental landscape of Zimbabwe.

She often juxtaposes the country's rural spaciousness with urban limitations of space, creating a dialogue about urban migration and isolation. She admits to be drawn to the formal qualities of religious icons and recognizes the influences of their beauty and emotional charge on her paintings. Helen is one of the most prolific mentors of art for Zimbabwean artists. She has been this authors mentor for over 7 years. The history of Zimbabwean visual arts cannot be written without mentioning her name.

2. Patrick Makumbe (b1978)
Patrick is one of the talented painters in the country who recently finished his studies in art in Amsterdam where he has also held very successful exhibitions. (show image)
In his artworks, he uses large, free, rough brushstrokes to portray his African figures. With some few exceptions, there is no context is provided. They stand or sit in an empty spaces. There is little to no detail to their faces and other parts of the body in his paintings. They speak with their bodies. Black is the basic colour. It is striking that most of the work portray only one, or at the most, two figures. His work is very much influenced by Luis Meque.

Once in a while he uses a range of colours that might suggest cheerfulness, but, given the predominant somberness, for me they are here more readily associated with youth. His figures are standing or sitting that represents how they feel and the state of mind they are in. Their identity is derived from their body language.

3. Freddy Tauro (b.1979)
Freddy is one of the contemporary artists that l find enchanting with his fresh and colourful, semi-abstract paintings depicting places and landscapes. His late brother, Fasoni Sibanda (who was also an artist), was very influencial to him and inspired him to paint.
Freddy is a great colourist, a very competent creator of forms and rythms on the canvas that catch the eye and mind. He attended the BAT workshop school at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Harare from 1997 to 2000.  He has exhibited on several times at Gallery Delta and the National Gallery of Zimbabwe (all in Harare)

4. Admire Kamudzengerere (b.1981)
Fellow artists Admire is a unique talent in the group of contemporary visual artists practicing in Zimbabwe. His paintings are weaved in symbolism and controversy with symbols such as ticking clocks, games and puppetry being common in his work. He plays with political figures and illustrates the struggle of civilian life in Zimbabwe.

Admire has held numerous exhibitions mainly through Gallery Delta, where, like myself and many others, was also a student of Helen Lieros. One of his paintings titled 'The Human Plough' is a statement of desperation and despair. The composition of this artworks is quite interesting as the scale of the figures symbolizing the thoughts going through the man's mind. He shown very little interest to the  woman who  lies naked in a bed next to him, possibly with his mind is preoccupied with the struggle to survival.

5. Dominic Benhura (b.1968)
Dominic is said to be in a league of his own. He began his career in sculpture at the age of ten when he studied under his cousin, Tapfuma Gusta, who is also a master Sculptor. His work is bold and daring and captures balance and movement both physically and emotionally. His motivation is to explore new ideas, concepts, techniques and methods and to express and communicate powerfully simple ideas. Nature, family and the relationships with his children are his main inspiration for his sculptures.
Sculpture by Dominic Benhura
His subject matter is extensive including plants, trees, reptiles, animals and the whole aspects of human experience. Benhura has an exceptional ability to portray human feeling through form rather than facial expression.

Dominic often combines materials such as steel, wire and stone to create a beautiful mixed medium, which works together in harmony. The stone itself is selected for its luminosity and colour, and is carved and ground down and reconstructed to create a striking plant or human form, for which he has become world renowned. Dominic's work has been included in many major exhibitions both in Zimbabwe and internationally.

6. Victor Nyakauru (b.1977)
Victor is one of the emerging sculptors of the third generation who are experimenting with different materials to create sculptures. His style of work is distinctive, allowing him to juxtapose unexpected and unrelated materials to create something new. His creatures are always in motion and as a result the insects and animals are very much alive.
Victor with one of his sculptures

Last year, he held a solo exhibition at the national gallery of Zimbabwe of insects and animals created form stone, metal and bones titled Creatures/Zvipuka. In past years, a concept of assembling found objects to create works of art have developed in Zimbabwe’s contemporary art scene. The art movement, l shall refer to as assemblage, is in a broadest sense, three dimensional artwork constructed from found or made objects. It has a limitless range and evocative use of materials that transform non art objects and materials into art. As an artform, it is inevitably extends to installation work on a bigger scale and can also include instances of performance art. Zimbabwean artists well know for this artform include, form the older generation, Tapfuma Gutsa, Berry Bickle among others and from the emerging artists, Masimba Hwati, Gareth Nyandoro and Virginia Chihota.

The Venice Biennale, Italy 2011
This year has been a very important year for the visual art of Zimbabwe. Four Zimbabwean artists participated in the prestigious Venice Biennale in northern Italy this year. This is the first independent African pavilion to make an appearance at the event which will run until the end of November.

Running under the theme “Illumination”, the biennale revealed some of the latest developments in contemporary visual arts in Zimbabwe. The artists who represented the country are Misheck Masvamvu (painter), Tapfuma Gutsa (sculptor), Berry Bickle (installation/mixed media artist) and Celvin Dondo (photographer). Their artworks represented the contemporary side of what the country is producing.
Misheck with one of his work shown at the Biennale in Venice

The Zimbabwean exhibition, which was entitled “Seeing Ourselves”, displayed the talents of four Zimbabwean contemporary artists who work in a variety of media from photography to  painting to mixed media sculpture. 

I hope that the participation of the artists in this international event and the exhibition itself challenged any preconceived ideas about Zimbabwe and its art (for example, that Zimbabwean art is premised on Shona stone sculpture alone). I also see it as the start in terms of putting the country's talent on an international platform.

Presented for the African Arts Institute On18 October 2011 at 6 Spin Street, Cape Town
South Africa.

Images used with respect to the artists and photographers copyright.

Sources referenced:

1. National Gallery of Zimbabwe website 
2. Gallery Magazine

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