African contemporary art and artists have been receiving international support over the past few years. One platform that is dedicated to showcasing contemporary art from the continent to new audiences in the western world is the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair. Bringing together 15 exhibitors and over 70 emerging and established artist from Africa, the art fair launched its first edition in London in 2013. In just two years, the fair has moved from being an annual platform to a biannual platform, having launched a New York edition in May. According to its Artistic director, Koyo Kouoh, the art ‘fair promotes contemporary African visual culture, while synchronously fostering a site for exchange and discussion’.
1:54 FORUM 2015 Artist Talk: Marc Stanes and Richard Mudariki in conversation, London (image courtesy of ARTCo Gallery)
This year’s London edition featured 38 exhibitors, and had over 150 emerging and established African and African diasporan artists. Running parallel to the exhibitions of the galleries at the fair is a conversation programme, titled 1:54 FORUM, that brings together curators, artists and art professionals from across the continent to be involved in a series of lectures, panel discussions and artists talks. One of the interesting artist talks that l attended during this edition was that of talented Zimbabwean painter Richard Mudariki.
Richard Mudariki’s paintings are issue driven and comment on the various socio-political themes on the continent and beyond. He has exhibited extensively in Zimbabwe and South Africa, and is slowly gaining international recognition with exhibitions in London, New York, Berlin and Paris. His well received painting were exhibited at this art fair by his German gallery ARTCo. Born in 1985 in Seke, Zimbabwe, Richard did not receive any formal art education. He holds a degree in Archaeology, Cultural Heritage and Museum studies. One may ask how then did he become an painter.
When he was 16 years, Richard wrote a letter to the National Arts Council of Zimbabwe informing them that he wanted to be an artist and asked if they could help. To his surprise the then director replied to his enquiry and referred him to the National Gallery of Zimbabwe. Since he was still young to be enrolled at the Visual Art School that the National Gallery run he was encouraged to focus on his education and continue his artistic activities on the side. He then wrote another letter to the director of Gallery Delta, a gallery in Harare that was established in 1975 by Derek Huggins and his wife Helen Lieros. Similarly, they responded to Richard, also stressing his age was a restriction. Nonetheless Derek Huggins, would continue to encouraged Richard through a number of back and forth letters to continue with his art and periodically gave him feedback on sketches he sent to the gallery.
Hellen Lieros and Richard Mudariki, Gallery Delta, Harare 2013 (image courtesy of the artist)
A year later, Derek and Helen invited the young Richard to the gallery to meet him and to explore the art that was shown in their gallery. A relationship was established with artist and art teacher Helen Lieros who encouraged Richard to concentrate on his drawing. The young prospective artist would then go home, concentrate on his drawing, sketching street scenes of his neighborhood of Chitungwiza, objects in his family home, or anything he found interesting, then taking these to show and discuss it with his new found mentor Helen. During that period, he had met a number of other young artists who lived in his community and were attending the Visual Art School of the National Gallery. He would frequently visit them after school and would learn valuable skills and the basics of drawing and painting. Allen Kupeta, who was a student at the Visual Art School, helped Richard the most with his time and knowledge. As a result, being surrounded by other young and established artists as well as interacting with those represented by Gallery Delta, he quickly learnt the principals of picture making. Richard’s passion as a young boy drove Derek and Helen to enroll him to private art classes that were held at their gallery. His first class was with Greg Shaw and then with Hellen Leiros, which he attended religiously for over a period of over seven years.
Richard Mudariki and Marc Stanes (images courtesy of 1:54)
Sitting across Richard and Marc Stanes during their artist conversation in London as part of the 1:54 FORUM programme and hearing his life story, I could not help but wonder if at 16 he had ever imagined himself to be at this stage one day and have his art celebrated. I was impressed by his determination and spirit to never give up! Luckily for me I was able to convince him, on his first visit to London, to have a one – to – one interview and ask a few questions which left me curious following his talk with Marc.
Gaynor: The political and social climate of Zimbabwe reflects in some of your work, but from the talk with Marc and one or two questions addressed by the audience you do not seem to feel comfortable talking about it or being regarded as a politically inclined, so why is that you deal with such topics? What is your aim? Or reasons behind such paintings?
Richard: Gaynor, I know of very few artists who are very comfortable of being on a stage and talking about their art to a room full of people. It is said that our fear of being on stage and addressing a group of people is so great that we fear it more than death. For artists, we spent the most of our times in front of our artworks, rather than in front of a group of people. That transition from interacting with your work in the private space of a studio to addressing and talking about your art to group of people in public is a tough one. As a painter, one tends to speak a visual language, and trying to put that through verbally can be challenging.
However, as l mentioned during the talk, the body of work that highlighted the political and social climate of Zimbabwe was as a result of the experience l had whilst being in the country during the political upheavals of 2008-9. These experiences l expressed in this body of work which was exhibited as part of my first solo show in Cape Town. Why do l deal with such topics? Well, why not. Art has the ability to provoke thought and to harness the power of imagination. It should address difficult issues, pose question and challenge those who engage with it to see the world we live in differently. Other artists such as musicians, poets, writers or actors express their experiences, hopes, fears and questions through various art forms. Mine is just through painting. I believe that an artist is a sort of an information gatherer, capturing the sentiments, fears, questions, fears, hopes and then translate all that information into a single object. Someone said that good artists are like emitters of messages, but they are like broken emitters, because they emit messages that are not the common view.
1:54 FORUM 2015 Artist Talk: Marc Stanes and Richard Mudariki in conversation, London (image courtesy of ARTCo Gallery)
Gaynor: In closing you said you were moving toward philosophical themes there is a painting which Marc quickly flipped through but did not address, entitled Fixing Africa (2015) philosophically speaking do you think it can be fixed? What exactly about Africa do you want to be fixed?
Richard: As l mentioned, my work touches on various themes and is basically about questioning situations, openness and never accepting things at face value. This painting, Fixing Africa, challenges all of us – political leaders, business, civil society and ordinary Africans to get into our work suits, take up responsibility, fix the problems in Africa and make it work. Otherwise Africa will not be open to progress, but rather to exploitation.
There is no doubt that Africa is on the rise with many saying that Africa is central to the new economic world order. With huge minerals and resources that outlast any other continent in the world and a growing population, multinationals and foreign investors are jostling to set up base in the continent. However for the continent to succeed, the 54 states must work together and exist as one unit socially, economically and politically. Political crisis, war, xenophobia, greed and corruption are the stumbling blocks to achieve prosperity.This painting shows the African continent as one mechanical unit, in a workshop getting a much needed mechanical repair and maintenance to set it up as a strong and fully functioning unit to take advantage of the ‘Africa Rising’ phenomena. It is being broken up, taking out the old parts, oiling the gears, measuring the positives and the negatives and noting progress. The parts are so crucial to the whole.
Richard Mudariki making a point (image and copyright courtesy of Artco Gallery)
Gaynor: What other topics and ideas are you working on or continue to work with?
Richard: They are varied. One of the major themes l am working on is on identity. How one sees himself in a globalized world and more importantly as an artist. How some cultures are being eroded by this globalization and other cultures dominating. In the art world, it is sad to note that artists from Africa are bundled up together and called ‘African artists’, without the acknowledgement of the differences of the cultural and societal backgrounds from which these artists come from. Surely the artworks being produced by artists in Zimbabwean are quite different from those by South African artists or those from Ghana, or Nigeria or Ethiopia. Though we may all be from one continent, we are very different in many aspects. Another topic l also continue to highlight in my work is that of migration. As a Shona person living in South Africa, with its diverse cultures, I am always thinking and examining that theme. Recent paintings l have done on the topic of migration and its effects include a painting called Foreign National (2015), Only in South Africa (2015) and Mukwirikwiri (2013). Some of these paintings highlight and questions issues such as of xenophobia in South Africa and the concept of Ubuntu. I must however say that my work also responds to the environment that l live in, expressing my ideas on the events and experiences taking place around me. Events and experiences such as the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ student demonstrations in Cape Town culminated in me addressing the issue of post colonization and transformation in the painting ‘The Model’ (2015) or the experiences of neo-colonialist activities of China on the continent in the painting ‘Chinese Taylor’ (2014).
Gaynor: Gallery Delta seems to be one of those pivotal creative places for artists in Zimbabwe. Many artists that are prospering now or are popular already came through its doors, as Marc also suggested, can you maybe share some key memories you can remember there?
Richard: Gaynor being part of the journey of Gallery Delta’s aim of providing an ideal venue and support structure for Zimbabwean visual artists in their struggle to be creative and survive is one that l am proud of. I recently took part in exhibition that celebrated 40 years of the gallery being in existence. I am very grateful to those who have assisted me from a very young age and had faith in my abilities and determination to be a creative. Some of the key memories at Gallery Delta include the frequent interactions with talented artists who regularly came to the gallery and were kind enough to give valuable advice. Some of these included Richard Witikani, James Jali, Hilary Kashiri, Lovemore Kambudzi, Darly Nero, Thako Patel among others. Another one was taking part in creating a Greek Mural for the Greek Cultural week in Harare, in which l received an award.
The art lessons in themselves were quite key. As students we were encouraged to be individual and to think on our own. We could borrow art books from Hellen and learn about other artists from Europe. The critic sessions were also something l remember vividly. I can recall my own critic sessions with Helen. I was quite young and often found myself losing direction, being influenced by other artists at the gallery. She would say “you have lost it! Go back to your heart, paint from inside”. And who would forget the hot lemon tea that was served to by Amai Courage to the students every Saturday morning.
Gaynor: So you picked art, why art?
Richard: I think that it is one thing to be talented artist, and another to be a successful artist. Talent can be a natural ability, but what separates one from the other is the constant application of sweat, discipline, practice and continued learning of an art form, then finding one’s own voice. Passion and perseverance is what led me on my creative path. As one of the gallerist that l work with told me …. ‘if you find out that you are good at something, and you do that something well and with all your heart, good things start happening’. I do not think there is something that l am that very good other than painting! I was fortunate enough to have realized at an early stage that my purpose was to be an artist. I did fairly well in my educational studies and could have become an academic or an archaeologist. However, l must say it is not an easy profession. In the new world that we leave in, to be a successful artist, the artist should not look at her/himself as just the maker of the artworks, but he also has to look at her/himself as an all-rounder – he/she has to do the public relations (at gallery openings or art fairs), the marketing (on social media), brand managing, the administration and finances (buying materials, paying bills and eating).I guess the challenges of being an artist is what pushes one to continue and to become even more creative.
Q and A session
Gaynor: As an artist when people critic your work, how does that make you feel, is it a positive or negative and what do you want people to get from your art generally?
Richard: Since one brings his or her work to be view by the public, one is bond to receive criticism. As you noted some of the criticism can be positive or negative, constructive or destructive, encouraging or depressing. I enjoy listening to people’s interpretations of my work. Is it not that art has multiple interpretations? People see things differently, what I paint or think while painting is not necessarily what others will get when they look at it and that is what it should be about really. Regarding criticism, it depends from whom it is coming from. Is it from someone who is respected in the field and whom l also respect? As they say, you can’t seriously take sex advice from a virgin.
Gaynor: Ok, final question, this may be odd, but there was something about your T-shirt that stood out to me and I wondered, is there a story behind it?
Richard: Nothing much rather than just distinguishing myself as an artist coming from Africa in a cosmopolitan city like London. I bought it the shirt on my first visit to the Dakar Biennial in Senegal, an important art event on the continent. So for me it has that personal significance and I enjoy wearing it at events that showcase art from Africa!
First published by Gaynor Tutani in Fambaneni
To listen to the audio recording of the talk click here