Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A decade of engaging with the political - Interview with Richard Mudariki

Contemporary African art and artists are increasingly receiving wide attention and acclaim, and are occupying the centre of the ever-expanding global art industry. One of the new developments in contemporary art in Africa, albeit controversial, is the opening of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in September 2017 in Cape Town, South Africa. Among the visual artists from the continent gaining international prominence and recognition is the hardworking and talented Richard Mudariki, who was born in Chitungwiza, Zimbabwe. Mudariki started his practice at a very young age and by his teens his curiosity and interest in making art led him to contact established artists and art teachers in Harare. He was astutely advised and he has since succeeded in building a promising career of his own. His immigration to South Africa in 2010 took him from the periphery to the core of the art industry, providing him the opportunities and support to launch a full-time career as a painter. He exhibits regularly in Cape Town and Harare and is showcased at art fairs in South Africa, United States and Europe.

Recently, a travelling early career retrospective of his paintings, drawn from private and corporate collections was hosted in South Africa with the support of a private corporate. The exhibition was a unique opportunity to assess the development of Mudariki’s painting over time and travelled from Johannesburg to Cape Town over a period of five months. Titled ‘Mutara Wenguva’, in Shona (Mudariki’s mother language), which literally translates to ‘line of time’ and in this context, is an overview of his practice from 1999 to present, is loosely translated as ‘Timeline’. The Curator of Sanlam Corporate Art Collection and Head of the Sanlam Art Advisory Service, Stefan Hundt curated the exhibition.

Representative of a growing impetus towards figuration and social commentary in African painting, Mudariki’s works has been avidly collected in South Africa and is attracting attention in the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe. I had the pleasure of interviewing Mudariki at his studio in Cape Town following this successful exhibition.

Barnabas Muvhuti: You recently had a retrospective exhibition of your work at the Sanlam Art Gallery in South Africa. Can you tell us how this came about and what this means to you at such an early stage in your career?

Richard Mudariki: The exhibition ‘Mutara Wenguva – Timeline’ provided the opportunity to look at my entire career that covers a span of 17 years. The exhibition showcased over 40 paintings borrowed from corporate and private collections as well as publications, exhibition catalogues, sketch books, artist letters and award certificates. It was a humbling experience to see the development of my work over time, starting with some of my first paintings done in 1999 to my current body of work. The discussion on hosting this exhibition began with a meeting with the curator of the Sanlam Art Collection and Head of the Sanlam Art Advisory service, Stefan Hundt, who had been following my work over a few years. In a process that took about 3 months, more than 40 paintings were borrowed from private collectors and corporates who had my work in their collections. The first exhibition opened in Sandton, Johannesburg in July 2017 and then traveled to Cape Town to open in the same week as the opening of the Zeitz MOCCA in September 2017. An artist monograph, with essays by some of the leading professionals in the visual arts in South Africa and Zimbabwe, was published to accompany the exhibition.

Mutara Wenguva - Timeline Cape Town Opening Night (Image courtesy of Sanlam Ltd)

Having an organisation such as Sanlam to support and host such an event, in celebration of my work, gives me the added confidence to know that my commitment is being recognized, that what I am doing is important and gives me the energy to continue focusing on my creative efforts.    

BM: In 2016, you were awarded the Africa Centre AIR Award and participated in a residency programme in Miami. Can you tell us of your experience and how you think a new environment assist in broadening your artistic perspective?

RM:  In 2016, l was awarded an artist-in-residency award to the Fountainhead Residency in Miami, Florida, USA by the Africa Centre Artist-in-Residency Programme. The Africa Centre AIR Programme offers awards to artists from African states to participate in international artist-in- residency programs via its network of partnerships. This was my first artist-in-residency and was in the USA from October to December 2016.

The experience at Fountainhead and Miami in general was in many ways, a unique one. I was one of four visiting artists with Lauren Halsey (Los Angels), Anthea Behm (New York), Avi Alpert (New York). The residency provided me with the opportunity to be immersed in the international contemporary art scene, to create a new network of art professionals, share ideas and knowledge with other creatives and provided time and space to further develop my practice. Our hosts, art collectors Dan and Kathryn Mikesell, facilitated and introduced us to the Miami art community through private studio visits, open studios and attending private events organised by museums and art institutions in Miami.

Panel discussion on Diaspora African Art At Florida Memorial University, Art Basel Miami Beach, Miami

It was an interesting time to be in America, as it was during the time of the elections that resulted in Donald Trump being elected president. That environment provided the inspiration to create a body of work that interpreted the situation, from my perspective, in America at that time. Miami itself is a beautiful and interesting city, with tropical weather and lovely coastline, and during weekends I had to take time off from the studio to tour the city with new friends Rainer Langman, AJ, Carol and Peter Larsson. I also had the privilege to attend Art Basel Miami Beach after the residency. During this art week, Miami becomes the centre of the international contemporary art world as it hosts more than 2000 international galleries, over 4000 artists, curators and collectors. It is truly a great meeting point and an opportunity for me to see some of the best contemporary artworks all in one place

BM: Your work represents iconic history, personal experiences and depicts leaders of global nations. What is your relationship with politics, and why is it important for you to portray these – often contentious – figures in your work?

My relationship with politics is in a way non- linear and is multidimensional and multi-faceted. I see politics as the complex relationship between a group of people – one that extends beyond state politics but stretches to include power relationships in a community, a company, a family, a school, a profession etc. My work attempts to interpret this interplay among individuals in a group at a specific period, at times seeing it as a game, where the different characters in the game try to influence one another or attempt to influence the majority to exercise their power.  If you look at paintings such as “Business and Pleasure” (2013) and ‘Economies of Scale’ (2017) they highlight the politics of business and commerce, while ‘The Passover’ (2011) or ‘The Surgeon’ (2012) are interpretations of the often-linear view of politics, that of state politicians and their roles over a state. One can also refer to paintings such as ‘Foreign National’ (2015), ‘Only in South Africa’ (2015), ‘Mukwirikwiri’ (2013) and ‘Signs of the Times’ (2017) that are interpretations of the politics of migration, while again paintings such as ‘Art Dealers at Cape Town Art Fair’ (2015), ‘Connoisseurs of Contemporary Art’ (2014) and ‘The Art collector’ (2015) point to the politics of the art world. My recent body of work is looking at social media, how this technological advancement has an impact on modern society - access, freedom and control- somehow then looking at the politics of social media.

Business and Pleasure. 2014, Acrylic on canvas (Private Collection)

I think that it is important that an artist engages, through his/her work, with the present moment, bringing out the ‘artistic reality’. At the same time, one can be providing a visual form of questioning, somewhat giving an independent, alternative creative way of looking at contemporary society. The artist then becomes some sort of information gatherer, one who captures the sentiments, hopes, fears, questions and pleasures of a society, and translates such information by creating objects that embody the information for an audience to enjoy or ponder upon. Someone once said artists are like emitters of messages, but they are like broken emitters, because they emit messages that are not the common view.

BM: You have reflected on the socio-political situation in your home country of Zimbabwe over the past few years. There has been a recent change in the political arrangement in that country. What are your opinions on the change of power in your home country?  Are we likely to see paintings that critique this in your next body of work?

I do not see the recent events happening in my country of birth as change of power, but rather change in political leadership. To express it in another way, it is a situation in which a ‘snake sheds its old skin’. The new leader was a mentee of the former leader and the country still has the same political party and the same politicians.

The legacy of former president Robert Mugabe is quite a mixed one, on one side a gallant freedom fighter, pan Africanist and advocate for the education and emancipation of the people of his country, but on the other a ruthless leader who caused hardship and destruction of the social structure of the nation, made those who opposed him suffer and led the total economic destruction and hyperinflation. However, one must not take away his belief in black emancipation, on the background of slavery and Western colonialization in Africa, that black people can self-determine and can be able to prosper on their own given total access to their resources. 

Coup de'tat, 2013, Acrylic on canvas (Private Collection)

I must say that my work has over the past 10 years interpreted and engaged with the political situation in Zimbabwe and will continue interpreting these recent and future events. During this 10 year period, a body of work that engaged with politics of Zimbabwe were exhibited in exhibitions such as Post Election Selection (Gallery Delta, Harare, 2008), Live and Direct (National Gallery of Zimbabwe, Harare, 2010) Hope and Despair (National Gallery of Zimbabwe, Harare, 2011) and  in my first solo exhibition My Reality (Johans Borman Fine Art, Cape Town, 2012) all highlighting my  interpretation of the ‘artistic reality’ as a result of the experiences of the situation in Zimbabwe. Artworks such as ‘Pieta Mr. President’ (2008 and 2011), ‘The Passover’ (2011) and ‘The Surgeon’ (2012) present a different reality of the situation through the eyes of the artist. In a subtle way one can say l have been protesting and calling for Robert Mugabe to step down way before 2017. In ‘The Passover’, the interpretation of scene of the painting is that of a final farewell dinner, on which international political figures are invited to a table share with him as to what he could offer on his final dinner as a political leader. In what can now be a prophetic painting, ‘Coup detat’ (2013) the composition shows a coup taking place, which the president (here symbolized as a cockerel) being removed from his ruling seat.  In ‘Open Letter to the President’ (2016), the painting is a private appeal by an individual requesting the president to step down, in a situation where mass action or elections have not had the desired outcome. However, the painting ‘The Surgeon’ (2012) portrays the president as an intelligent political scientist, in his laboratory performing an operation on a cockerel (an act symbolizing him attempting to fix internal power fights in his party).

BM: Your work has recently been acquired into the permanent collection of the South African National Gallery. This is an important national institution. How do you feel and what are your thoughts on the role of art museums in society?

Over the lifespan of my career as a painter, my work has been collected by private collectors and formed part of important private collection. I am thrilled to have my work in a public art institution. The Iziko South African National Gallery recently acquired and added a painting titled Economy of scale to their permanent collection. This painting was shown at the recent Investec Cape Town Art Fair. This follows the Sanlam Art Collection, a leading corporate art collection, having also acquired the painting 'The Model' which was exhibited in the traveling retrospective exhibition.

Economy of Scale, 2017, Acrylic on Canvas (Permanent Collection of South African National Gallery)

As you know, l am a student of museuology and I see art museums as a permanent, non-commercial institution whose purpose is essentially aesthetic appreciation and education. An institution with professional staff that keeps, cares for artifacts, interprets them and exhibits them to the public on some regular schedule.  I think the role of the art museum in society today is not only to be an archive of what was in the past or to mirrior that of the present but also to give a glance of what is to come. 

I encourage many in today's society to visit art museums, especially the youth. And l am not saying that because l now have a artworks in public art museum, but l see art museums as a sanctuary, a church of creativity and visual ideas. It is a neutral space, somewhat a safety net for the enjoyment of art in a world that is commercializing fine art. 

BM: The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary art Africa opened its doors in Cape Town in September 2017 and is arguably the most important art institution to open on the continent for more than a century. How do you think this institution will help in furthering the advancement and appreciation of art from the continent? 

RM: The opening of what is considered the first private modern museum dedicated to contemporary art on the continent is undoubtedly a great move. The museum architecture is cutting edge and the opening exhibitions showcased the best of contemporary art on the continent. For me, this institution is important in two ways. One, as an artist, it will create opportunities for artists to showcase major solo exhibitions without commercial pressure and establish credibility. Two, as a student of cultural heritage and museology, I see this institution taking the crucial role of preserving our artistic heritage, making provisions for our cultural artifacts to remain on the continent and most importantly, allow for Africans scholarship to write our own art history.     

BM: You are now working with another gallery after over five years working with Johans Borman Fine Art. What has your experience been like exhibiting and working with art galleries in South Africa?

RM: When I relocated to Cape Town some seven years ago, l was privileged to work with and be represented by a professional, well respected gallery and gallerists. Johans Borman was for me a gallerist who understood the creative process, the hardships of being an artist and provided the resources and space to launch my career in 2012. He had the faith to represent a young, unknown  foreign artist and gave him a chance. After the gallery was closed in 2016, I was inundated with request by other galleries wanting the represent me. From early 2017, l started working with Barnard Gallery and there is a show planned towards the end of 2018

With regards to my experience of working and exhibiting in South Africa, l can say that has been positive. I feel that in the context of the African continent, the South African art world has been much more mature and robust, despite a comparatively small but growing collector base. However, like any other industry, it has had its own challenges of finding and maintaining a healthy relationship with the market forces – galleries, curator, dealers, collectors etc.

Barnabas Ticha Muvhuti is a writer and research assistant at the Centre for Curating the Archive, Michaelis school of Fine Art, University of Cape Town