Heedful hands in Zimbabwe a resourceful resistance

A quiet, constant and resourceful resistance

Curated by Tandazani Dhlakama at the Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town, ‘Five Bobh: Painting at the End of an Era’  is an exercise to focus an entire exhibition on the specific medium of painting. By casting a refreshing spotlight on Zimbabwean expression at a crucial time in the nation’s tumultuous history, the exhibition thematics move through notions of land; politics; memory, and identity.

Richard Mudarkiki's painting, The Passover.
Richard Mudarkiki, The Passover, 2011. Charcoal and pastel on paper, 120 x 160cm. Courtesy of Zeitz MOCAA.

Considering the highly politicised issues of land reclamation in Zimbabwe and the ultimate economic collapse of a country once known as ‘The Bread Basket of Africa’,  it is worth being wary of the assumption that it is the theme with which all Zimbabwean artists work. Instead, the country’s artists offer far more nuanced interpretations despite this hovering spectre. The organic tones of Wallen Mapondera’s Musha Waparara lead the viewer into considering notions of land and deterioration in a carefully handled, but collapsing canvas. The heedful hands of the artist are seen in the cautious stitches that hold together the relic of a painting. Softened in the presence of time – the aged material of the canvas creates organic folds and cracks resembling a cartographical vestige of land held together by a thread.

Land, ownership, and post-colonial discourses are explored in works by Greg Shaw, Simon Back and Berry Bickle. Richard Mudariki’s impressive painting titled The Passover spans the wall whilst a grainy choir recording of the Zimbabwe National Anthem plays in the background. Large-scale canvases show the political thoughts and frustrations of the artists through the psychedelic colours of Cosmos Shiridzinomwa; the tumultuous abstracts of Mishek Masamvu and symbolic moments in the work of Kufa Makwavarara.

Cosmas Shiridzinomwa, Mugabe’s Closet, 2018. Oil on canvas, 139 x 136cm. Courtesy of Zeitz MOCAA.
Cosmas Shiridzinomwa, Mugabe’s Closet, 2018. Oil on canvas, 139 x 136cm. Courtesy of Zeitz MOCAA.

Mugabe’s Closet by Cosmos Shiridzinomwa depicts a closet in which hangs a tired, bedraggled blazar in the colours of the national flag. Drawing parallels to the frayed nature of Wallen Maqpondera’s dilapidated canvas, the hems of the blazar are tattered and have come undone, an item of clothing that signifies importance and authority simply discarded. The painting shows the vital aspects of leadership as simply hung up and forgotten; leaving its nation to unravel. 

“…where formal ideals are sacrificed in the name of transformation and adaptation.”

Troy Makaza’s installations in the Camo series show acrylic paint changed into a gluey medium resembling an industrial textile – plastic and hardy in texture pinned and draped across the walls. This morphed medium resembles a people constantly reshaping itself to acclimatise and evolve according to its often tumultuous environment. It shows the modification of the water-based acrylic into a hardier, binding substance with the ability to stick to itself. The series consists of smaller versions of a work, each one, as if dependent on the sticky nature of its medium, slowly edging further up the wall – jeopardised by years of stifling political oppression and economic hardships, it shows a nation of people adapting and fusing to one another in a desperate attempt to grow.

Troy Makaza, Today’s problems from the Camo Series.  Silicone infused paint, dimensions variable. Courtesy of Zeitz MOCAA

Troy Makaza, Today’s problems from the Camo Series.  Silicone infused paint, dimensions variable. Courtesy of Zeitz MOCAA

Despite its air of conclusion, a small sign indicates that the exhibition in fact continues. Past a museum office and across the walkway, the exhibition resumes. Here the last few rooms house the work of most of the women artists such as Tatenda Magaisa, Kresiah Mukhwazi, Janet Siringwazi-Nyabere and Portia Zvavahera. This section of the exhibition shows the fight for space and voice of the female artist in Zimbabwe – referencing Shereen Essof’s writing and title of Shemurenga. Drawn from the word Chimurenga that titled the country’s first civil war, the work speaks to notions of struggle and resistance. Portia Zvavahera’s paintings dedicate time to spirituality and the formal elements of paint on canvas, alongside works on paper by Ishaenesu Dondo and Gillian Roselli around memory and collective trauma.

The exhibition has committed space to the diaspora – proclaimed as a leading role in the discourse of identity in Zimbabwe. Scattered across Southern Africa, as well as the United Kingdom and Australia, it explores the notions of belonging in multiple places which some citizens, as well as other artists showing in the exhibition, have experienced. Diaspora and transforming versus local and conventional – the exhibition questions the identity of both a people and artistic discipline. Although accurate, this diasporic identity is arguably less important than that of those still subjected to the many challenges facing a life inside Zimbabwe’s borders. Perhaps strange for an exhibition with a plan to show the “medium [painting]… to interrogate present-day circumstances” to choose a sculpture, or work on paper by an artist that has not lived in the country for twenty years – over paintings currently being produced by prominent and exhilarating artists living the daily experiences of the nation from within Harare’s city centre. Artists such as Mavis Tauzeni; Virginia Chihota; Wycliffe Mundopa and Gresham Nyaude to name a few Zimbabwean painters not presented in this exhibition.

The exhibition’s interrogation and dedication of time and space to the medium of painting in an African context are valuable. The idealism of painting – its technicalities, and formal strengths are undoubtedly being strongly forged and explored from within Zimbabwe, even if not all shown in this exhibition. More concerned with the shift in the medium of painting, the exhibition draws many similarities to the country’s political environment – to be at the end of an era – revised with the potential to evolve into something different. Although perhaps more suited to exist within Zimbabwe itself, this show is a celebration of the people of Zimbabwe’s strength and durability in the face of adversity. Not unlike the nation itself, that at upon entrance may look crippled by its politics and situation, a country worn thin; this exhibition shows the heedful hands of artists and evidence of a quiet, constant and resourceful resistance where formal ideals are sacrificed in the name of transformation and adaptation.

Pamela Bentley

FEATURED IMAGE: Anthony Bumhira, Dhoyilisi Generation. Courtesy of Zeitz MOCAA