Wycliffe Mundopa and Gresham Tapiwa Nyaude presents a new body of work during a crucial time in Zimbabwe’s history
At 32 and 30 years of age, Wycliffe Mundopa and Gresham Tapiwa Nyaude, two of Harare’s leading young painters, have been friends and studio-mates for well over a decade. As peers, they have been partners in the project of developing impressive careers, while negotiating the turbulent waters of life in Zimbabwe since the turn of the millennium. With numerous local and international gallery and museum exhibitions under their belts, Night & Day is a conscious decision by the two to do a monumental joint exhibition in Harare.
Wycliffe Mundopa, No Fear of Falling, 2019. Oil on canvas, 210 x 350cm. All images courtesy of the artists & First Floor Gallery.
Each artist is presenting a new body of work responding to the here and now of Zimbabwe as an act of faith in the country and in the people who inspire their work. Larger than life, the canvases in the show are some of the biggest works either artist has ever painted. Thematically elaborate, each artist injects their narratives with the overwhelming and vivid urgency and complexity of the present day status quo, where problems are many and solutions are few and often obscured by the white noise of politicisation.
Mundopa’s figuration in the Night & Day is both symbolic and iconoclastic. The omnipresent female figure is both a la Delacroix heroic and a picture of decadent victimhood, the holy and the cursed – the ultimate symbol for the resilience, beauty and pathos of Zimbabwe, the people. Nothing is literal and everything to be interpreted in these classically constructed genre paintings. Through the defiant prism of Demoiselles D’Avignon and cynical pageantry of Max Beckmann, Mundopa grapples both with art history, his own demons and life of the street to compose a peoples’ symphony.
Gresham Tapiwa Nyaude, Blessings of the Bedridden, 2019. Oil on canvas, 210 x 350cm.
If in Night & Day, Mundopa is the glaring light of day, then Nyaude is the night. Last year, Gresham Tapiwa Nyaude, impressed New York audiences, with his participation in the New Museum Triennial prompting Jerry Saltz to comment that “Zimbabwe may be a hothouse for new pictorial ideas about painting.” Here, however, instead of his trademark deafening yellows and reds, deconstructed figurations and biting political satire, new enormous canvases loom large with a sense of helplessness, battle fatigue, pregnant with a plea for compassion and unity. Keenly dissecting the political game-playing, which has brought the country to the brink of economic collapse time after time, Nyaude’s new canvases hold a mirror to the state of the nation and its captive citizens.
“Our country is at a crucial juncture, Zimbabweans have endured many years of hardships and are looking for answers and they need to know that their voices are being heard. There are major events that have taken place in the country in recent months and they have left some people jubilant, some disturbed, some hopeless, some dead. Our works in the show speak to and bear witness to this time. The people are our true inspiration and our true audience and our responsibility as artists is to them first and foremost ” says Nyaude.
Wycliffe Mundopa, My Cup is Full, 2019. Oil on canvas, 210 x 210cm.
Mundopa adds, “If we claim to speak about our people and the drama of our lives in Zimbabwe, we feel we must do more exhibitions inside Zimbabwe otherwise it all stops making sense. Right now, however, the economics of what is being viewed, as a successful contemporary art career seems to direct by default most artworks to a foreign audience first and foremost. We want contemporary art to have a more prominent role in driving conversation inside Zimbabwe and then outside. Both Gresham and I have had international exhibitions and residencies and have worked in international collections in London, New York, Barcelona, Paris, Cape Town, Berlin, Tel-Aviv and Marrakesh. Of course international recognition matters, but ethically it must be a secondary concern to our purpose as artists.”
Apart from a personal sense of responsibility, there is also a strong de-colonial ethos for both. As a vestige of colonial history, Zimbabweans have for many years accepted that things are done better somewhere and that foreign things are best. A paradigm shift is imperative to build value and recognise the value of the country and of the people first if progress is ever to be achieved. It is crucial to assert the importance of the international community engaging with Zimbabweans on their own soil and on their own terms. This cannot be done through exhibitions outside the country. At present Harare is usually not on the radar of the art press as a destination for exceptional exhibitions and yet Zimbabwean artists are achieving a great deal of attention and recognition globally. Conversely, the only time Zimbabwe domestic art scene is mentioned is when there is some kind of a negative political situation. Night & Day is an opportunity to urge for meaningful engagement with the wealth of talent and activity in our contemporary art sector.
Gresham Tapiwa Nyaude, Life in our own hands? , 2019. Oil on canvas, 210 x 350cm.
While some of these goals may seem ambitious for an exhibition, Night & Day arrives at a time, when there is increase examination of the rights and wrongs of the way international attention and the art market have impacted the relationship between artists in African and their home audiences, and the real-life economics and politics of the international success of contemporary African art. Painting is a medium that has enabled artists across centuries and continents to record the history of their countries and peoples and to be the voice of the people. When people look back at the history of Zimbabwe and ask how the artists were using their responsibility at this important moment, Nyaude and Mundopa are two artists who believe, they will have an answer.
Night & Day opens 17 March 2019 at First Floor Gallery, Harare, and runs until 20 April 2019.