Zim artists see with spiritual eyes

Zimbabwean painter Portia Zvavahera’s work consists of grand, layered paintings of dreamlike, expressionistic images, taking as much from religion as she does from the supernatural.

Artists Nontsikelelo Mutiti and Robert Machiri are Zvavahera’s contemporaries; Johannesburg based-Machiri studied at the same institution as Zvavahera, namely the Harare Polytechnic. Mutiti, who lives in New York and is a member of the “Harare School” of multidisciplinary contemporary artists, encountered Zvavahera in Zimbabwe’s art scene, having both taken classes at Gallery Delta.

In this conversation, Mutiti and Machiri speak about Zvavahera’s exhibition What I See Beyond Feeling, at Stevenson Gallery, what her work evokes and its location in contemporary art in Zimbabwe.

What does Zvavahera’s work
evoke in terms of your days first encountering each other as artists?

Nontsikelelo Mutiti: Between 2001 and 2007, that’s when I had my introduction to that community of artists. I can see remnants of the training from BAT [British American Tobacco’s art school in Harare, now the National Gallery School of Visual Art and Design], techniques we were taught and things that we did when we’d go to classes at Gallery Delta [in Harare]. I can’t remember if Portia ever painted at Gallery Delta.

But there is a way that techniques were developed at Delta. There was printmaking taught at spaces but we didn’t have access to linoleum. We weren’t doing woodblock carving but people were doing collography. Building materials on to cardboard or carving into things or scratching into X-ray plates. I see all of that in this work.

There is a painterly way of working. When we were coming up, schools were emphasising impressionism and expressionism and I see that in the work itself if you think about the ink and the screen painting. A lot of these have that feeling. You are either building up the painting from dark ground or building up all these layers until you get to this dark surface in the background. It’s really layered and complicated. There isn’t just one colour.

About the scale of the work, the artist says it evokes a feeling of being lost in the world and feeling small.

NM: One thing that struck me was the scale. It is very impressive. I hadn’t seen works by Portia at this size and also thinking about her as individual, she is very quiet. And also the idea that the work is from her dreams. The idea that she is not verbalising what she is feeling. All of these things come in a subliminal way but are projected at this large scale. There is a main figure but there is always a figure that is being hidden or underneath. For me it feels like [it is addressing] safety. We are doing the work in our communities of being nurturers but we aren’t safe in those spaces.

Did you have a sense of where she was drawing from spiritually back then and do these works hint at that?

NM: At the moment there are a lot of social crises people face because of what has happened economically. So a lot of people are turning to spirituality, almost like hyperspirituality. It’s impossible not to be affected by it. For me the hands and the feet, those are parts of the body that are doing obvious work and this idea of salvation by works, by doing and doing and doing.

Robert Machiri: A lot of the figures in her work look like her, being a woman. So I think she takes from her image and her position in the world.

Do you find that there is a lot of dialogue among the Zimbabwean diaspora, artistically?

NM: When we were practising in Zimbabwe, from around 2001, I found it to be a little bit inward. We were looking at former masters. Helen Lieros is a big influence on most of us, whether we studied at Gallery Delta or not. There has been a moment now in the last three years where this community of artists has had opportunities to go out to residencies to do workshops in other places where they get to understand what is special about their own artistic production and voice.

RM: I think Zimbabwe is a very skills-based space with regard to art practice. This group including Masimba Hwati, Virginia Chihota, Portia Zvavahera – because [their art] happens on the cusp of the
economic meltdown. They start to look outside and reach out.

NM: There aren’t any prizes or sponsorships anymore. There used to
be competitions through the embassies. Now if you want to maintain a practice and you wanted it to be viable and if you wanted your work to reach a particular space, you need to start connecting with the outside world.

RM: There is an impressionism in how the figures are represented which I think reflects the way everyday subjects are treated, particularly in an environment where freedom of speech is silenced.

A lot of artists tend to talk about everyday subjects or scenes. I think Portia and her peers broke away from that and started to dig deeper into gender and all of that.

I think being a young nation, be it in painting or sculpture, you look at yourself first to define yourself, so it takes precedence over other physical things.

Artists are starting to experiment with sound and other things like physics or science. That reliance on the self is slowly breaking away.

How has sound been useful to you as a form of expression?

RM: As Africans we use sound but not in a critical sense like hearing sound in galleries. But I feel like the visual arts can sometimes be dictated by a white cube paradigm.

Being a visual artist, I draw in my sound practice and not the other way round. I bring in music to my visual arts practice. Artists are starting to get into other forms that were not visible at all and I think it is that diasporic effect.

NM: There is a lot of video work that is being done by people like Dana Whabira – she was at the Central St Martins [art school in London]. 

Dana Whabira is a curator and founder of Njelele Art Station. She presents a lot of video artwork at her space. 

The most recent exhibition was a video installation by Lucia Nhamo.

How much does religion factor into the artistic practice among some of the artists you are familiar with?

NM: I think Zimbabweans are overtly religious and overtly Christian. We were colonised by the Bible and that is something that has become our national identity. There’s been a shift from Catholicism and the Methodist and Anglican churches to the Apostolic faiths. At all times people are negotiating their belief system to different extents.

Do you find that people are critiquing that?

RM: Kudzanai Chuirai’s latest body of work is about colonialism and Christianity.

NM: I saw a beautiful piece of his called Emporium. He is using religious symbols like Mary and Jesus, with leopard skin. It seems very baroque and it is set up in this space that looks like a high-end boutique, so it speaks to the commodification of culture and religion as colonial instruments.

Some of the training at Gallery Delta involved the painting of religious icons. So when you look at Portia’s work, the figures do evoke deities, dark backgrounds and bright figures emitting light. The Madonna and Child.

RM: With Zimbabwe declaring itself a Christian country, with our president being Catholic, there is a lot of religious ritual embedded in our political events and psyche.

Portia Zvavahera’s exhibition, What I See Beyond Feeling, is showing at Stevenson Gallery in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, until January 27. She was the recipient of the FNB Art Prize Joburg Art Fair in 2014. She lives in Harare.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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