The Wisdom of the Elders. (Courtesy of FNB Art Joburg)
Wycliffe Mundopa is the 2021 FNB Art Joburg Prize winner. His solo exhibition is titled Zva Nyadza, Shona for “to bear witness”. The show, which hangs in the eastern wing of the Johannesburg Art Gallery, comprises about a dozen impassioned paintings.
The gathered works shore Mundopa up as an artist who keeps faith and fidelity in the enduring power of painting.They are monumental canvases that meet visitors and viewers with the energy of a blood-drenched birth bed, charged with transformative potential.
At the heart of the show are the storied spectres of violence and vulgarities suffered by the women in a Zimbabwe brought to heel by years of Western sanctions and misrule. Mundopa gathers them: a roumor of rape here, a report of starvation there, even whispers of hope and defiant indulgent desire too. He then moulds each into coagulations of colours and clamorous clots of meaning on canvas.
Mundopa has managed to create an art anchored not only in tradition and intelligence, but something visceral. Forget painterly beauty: these works are evidence of a man clawing at the limits of his form. Testing, as it were, a painter’s version of Theodor Adorno’s proposition about the barbarism of poetry after Auschwitz.
Percy Mabandu: The world is finally emerging from two years or so of isolation occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic. How has this affected you ?
Wycliffe Mundopa: Two years is a long time so I was getting used to staying in the studio and focusing on my practice. Right now everything is moving back to normal and you need to start to readjust to things like preparing for art fairs and travel and things like that, but we’ve done it before and it is good to feel that things are back to moving forward and engaging with audiences more easily.
Q. Many people have found the isolation debilitating and unbearable. How did it affect your ability to remain creative and productive during the months of uncertainty and isolation?
On my side, the lockdown was a real positive because I spent most of my time in the studio and I produced a lot of work — my exhibition at Johannesburg Art Gallery is part of the body of work I made during the lockdown. I also had more of a focused space to reflect on my practice and to develop my work technically.
Your work is concerned with the plight and social conditions faced by women in Zimbabwe. How do you understand the potential effects your work can have on Zimbabwean society?
It is placing a little bit too much of a burden and being a little arrogant to expect a work of art to change a whole society, but if it can shed light on what is happening, then it is already important.
Your subject is concerned with the celebration or the beauty and resilience of Zimbabwean women, like your mother. Your painterly language is, however, very tactile, gestural and, one might say, violent. Could you please talk about this tension between this notion of beauty as graceful, and the robustness of your painterly language in your work?
I think the idea of beauty as a kind of grace and finesse or fragility you are referencing is a Eurocentric notion. The women I paint are real Zimbabwean women, African women. They are powerful, vigorous, vibrant and dynamic; they are my idea of beauty as a Zimbabwean, as an African. I do not subscribe to ideas of beauty from outside. I celebrate what I see, the way I see it.
You came of age in a Zimbabwe in which many of your peers had to leave to seek better opportunities elsewhere. You chose to stay and work from Zimbabwe during these difficult times. Could you please describe how you came to make this choice and how this affected the way you see you work?
Back in 2011, at a workshop we had at our studio, I remember discussing this subject with fellow artists, because this was a real question for many of them at the time, and continues to be, on a certain level. At the time my response was, “This suffering is what makes us.” I stayed because I felt that it was my responsibility as an artist to speak the truth of the experiences of my people and you cannot do that if you are not sharing those experiences with them. This is why I stayed and my position has not altered.
Q. Zimbabwe has a long and rich art history. Where do you locate your artistic practice within this heritage and why?
As a student of art history, I am keenly aware of those who came before me in the history of Zimbabwean art, but I don’t want to compare myself with anyone. Every artist has their own unique way of seeing things and sharing that vision; in fact, this is their responsibility. My responsibility is to present Wycliffe Mundopa’s unique vision and that is what I want to do.
Q. Do you remember your first interaction with art? Describe to me about how and when you decided you wanted to become an artist?
The critical moment for me was visiting an artist studio on a school field trip, when I was about 15. For the first time I realised that doing this can be a job and also that this was my calling. I have never looked back.
Q. You have made a case for the importance of presenting life in your home country with the same pathos and grandeur as the Dutch masters like Rubens and Rembrandt, while situating yourself as an heir to the grand tradition. Please describe how you negotiate this European tradition with your Zimbabwean or African creative heritage; particularly in a world grappling with decolonial ideas?
I situate myself as an heir to the global history of art as an equal heir not constrained by either my location or identity. The reference to Rubens and Rembrandt is to them first and foremost as masters of the painting in oil tradition, which is as much a technical skill, as one to do with storytelling. For centuries, Europeans have felt comfortable borrowing and appropriating African skills, visual and artistic traditions; I have no problem turning the tables on that and doing it consciously. This is absolutely a decolonial position and one in which I assert my agency as an artist to choose freely how and why I express exactly what I want to express.
Q. African contemporary artists often have to negotiate a disconnecting, or alienation between the communities they grow up in, and the places where their art is consumed. Your work is very much about your community. Can you describe how the women and community that are the subject of your painting respond to your work?
Everyone in the world has a different opinion on each and every subject, so it is very difficult to say or predict how people see my work or react to it. But one thing for sure is that they can relate to the subject that I paint. One thing that I have heard Zimbabwean women say is that they feel “seen” in my work — they recognise themselves and women they know in the paintings and feel this validation as important in an environment where their needs are often neglected or dismissed. I can’t ask for more than that.
Q. Your work has been described as an act of bearing witness. This is a language often used to speak about photojournalism. How do you understand your social role as painter in a world so saturated with photojournalism about what is happening internationally and in your home, Zimbabwe?
I don’t aspire to document. This is truly the place of more accurate instruments like photography. My work is not documentary or in any way literal. My subjects, while based on real people, are painted allegorically and symbolically. I employ a lot of visual references to vernacular slang, to comment on social conditions and create microcosmic mis-en-scenès, which speak to expanded situations. My job as an artist is to reflect and to create space for reflection and interpretation; to create the freedom for personal response and thought in every person who engages with my work.