Article 1 Chaz Maviyane-Davies © the artist
Richard Moss vists Manchester to take in the many messages of Visons of Zimbabwe, showing at the Manchester Art Gallery until February 13 2005.
Given the current political climate in Zimbabwe, visitors to the latest exhibition at Manchester City Art Gallery could be forgiven for thinking this is a show of artists in political exile.
It's a feeling reinforced by the opening series of ‘posters’ by Chaz Maviyane-Davies, which offer a bleak interpretation of the UN Charter On Human Rights before giving way to Tsvangirayi Mukwahzi’s desolate photograph of a Harare street urchin.
A nearby floor installation by Tapfuma Gutsa features a huge animal trap, bleached bones, wheat and earth.
It makes for a sobering introduction and may confirm another suspicion in some minds that this is art given a platform and a freedom of expression for the very first time.
Street Kid, Harare, Zimbabwe, Tsvangirai Mukwazhi January 2001 &@169; the artist
But such thoughts are only part-truths. This fascinating and complex show, featuring ten contemporary artists working in a variety of media together with three writers, is very much about censorship but equally it is a showcase of artists who are active, working and creating in Zimbabwe today.
“When I came to put this together it was born more out of a desire to put our art on the map,” explains curator Raphael Chikukwa. “I want the international art world to see what is coming out of our country – some people might say it’s shattered, there’s nothing happening there but as soon as you see the art you will be surprised.”
Chikukwa is based at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Harare and has curated the Harare International Festival of Arts (HIFA) for the past three years.
For this, the first major show of it’s kind in the UK, he has pulled together an impressive roll call of fellow countrymen and women. All of them artists and survivors.
Two armed Zimbabwean police tell an unidentified young boy to keep his distance from President Robert Mugabe during the presidents tour of the Zimbabwe agriculture show in Harare, Thursday, August, 25, 2004. Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi © the artist
This is not to say the current crisis doesn’t inform the work on show. Much of the wall space is covered by the striking reportage of Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi and Calvin Dondo; their photographs offer a graphic reminder of the brutality of the Mugabe regime.
‘Say So’, an installation by Berry Bickle takes an oblique approach by exploring Zimbabwe's current plight through the theme of press censorship, in particular the letters page (the ‘Say So’ page) of the now defunct Daily News. On September 12 2003, the government closed the paper’s offices.
“The letters to the editor was a public forum,” explains Bickle, “Zimbabweans had a voice to say what they wanted to say – and it was being printed!”
A relic typewriter forms the central motif whilst others hang on wires above scorched letters mounted on the wall. Again this piece has been shown before, in a similar form in Zimbabwe, at last year’s HIFA.
Say-So Revisited 2003/2004 © Berry Bickle / Berryworks 2004
“There was a political response,” says Bickle, “in that I was severely criticised for taking these letters from the Daily News – the mouthpiece of the opposition, so it’s about all of that, it’s all the jargon, all the propaganda, all the issues.”
Her response was to symbolically scorch the letters.
On either side are two pieces constructed from people’s shirts together with photographs and letter fragments. Each of the tattered garments carries a black piece of cloth to signify mourning.
This work gives one a feeling of the fragility and poverty that people are living through and these textural rags offer a strong sense of a shattered existence.
Say-So Revisited 2003/2004 © Berry Bickle / Berryworks 2004
But it is also well to remember that the story of Zimbabwe is coloured by a history of colonialism and the more you study the work on display the more this older, deep-seated source of repression emerges.
Tapfuma Gutsa works with traditional stone carving together with video and sound. His sculpted piece Ngara subtly deals with some big issues regarding African art and its relationship with the west.
“It’s like an epic story that talks about the slave trade, the trade of goods and artefacts,” he tells me. “But to make a full-scale study of these things I would have to turn up at the British Museum because most of the material and the cultural fabric of Africa is vanishing.”
Gutsa comes from a carving background, and he uses his traditional skill to create a funerary, ritualistic feeling in his work that laments the death of African cultures.
Ngara 2004, Tapfuma Gutsa © the artist
A single green light creates a dripping effect across the piece. “It doesn’t stop, it’s like a leaking roof, also a heartbeat or the human condition,” he adds.
Voti Thebe has produced an installation that explores the process of independence from colonial rule. It features a skull, a pile of grain and the Zimbabwe and union jack flags entwined above a bucket of blood.
“For Zimbabwe to achieve independence – it was through the sacrifice of the people, it was the blood of the people,” he explains. “After 1980 the union jack came down and the Zimbabwe flag went up, no more Rhodesia, but what was going to be a promised land, a land flowing with milk and honey never came."
Ngeye Gazi - Ndeye Ropa, 2004, Voti Thebe. Picture © 24 Hour Museum
Thebe typifies the resilience of the Zimbabwean artist, working in Zimbabwe and seeking to explore the deeper issues of the past whilst struggling to get his art shown. He tells me how he had to fight to get his 'condom dress' (also on display here) shown in Harare.
“I went straight to the gallery and told them about my idea because I know there is not that kind of freedom when it comes to expression in Zimbabwe. You are there to agree with the director before you show anything and when at first she refused I kept on persuading her until she saw the light.”
“They thought it was taboo for one to expose the condom but later on, especially the young, they loved it and we gave talks on Aids and that particular dress was hired for campaigns into rural areas and towns.”
Night Rituals, David Brazier © the artist
The tragedy of Zimbabwe runs through the heart of this exhibition, but it is a show that works on many levels. It may be difficult to separate the art from the politics but it’s apparent that it is also a difficult balance for the artists.
“When you come to the west, it might also present a problem in that someone might say who do I support of the two sides,” says Tafuma Gutsa. “I emphatically say I have no side. I am only an artist.”
“You also might find yourself in a position where if you have been backing the wrong horse you will become a persona non-grata,” he adds, “and you have solved nothing at the end of the day.”
Soul of a Woman IV. Alice Tavaya © the artist
Visions of Zimbabwe is an important exhibition that successfully reveals some original voices, from dissident to non-aligned. It makes for a sometimes complex but always fascinating show.