Painters at Bulawayo's National Gallery
Zimbabwe's history as a modern African nation centres around the city of Bulawayo. The battle for Bulawayo and its surrounding provinces forged Zimbabwe's identity, from the pre-colonial era, throughout colonial conquest and even as an independent nation.
It was here in 1840, that the Matabele King, Mzilikazi and his followers fled the Zulu kingdom, seeking refuge from the brutal and erratic, final years of Shaka Zulu's reign. Mzilikazi and his warriors claimed this land by eventually defeating all the rival clans that contested his authority in the region.
Moreover, only twenty-five years later, when Cecil John Rhodes and his colonial cabal sought to control southern Africa's gold reserves, Bulawayo once again became a battleground for those willing to lay claim to its riches. For the Matabele, it was the ideal base to forge their nation while for Rhodes and his cohorts it was the gateway in a quest to further expand British influence in Africa.
Since then, much blood has been spilt on the red soiled lands that characterise these lands. Indeed it is perhaps fitting that Mzilikazi's successor, Lobengula chose to name his kingdom, Bulawayo which simply means "the Place of Slaughter."
Today, the century-old struggle for this great city's resources has ended and Bulawayo is now known colloquially as the 'City of Kings' and 'Blue Skies'. Though it is a much changed physical and political environment, remnants of its past are still evident among its diverse inhabitants and eclectic architecture. Both of which embody the syncretic relation between its colonial past and modern African vibrancy.
An apt example of this syncretic relationship exists in the National Art Gallery on Main Street. Originally constructed in Rhodesia, in 1901, it now plays host to established and aspiring Zimbabwean artists, several of whom have become Harmattan partners. In this century-old symbol of imperialism, this new generation of local artists are ushering in their own indigenous art movement, amidst the backdrop of their anachronistic setting.
These are their stories:
Brian Kumira, always wanted to be an artist and have a studio in the National Gallery.
He remembers going on primary school trips to the gallery where he would see local residents and foreign tourists admiring what the artists of that time were producing. He would imagine himself there, pondering how many languages he would have to speak to negotiate all his sales.
He therefore decided to make art his main academic focus and completed his first oil-painting at the age of 12 and later pursued art and graphic design courses to further his ambitions. He has since created his own distinct style, merging the lively colour schemes of traditional Ndebele society with abstract imagery and concomitantly utilising materials such as newspaper clippings in his mixed media works.
Brian also began to teach art at several schools, including; Milton, Northlea, Luveve and King George VI for the disabled. When it is feasible, he runs workshops and training courses for young aspiring artists from his compact, wood-panelled studio in the gallery. He believes in an unrestricted approach to teaching, contending that allowing young artists to explore their freedoms is more beneficial than strict instruction. He adds: “I don’t want them to be like me. They need to discover their own identities as artists. The biggest lesson I can give them is to work hard myself, so that my success motivates them to keep working hard.”
Brian’s greatest ambition is to attend an overseas exhibition where his art is being displayed. His work has been purchased as far afield as Sweden and South Korea, but he has never had an opportunity to travel overseas himself. He humorously adds: “If we are not getting tourists to come here and buy our work… I’d like to become a tourist myself and take my work to them.”
At just 25 years old, George Masarira is the youngest artist in residence at the gallery. Despite his tender years, George is fast earning acclaim as one of Zimbabwe's top artists. In 2015, his work was the subject of exhibitions in Germany and the Netherlands.
He was born in a rural district known as Gokwe. Gokwe is vast in area but sparse in population, with only 24 000 people in the region. As George aspired to become an artist from a very young age, he realised he would have to leave Gokwe to make a name for himself. He left his home in his teens and enrolled at the Mzilikazi Arts and Crafts Centre in Bulawayo. Named after Bulawayo's founding father, the centre has nurtured aspiring artists from all over southern Africa since its inception in 1963.
Gokwe Primary School
Although George now lives in one of southern Africa's major cities and has exhibited internationally, his oil paintings often depict the simplicity of life in rural areas such as Gokwe, deftly infusing vibrancy and emotion into his subject matter. His preferred subjects tend to be rural women, as they evoke powerful emotions within him.
Both George's parents died when he was very young. Having grown up as an orphan, George would observe the people around him to imagine what his family would have been like. He expresses these themes of familial care and parental duty in his artwork, as he says they not only inspire his imagery but also prove therapeutic for him as well. He believes his early life challenges have helped him forge his talent and notably he often depicts a young boy in the company of elders in his paintings. This is his way of vicariously representing a life he could witness but never fully experience.
Nompilo Nkomo is one of the most remarkable people we have met. She is not simply remarkable as an artist but as a young woman of immeasurable fortitude.
Nompilo was born on Christmas Day, in 1980, the same year Zimbabwe became an independent country. She was born disabled. Nompilo has never been diagnosed with a specific condition and is simply regarded as physically handicapped. However from what we understand, she was born with severe cerebral palsy. Although she has very little control of her upper body, she has become incredibly adept at using her legs and feet as substitutes for her hands.
Nompilo’s mother died when she was still a child and she was placed in the care of her grandmother. She resented being seen as somebody who would have to be looked after by others. Moreover she did not want her grandmother and relatives to alter their lives to accommodate hers, so she taught herself to use her feet the way she saw other people using their hands. Initially people were surprised to see her use her feet to function in life but Nompilo sought to do much more than just function, she sought to create, sought to demonstrate that within her body despite its outward appearance of fragility, she possessed great talent.
In time, others took notice of her as well and she received sponsorships to gain further training in the arts. She is now a resident artist in the National Art Gallery and the recipient of a stipend that affords her shared space in a studio.
Her work portrays her upbringing in a rural district known as Esigodini. She depicts the simplicity of this world and the barren beauty of African village life. To do this, Nompilo mixes her painting materials with the materials that were most prominent in her childhood. She uses maize meal (also known as corn meal), raw sorghum and even shreds of clothing she once wore to represent her place in life as a village child.
Nonhlanhla Mathe is arguably Zimbabwe’s best known female artist.
She has won the National Award of Merit for her 'Heritage' exhibitions and has a catalogue of art that has been exhibited in neighbouring countries such as Botswana and Namibia and as far afield as Denmark. Nonhlanhla has also taken the bold step of hosting solo exhibitions at the National Art Gallery which she says is not financially viable but is nevertheless professionally fulfilling. She adds: “This is what I dedicate my life to doing… it is my pride I put on display.”
“My paintings are abstract and semi abstract figurative works made with [raised] textures and with an emphasis on colourful finishing. I find inspiration in peoples' lives, reflecting their expectations, experiences and points of view.” She adds: “This being said, I focus mainly on women because obviously as a woman I can relate to their lives but also because I like the idea of a woman representing women without male control.”
Aside from being a resident artist at the gallery, she also teaches art to A’level students at her old school, Townsend Girls High. She recently won an award for the nation’s best female artist in the visual arts and has been nominated for an award by a Michigan-based organisation that spotlights undiscovered African artists.