In Harare, Zimbabwe
African contemporary art. It’s coming. The eyes of the contemporary art world are slowly turning toward the African continent.
I’m spending the summer working at a contemporary art gallery, First Floor Gallery Harare (FFGH), in Zimbabwe’s capital city. I’ve gotten a uniquely intimate and in-depth look at a field that most Zimbabweans and internationals know little about.
I don’t know a lot about African contemporary art, except for the work of the handful of artists who hang out at the gallery and what I’ve learned from the conversations that happen there. This by no means is a complete look at contemporary Zimbabwean art, and I don’t promise it’s a completely accurate one other, but this is my understanding so far. And I want to share this world I’ve learned about.
The biggest artist presence in the gallery comes from the trio of Moffat Takadiwa, Wycliffe Mundopa, and Gresham Nyaude. Terrence Musekiwa is around a lot too, and Zanele Mutema has made a few appearances. There are other artists who the gallery supports, but I haven’t met them yet.
All these artists are deeply connected to what’s going on around them, and respond to it in their art. These artists live in Harare’s ghettos (makes me uncomfortable to call the junior slums at Princeton, slums), and take inspiration from their surroundings. The artists’ studio, for example, tucked in an empty building behind Mbare High School, is not what you’d expect of three internationally exhibited artists. The artists use no easels. Paints slosh around in
bottles with the tops cut off. Wycliffe works standing over a painting on the floor, while Gresham prefers to nail the found paper he uses to wall. They don’t work late into the night, as you’d imagine a bunch of artists would, but go home before the sun sets around 5:30 since there is no electricity.
The circumstances of the studio reflect the philosophy behind the art. These guys want to respond to the conditions surrounding them: how could they do that in a well-lit, thoroughly supplied studio? These artists can’t afford much better, but even if they could, I think it’s important to them to be a part of the culture about which they create art.
Moffat likes to joke that he is a garbage man, collecting discarded objects, usually imports (Zimbabwe imports so many of their items) off the streets of Mbare and other ghettos. One of his works features dish soap bottle caps. This, he explains, is evidence of a people who have overcome, who can afford a luxury good like dish soap. Wycliffe paints about the condition of women and children in Harare’s poorer neighborhoods. Gresham’s most recent work responds to Zimbabwean propaganda-filled television. Unlike some of what I’ve seen in Harare, westernized and diluted, their art comes distinctly and uniquely from Harare, Zimbabwe.
Left to right 1. Victims of Propaganda, 2014, Gresham Nyaude 2. Disinformation: Super Highway to Africa, 2014, Moffat Takadiwa 3. Wild woman, 2014, Wycliffe Mundopa
The emerging field of African contemporary art comes with its own subtleties and challenges. First and foremost, consider that most people at home think working in a contemporary art gallery in Zimbabwe sounds crazy weird, or random. Why? Crazy weird because they don’t expect an art gallery, or an art scene, in Zimbabwe, all they really expect are African safaris and volunteers building schools. So for the general public, raising awareness about African contemporary art means raising awareness about what Africa is actually like: not all rural or bush, but in fact quite lively, modernized, and if we’re talking Harare, westernized, dotted with cities, big and small.
Once you get to the people who have gotten past that hurdle, though, there are more complexities to face. Right now, contemporary art in Africa faces the clash between tradition and modernity that so much of Harare is facing right now (how to modernize without westernizing, how to hold on to tradition while moving forward).
Then, consider the market for this art. The domestic market for art is slim—interest in collecting fine art is understandably low in a country that has just recently begun to regain its disposable incomes after a hyperinflation crisis. Previously, the country’s art scene was dominated by shona sculpture, made largely for an export market. So to make it big, you have to sell internationally (what is art that represents a region if few people in the region want to buy it?).
So you’re selling internationally—who do you sell to? Who you sell to can be (but is not necessarily) dictated by former mother countries. I don’t know how much contemporary art depends on colonial origins to sell, but it’s unfortunate that African countries trying to break from their former colonial identity rely at all on them, if a little bit, to sell.
The picture of African contemporary art gets even more complicated when you consider the African diaspora. The artists are born in African countries and have moved to Western countries to live and work. Take Wangechi Mutu, a Kenyan-born, Brooklyn-based artist who has a piece in Princeton University Art Museum’s permanent collection.
Mutu’s work is very different from the work that Moffat, Wycliffe, and Gresham produce. You cannot expect the same type of work to be produced in the ghettos of Zimbabwe’s capital as you do in Brooklyn, regardless of where that Brooklyn-based artist came from. That’s exactly the trouble: this is not African art. This is the art of an African immigrant living in a Western country. This art has a place, definitely, but which should not define the public perception of contemporary African art or dominate the collector’s market. It becomes more difficult for African artists living in Africa to break that perception and make it in the competitive world of buying and selling art.
Needless to say, African contemporary art is inextricably tied to the culture it comes from, with all of the complexities and challenges that the culture itself faces. I have found learning about this field so fascinating because learning about the artworks means, so immediately, learning about the culture in Harare and in Zim more broadly. To understand the art is to get a step closer to understanding the Zimbabwean people, and specifically those artists who produce the work. I’ve had great fun so far getting to know the artists, their art, and this art scene, and look forward to learning more!