Over the past two decades, Zimbabwe, a largely agrarian southern African country of 17 million inhabitants, has been buffeted by seemingly endless troubles. The carnivorous politics at the centre of these problems are hard to overlook – particularly in appraisals of art from this landlocked country – but are also easily overstated. Despite the collapse of Zimbabwe’s agricultural economy, hyperinflation, blatant election tampering, intimidation of opposition politicians and the November 2017 military coup d’état that unseated the country’s autocratic president, Robert Mugabe, artists there have continued working and exhibiting. The northeastern capital of Harare has retained a cosmopolitan character, with an energetic and worldly community of artists congregated around the National Gallery of Zimbabwe (NGZ), a prim Le Corbusier-inspired building with reinforced concrete stilts that first opened in 1957.
Painting, especially of the human figure, has emerged as a preferred form for Harare’s artists: it is a medium rife with exploratory possibility and expressive opportunity. The paintings of Virginia Chihota, Misheck Masamvu, Gareth Nyandoro, Gresham Tapiwa Nyaude and Portia Zvavahera employ divergent techniques to affirm the body in all its forms, whether at work or at rest, in pain or pleasure, alone or in embrace. How do we read the recurrence of the figure in their works? Is it an act of defiance in a place of hunger, suffering and death? And why is German expressionism so frequently invoked to make sense of Zimbabwe’s colour-rich figurative painting?
Zimbabwe has never really been celebrated for its painters; its tradition of stone sculpture is far more widely recognized. However, for a brief period in the 1960s, black painters from the former British colony of Southern Rhodesia commanded widespread interest outside their country. In 1962, Alfred Barr, the first director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, acquired several paintings by Thomas Mukarobgwa, Joseph Ndandarika and Kingsley Sambo during a visit to the country, eventually including them in the exhibition ‘New Art from Rhodesia’ six years later. Tutored by Frank McEwen, the founding director of NGZ, these Workshop School painters remain an important reference point.
In 2011, Raphael Chikukwa, the current chief curator of the NGZ, included six of Masamvu’s existentially fraught, figurative paintings in the inaugural Zimbabwe Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale, along with a bench-like sculpture titled Deliverance (2011). (A politically explicit seventh painting mysteriously disappeared in transit.) Chikukwa saw an affinity between Masamvu’s ecstatic explosions of colour and the work of Mukarobgwa. It was McEwen who coined the phrase ‘Afro-German expressionism’ to account for Mukarobgwa’s colour-rich and atavistic style, which in Masamvu’s case exceeds affinity, claiming instead direct influence.
Born three months after Zimbabwean independence in 1980, Masamvu began attending Saturday workshops at Gallery Delta, a pioneering space opened in 1975 by painter Helen Lieros with her art dealer husband, Derek Huggins. In 1999, Masamvu participated in a workshop at the gallery led by visiting German-American artist Jerry Zeniuk and, later, in the mid-2000s, won a scholar-ship to study under this colour-interested abstract painter at Munich’s Academy of Fine Arts. Masamvu’s German education is reflected in his phenomenological approach to colour and strategy of incompletion. His earliest paintings were graphically accomplished figure studies offering uncomplicated statements on Zimbabwe’s grim politics. X (2004), a black male bust floating atop a red ground, is typical: the man’s face is assiduously detailed, his mouth sealed with red tape. In 2004, the Committee to Protect Journalists ranked Zimbabwe third after Iraq and Cuba as the most hazardous place for reporters.
Two of Masamvu’s six paintings presented in Venice showcase his mature style. Sacred Verse (2011), a particular standout, depicts an exhausted bull with a serpent tail mounted from the front by a human torso disappearing into a lizard-like creature; it is a remarkable synthesis of mythical figuration and scallop patterning, a strategy that persists in his work. A Gentleman’s Hustle (2011) portrays a stoic male figure in Christ-like pose, his face a confluence of lush yet delicate brushwork, his hollow abdomen the site of a foosball game viewed by tiny featureless figures. Though their meaning remains cryptic, both works include abstractly rendered figures involved in metaphorical labours linked to the country’s impoverished times.
Masamvu uses the figure as both a formal and metonymic device. ‘I am interested in the balance of space, and how a figure relates in that space,’ he told me, further describing how his technique has evolved from ‘disfiguring’ to ‘transfiguration’. Painted shortly after Masamvu’s Venice debut, the four-metre-long canvas Fruit of Life (2012) portrays a bare tree holding up a lifeless body and bears out the artist’s habit of balancing exegetical statement with exuberant colour. His blocks and circles of colour are not simply background fill. In his pastel-toned Zombie President (2017), for instance, a work that references Zimbabwe’s former premier, two loosely painted figures with big, cartoonish hands emerge from a crowd of circular heads that also constitute a backdrop, or painterly ground.
The collapse of figure and ground that is so pervasive in Masamvu’s work also typifies Tapiwa Nyaude’s paintings, several of which appeared in the 2018 New Museum Triennial in New York. The motley, camouflage-inspired, agitprop canvases conceal far more than they reveal. The standout diptych, If You Want to Help Us You Need to Understand, Part 1 and Part 2 (2018), employs bright blocks of colour as a claustrophobic setting for half-formed interlaced bodies, some with suggestions of heads, all of them obscured by dense patterns. In Wrong Conversation, Part 3 (2016), two crudely delineated male figures are portrayed against a bold patchwork backdrop that partially subsumes their bodies. Politics, identity, propaganda and consumer culture all collide in Nyaude’s work, which is as indebted to Jean-Michel Basquiat’s decomposing figuration as to Masamvu’s existential paintings.
Unlike most of his peers, Nyaude explicitly engages with race. The face of one of the characters in Wrong Conversation is painted in an undifferentiated shade of charcoal black, reminiscent of Kerry James Marshall’s depictions of African-Americans. Many of Nyaude’s canvases, such as his pop-surreal The New Zimbabwe (2018), portray incomplete figures with fat-lipped mouths that quote the hoary visual legacy of ‘Sambo’ caricatures. The constant inclusion of these degraded symbols of blackness in his work is complex, though broadly consistent with a strategy of creative hijacking – or détournement, to quote Guy Debord – evident among a younger generation of artists, including South Africa-based painter Mxolisi Vusi Beauchamp and artist collective Dead Revolutionaries Club. For instance, in Nyaude’s The Red General (2018), a disfigured central subject with a laughing Sambo head foregrounds identity politics and the body in a work ostensibly about martial power.
Chihota and Zvavahera also explore these themes in their figurative paintings, but in ways that register a different understanding of power and criticality. Writing in 1999, the author Yvonne Vera, a former director of NGZ’s satellite space in Bulawayo, observed that a woman writer ‘must have an imagination that is plain stubborn, that can invent new gods and banish ineffectual ones’. Chihota and Zvavahera both transmit this iconoclasm through their work. Chihota’s drawings and monoprints, though less explicitly colourful than those of her peers, are more ranging in style. Some are cartoonish and biting, such as her gaudy bridal portrait of a jet-black figure with a mask-like face and elaborate floral dress, from her series ‘Mistakes in the Right Lines’ (2013). But Chihota is just as adept at life studies: Ndombundira Chokwadi Chandinoziva (I Embrace the Truth I Know, 2011) is a disarming image of a sleeping woman, arms folded, lying on a pink couch, the green pillow supporting her head forming a kind of halo. Meanwhile, in her screen print Kuzviwira (Fighting Self, 2016), two ballooning figures, caught in a strange embrace, blend into near abstraction, evoking coupling and intimacy.
Zvavahera uses oil-based printing inks and oil bar to create limpid portraits of club-footed giants and spectral female figures decked in regal finery that are reminiscent of Diego Velázquez’s stately portraits. Cover Me (2017), a full-length study of an apparitional figure in a billowing dress, is typical for its mucky application and elaborate patterning, which the artist prints rather than paints. What I See Beyond Feeling #2 (2016) is an arresting portrayal of grief: Zvavahera loosely conjures the act of mourning in two bodily forms that interlock against a thick purple ground. Sacred Vessels (2016) also explores this figural union and includes a child-like form beneath the pattern of the central figure’s dress. For all their raw, expressionist verve, the grace and intricacy of these works recall Gustav Klimt.
Like Zvavahera and Chihota, Nyandoro is a graduate of Harare Polytechnic. An outlier among this group of painters, his installations depicting Harare street life – and also footballers in his 2017 exhibition, ‘Stall(s) of Fame’, at Palais de Tokyo in Paris – are made from layers of paper that he inks, cuts and lacerates to form portraits, in a process similar to décollage. Timau Ichiita Madhiri Ayo (2016), for example, features two bare-chested labourers, expressionistically evoked, building a wall. The work is from a series about urban hustle in Harare and is noteworthy for its recognition of the reciprocity and mutuality involved in labour. This process of recognition is, perhaps, what is most fundamental about the new painting coming out of Zimbabwe. In a country tenuously negotiating political change, the figure – whether alone or in communion, suppressed or even disfigured – proposes fragile transcendence in the face of ‘hyena politics’.
Virginia Chihota is an artist based in Podgorica, Montenegro. In 2016, she had a solo exhibition at Tiwani Contemporary, London, UK, and in 2017, her work was included in a group exhibition at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna, Austria.
Misheck Masamvu is an artist based in Harare, Zimbabwe. In 2017, his work was included in group exhibitions at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, Cape Town, South Africa, and Heong Gallery, Cambridge, UK.
Gareth Nyandoro is an artist based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and Harare, Zimbabwe. In 2017, he had a solo show at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris, France, and later this year he will have a solo exhibition at SMAC Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa.
Gresham Tapiwa Nyaude is an artist based in Harare, Zimbabwe. In 2017, he had a solo exhibition at First Floor Gallery, Harare. Earlier this year, his work was included in the New Museum Triennial, New York, USA.
Portia Zvavahera is an artist based in Harare, Zimbabwe. In 2017, she had solo exhibitions at Stevenson Gallery, Johannesburg, and Marc Foxx Gallery, Los Angeles, USA. Her work is currently included in the 10th Berlin Biennale, Germany.
This article appears in the print edition of frieze, June/July/August 2018, issue 196, with the title 'Defiant Bodies'.
Main image: Gresham Tapiwa, Nyaude, New Zimbabwe (detail), 2018, oil on unstretched canvas, 1.8 × 2.7 m. Courtesy: the artist and First Floor Gallery, Harare