I am struck by the unoriginal thought that violence and struggle often appear alongside great beauty. I do not accept that artists must suffer in order to make good art. But I cannot help but notice the two narratives that emerge in the works exhibited in artHARARE Contemporary Art Fair. The first story is a sense of great excitement at the wealth and variety of talent on show. And the second is the way the experience of being raised in Harare has shaped the work of these artists. The reference to violence is not focused on the physical. There are many shapes to this unkind beast: economic violence; structural violence; historical violence; the violence of loss; the violence of diaspora and, of course, the violence of love.
Before speaking to the work itself, this review will provide some context into the thinking behind the founding and curation of artHARARE. The fair is an online showcase of contemporary Zimbabwean and diaspora artists. The first edition was launched in 2020, a year not easily forgotten. The most recent edition of artHARARE was held in December 2021 and in addition to the digital offering, a number of in-person studio visits and talks were scheduled to take place in Harare. Sadly, the international community’s response to the Omicron variant of Covid-19 scuppered this vital part of the fair, which going forward promises to add an important dimension to an otherwise digital event. Online exhibitions and fairs have dominated the past two years of the pandemic and it is now possible to reflect on the possibilities and challenges that online formats present.
map on the website www.artharare.online
artHARARE’s use of the online space enables the art fair to include Zimbabwean artists regardless of their geographical location. Apart from the relative ease of sharing files, the lack of physical venue subtlety bypasses the entanglement of place and privilege. Artists cohabit a collective space based on their mother country regardless of whether they are self-taught, attended Goldsmiths in London or the National Gallery School in Harare.
When navigating the website, the viewer encounters a map of the city with various pins with the names of the exhibiting artists. The viewer then clicks on a name to be taken to a room that shows the artist’s work. The image of a map of Harare with location pins referencing Google Maps is a thought-provoking devise to hold the artists and to assist in navigating the site and experience the art fair. No distinction is made between local and diaspora artists. The participating artists are at various stages of their careers. Some are still establishing themselves. Others already have gallery representation and solo shows behind them. It is a beautiful thing to find a space where established and emerging artists can co-exist.
One challenge going forward is how to enable the viewer to take in details of a work. Many of the artworks are densely layered or made from alternative art materials and it is a pity that the richness of these textures is not captured in all works in the current online format. No doubt these wrinkles in the online viewing experience will be ironed out as the fair continues to evolve.
Part love song, part ode, the curatorial statement refers to the ways ‘Harare transacts with mobile money and prophesizes in tongues. Harare and its love of abstraction. Harare is bio-plus energy and metamorphosis of bodies, materials, language, energy and time.’ The curatorial statement positions Harare as a ‘catalyst and an incubator’. These are productive ways to frame the city and Zimbabwean creative identity.
In taking its title from Dambudzo Marechera’s lines ‘I sing No More Roses But Walk Through Harare Mazes’ the curatorial team set the tone for the fair’s deep commitment to growing the creative industries, not only in Zimbabwe but also across the continent. The potency of the statement locates the creative spirit and thought behind the fair firmly in the lived experience and complexity of the city of Harare and diaspora identities. These experiences are also captured in the interviews with participating artists that were posted on the artHARARE website and Facebook page. These are not the stories one might find on international news feeds about Zimbabwe or the Zimbabwean diaspora.
The relationship between lived experience and art making recalls Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina’s autobiography where he writes, ‘In a way writing keeps me close to people. I feel comfortable taking huge leaps of perception and knowing I can come back to what I have written and build it into a defendable shape.’
I am interested in the closeness to people and the density of human experience captured in artHARARE. Most of the artworks on show are figurative or reference the human form. The rooms are filled with portraits, snippets of city life, glimpses into private homes and snapshots of Zimbabwean life. There is a strong emphasis on the photographic. Even those works that are not photographs exhibit a photographic way of seeing the world. This suggests the way society is mediated by mobile phone and media, but also potentially references the nostalgia of old family photographs that have travelled great distance.
Franklyn Dzingai. Photoshoot with Uncle. 2021.
Franklyn Dzingai. Afternoon Photoshoot. 2021
Franklyn Dzingai’s rich mixed media works Afternoon Photoshoot and Photoshoot with Uncle make overt reference to the photographic medium and also the ritual of documenting family gatherings and relationships. Dzingai’s collage of magazine images, flat blocks of colour, textile prints and painted detail provide timeless scenes of everyday life.
Wilfred Timire’s works similarly references his lived experience. Timire’s tapestry works are created from found packaging and include the very stuff of Harare streets.
In Lover’s Call the red, blue and white tartan of plastic-weave “China bags” is immediately recognizable and speaks to cross-border trade, migrant labour and diaspora. A number of artists, including Nobukho Nqaba and Dan Halter, have explored the symbolism of this bag. Timire has crafted the zipper section of the bag into a jacket worn by the young man as he talks on his mobile phone to his lover.
Wilfred Timire. Lover’s Call. 2021
In another work by Timire, Untitled, a young woman appears to be styling her hair in a shard of mirror. Behind her the elephant logo of PPC cement bags appears in the background. The reclamation of found materials speaks to ingenuity; not only of the artist but also the urban poor living on the periphery of African cities like Harare where homes are often insulated and decorated with found printed materials.
Wilfred Timire. Untitled. 2021
Timire speaks to the inseparable link between his lived experience and his art making as he references scenes and people around him.
Nothando Chiwanga’s photographs are also situated within the artist’s life and encompass performance and stylized self-portraiture. Chiwanga has a preference for using her own body as subject and presents herself with unflinching directness. Kuenda Kunhimbe depicts an almost mythic female protagonist in a dry maize field. She has a hoe over her shoulder and three thick books balanced on her head. The books are draped with a white chiffon scarf and the model is dressed in a blue satin wrap. Her gaze is direct and challenging. The full sun appears strong and hot. Chiwanga’s image is thick with references. Woman as tiller of fields and feeder of family. Woman as source of knowledge. A holy virgin. A fertility goddess. A freedom fighter.
Nothando Chiwanga. Kuenda Kunhimbe. Photograph, 2020.
The symbolic language of hoe, book and maize reoccur in an untitled work by Chiwanga portraying a demure subject looking over her shoulder. The sophisticated lighting and styling of both images by Chiwanga emphasizes the promiscuous nature of contemporary photographic practice: fine art photography overlaps with fashion, which borrows from gallery walls.
Tamary Kudita, That evening sun goes down, Photograph, 2021
A similar phenomenon can be found in the work of Tamary Kudita, who won the 2021 Open Photographer of the Year, part of the Sony World Photography Awards, for her image African Victorian. The work forms part of a series featuring styled models and explores the hybrid complexities of past and current African identities. The two figures in elaborate black dresses stirring a large pot over a fire in her composition That evening sun goes down appear prophetic and powerful. These young women could be cooking enough sadza to feed the nation from a pot that never empties. Alternatively, they could be brewing something more powerful than the promise of full bellies. The visual language is Afrofuturist and the messages multiple.
The ambiguity of the numerous experiences referenced in the work exhibited in artHARARE is compelling. Daniel Chimurure’s collage entitled Varedzi II presents a silhouette of figures holding up shapes that read as fish traps but could also be satellite dishes. The line of people could be fishermen working as one, or media hungry individuals trying to find signal. They could also be an advancing protest.
Daniel Chimurure. Varedzi II. 2021
The line between protest and everyday acts of entertainment and survival links many of the works on show in artHARARE. Some artworks were created with unorthodox materials like discarded sacking, old calendars and card, while others were executed in oil on canvas and graphite on Fabriano paper. Regardless of their professional background and the materials they use, the artists participating in artHARARE share a common urgency and compulsion to make – it thumps like a bass beat. This is the violence of love. It is also the power of tapping into the particulars of a place. There is truth to James Baldwin’s words to his nephew, ‘Know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go.'