- Nyadzombe Nyampenza
Chimutuwah, an emerging powerful womens’ voice.
by Nyadzombe Nyampenza
Prudence Chimutuwah, Face Yebasa, 2021 (detail) mixed media (image courtesy of author)
Face dzebasa’ is Prudence Chimutuwah’s debut solo exhibition at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe (NGZ), Harare. The show, which opened on the 1st of June 2022, consists of intensely colorful portraits reflecting on the artist’s experiences and that of other women in her life. With a non-objectifying gaze the artist pays tribute to women’s hustle, struggle, and successes. The work derives its charisma from a female dialect laced with innuendo.
Chimutuwahs’ portraits depict a younger demographic of women dressed in patterned frocks. Some of the clothes fashioned into so-called ‘African attire,’ are made from gift wrappers with designs similar to Dutch wax print. Culturally inspired dressing of this kind is not as ubiquitous as the show might suggest. Aside from high-end Eurocentric fashion, young women in Zimbabwe are likely to be seen in knockoff designer brands fished out a pile of second hand clothes at the flea market. The sartorial choice is assertive of indigenous ethnicity, at the risk of being mistaken for Afropolitan virtue signaling. In the metropolis women can be seen parading a variety of footwear, yet Chimutuwahs’ protagonists are barefooted at home, on the street, and in the office. Bare feet in traditional customs suggest that the person is in a holy place, or taking part in a religious ceremony.
In the piece titled ‘’Money Juggler’’ a matronly figure stands in full dress with a distracted gaze as cash flows in a magical arch above her head. The right hand holds a pile of cash, which is either being released to the left or accumulating from that direction. As the title suggests the scene is that of a person juggling with decommissioned Zimbabwean fifty thousand dollar notes that were issued fourteen year ago. In common street lingo the idea behind this symbolic image is also called ‘’Kutenderedza’’ making money go round, or ku spinner (spinning) cash. The synonymous colloquial terms convey a sense of kinetic energy, but juggling would resonate with working women who are daily forced to balance childcare, domestic work, and employment.
In Prudences' work posture conveys mood and attitude, such as diligence in ‘Money Changer’, thoughtfulness in ‘Strategist’ and independence in ‘Seductress’. In most cases women are depicted in a masculine posture with parted legs, and showing the back of their hands. The manly stance suggests elevation of the subject into a position of power and influence.
Chimutuwah casts her models in shifting roles that manifest a new persona with different characteristics each time. It speaks to the resilience and versatility of women who are required to play many roles. Women are revealed not only as the sacrificing parent, long suffering partner, career woman, hardworking student, and business woman, but also streetwise hustler, and swindler. One thing the heroines and anti-heroine have in common is their supernatural amazing hair. Without judgment they are exceptionally crowned with iridescent Afros, fiery braids, glowing cornrows, and spiky dreadlocks.
Installation view of Face Dzebasa at National Gallery of Zimbabwe, Harare (image courtesy of the author)
Prudences’ work typically blends images with indecipherable text. In the current exhibition the work incorporates less opaque texts that are in some places overlaid with hand written values. The texts advance the story of each painting. The artist continues her practice of embedding decommissioned Zimbabwean currency. It brings a chilling reminder of historical hyperinflation as evidenced by use of the fifty billion dollars note issued on the 15th of May 2008. Chimutuwah also makes use of the bible, old periodicals, and textbooks. In one portrait a young lady with a big yellow Afro hairstyle looks away into abstract space. The only clue that she has money on her mind is a crudely made notice beside her with the statement ‘’TINOTENGA MARI DZAKABVARUKA.’’ The sign is displayed by foreign currency traders who buy damaged notes for less than face value. Another portrait shows a reclining woman holding a post dated list with the heading ‘’Zvikwereti’’ dated as 2024 and 2025. Although the heading alludes to owing as well as being owed, the comfortably reclined posture of the sitter suggests it is likely the later. A noticeable element is how people are not simply mentioned by name but also with reference to kinship with the author.
Prudence Chimutuwah, Money Juggler, 2022 (detail), mixed media (image courtesy of the author)
Props used by Chimutuwah’s models are both functional and representative. Persona and background are amplified by the type of furniture used, such as the swivel chair, high backed armchair, stool, and on the floor. The objects providing support evoke ambiance and project dominance.
Some of the portraits in the exhibition are close-up and read like typical auto selfies but less self-regarding. The subject stares back at the viewer as if it were a mirror reflecting their female gaze. A diptych titled ‘Lady Boss’ has the models looking above the reams of fancy glasses perched over the nose, with a commanding and interrogative stare. In ‘Face yebasa1’, 2 and 3 the models' soul baring wide-open peepers regard the viewer through attention grabbing eyewear. As a figure of speech, ‘Face yebasa’ could mean a facade put on for a convenient moment. It may also mean taking off the social mask to get real and engage with the business at hand. Seen together the triptych is an inviting trio of empowered young women.
In the image titled ‘Power Nap’ a woman with a sleeping baby girl strapped upon her back is seated with hands cupping her face. The posture is that of an exhausted person trying to shut out the world for a moment and catch a mental and physical break. Bundles of cash at her feet and around her seat indicate that she is involved in some money changing business. She could be tired from touting for customers. Maybe she doesn’t get enough sleep because she has to get up early for work, and finishes late. Relative to the mood of the sitter, the decorative palette seems to glamourize her condition. Nonetheless, women who apply makeup in the morning before going out for whatever business would understand that glamming up is far from glossing over their problems. ‘Face yeBasa’ can mean to look nice, put on a brave face and stay in the game despite previous missteps and failure. Chimutuwahs’ over the top presentation is validating, empowering, and steeped in irony.
For Prudence who is also a parent, making art is not about exploiting other people’s circumstances. The introverted artist’s doppelganger is staged in various postures seemingly engaged in some crucial task. Whilst the other subjects’ posturing is bold, extroverted and performative, her averted gaze turns the viewer into a voyeur. A Chimutuwah lookalike is featured in ‘Bhuku re Zvikwereti’, ‘Bindauko’, and other instances. By putting herself in similar circumstances the artist establishes affinity with her collaborators. Against the backdrop of inflation and economic struggle, her characters are transformed into Deities by the redemptive power of her paintbrush. Maybe this is how she would want to be seen and remembered by her offspring, and perhaps the way she recalls the legacy of her own mother.
Coming from the exhibition at the Gallery a visitor immediately steps into the social settings navigated by Chimutuwah’s emancipated women. Exiting to the right on Julius Nyerere Way and getting up to the traffic light, another right turn leads into Union Street. Women selling fruit and vegetables, and others peddling a variety of pills populate this block. These are the protagonists of Chimutuwahs’ exhibition. Off the wall they are not odorless, flamboyant and ostentatiously dressed as their avatars. This is the grim reality of the world from which Prudence’s characters ascend.
Over at the busy Speke Bus Terminus the crowd gets thinker and the drama is amplified. Foreign currency dealers mumble and hiss at passers by. They walk the tightrope between the official exchange rate and the prevailing black market rate. Only folks desperate to get a fare to board the public transport bother to exchange a few hard-earned American dollars. Prudence’s work celebrates economic survival in these streets, where consciously and unconsciously everyone puts on their game face.
‘Face Dzebasa" heralds an emerging and powerful womens’ voice. By deliberately pandering to the female gaze Chimutuwah dares the viewer to really look. The work bequeaths a sense of knowing, and emotional experience of being. Complementing the artist’s female gaze Fadzai Muchemwa (Curator for contemporary art at NGZ) has converted the cow horn shaped Takawira section into a space that exudes depth and immediacy. Fadzai has curated an exhibition that allows for the acknowledgment of strength and weakness as well as vice and virtue.