With forty-nine paintings spanning the past sixteen years, Cryptic Mark at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Harare reasserts Paul Wade as one of the country’s major artists. Put together by Fadzai Veronica Muchemwa, recently appointed curator for contemporary art at the National Gallery, the retrospective comes at a time when 67 years old Wade has been curiously absent from public discourse and mainstream activities. Excitement about the show has refocused the conversation on his influence over multiple generations of Zimbabwean artists.
Chikonzero Chazunguza, founder of Dzimbanhete Arts Interactions (DAI) and the artist who represented Zimbabwe at the 2015 Venice Biennale, recalls Wade as his first formal art teacher at the National Gallery’s former BAT Workshop. Chazunguza says Wade had an exceptional ability to cultivate talent among his students, recalling several who went on become successful artists, such as Luis Meque, George Churu, Munya Victor Madzima, Agnes Nyanhongo, and Colleen Madamombe. Those who were taught by Wade went on to teach many others in turn. Chazunguza saw Wade’s influence come out in the works of those he himself has mentored at DAI.
Wade was born in 1955 in the United Kingdom to a mother from the UK and father from Bermuda. He came to Harare in 1981 with his Zimbabwean wife Emmie. ‘’She wasn’t my wife then,” he tells me on a studio visit in September 2022, followed by gruff laughter that might recall the heady days of their courtship. The couple got married in Zimbabwe and raised two sons who are now adults. Wade holds a BA from Liverpool University, and has lectured at the Liverpool Foundation College in Ormskirk, the Teachers College in Gweru, and Seke Teachers’ College in Chitungwiza, as well as at the BAT Workshop, founded by the National Gallery in 1981. He was its first full-time instructor, and became head of education services there for several years. He has had several solo exhibitions in Zimbabwe and his work is included in the National Gallery’s permanent collection and many private collections.
For someone working in a non-representational style, Wade’s titles also paint vivid pictures. Lines such as Fallen Crucifix, Sign on the Dotted Line, and Highways and Byways project a clear mental image on the viewer’s mind. Black on Black and Essence of Black cannot be entirely seen as descriptions of color. Through predominantly thick layers of paint in various shades of black, luminescent marks in blue, green, orange, yellow, pink, and other pastels peek between cracks in the brushstrokes, betraying a layered background much like the artist’s mixed heritage. Wade says the pieces were about eliminating color, and created at a time when he was not feeling well. Eventually it was a relief to bring back color in his work, he says in a digital conversation with David Chinyama, and this coincided with his improved wellbeing. Two other paintings in the exhibition have a technically similar yet opposite look. A Little Itch and A Bigger Itch are predominantly white without making whiteness the subject.
A triptych titled Avenues has grid lines that indicate unique blocks in contrasting colors. In Harare “avenues” does not just describe tree-lined streets. It also refers to an area just outside the city center, where Wade lived at one time. The Avenues is associated with nightlife, and the sex workers who try to seduce the revelers there. Wade’s artworks celebrate the area with profusion of colors that might relate to its blooms and foliage, girded into blocks overlaid with spontaneous scrawls. In his style some may see traces of Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, or Cy Twombly, but his personal experiences together with local landscapes, social, economic, and political issues resonate through the work.
He was available for a discussion hosted by the National Gallery under the topic “Consciousness and Art Practice.” In conversation with multidisciplinary artist David Chinyama, he was asked to explain the meaning of his work, and his responses, like the marks on the canvases, didn’t give away much: “The answer is there… You just gotta work it out… If you look at it long enough….”
A disclaimer in the current show’s curatorial statement reads that the retrospective is “not a very retrospective one” because the focus is on work that is quite recent. Wade has worked in diverse styles and media, such as in tapestry and with figuration, and some of these could have been included for an exhibition fully representing his career. But space and logistics were constraining factors for a bigger show, says Fadzai Veronica Muchemwa.
Wade belongs to a group of mature painters who continue to create relevant work that challenges perceptions. Records of their important contributions and exhibitions are mostly bound up in erudite publications safely stored away on library shelves were few bring them down to blow the dust away and peruse the pages. Meanwhile history continues to be written, biased in favor of the tech savvy and the “Instafamous” generation whose activities and accomplishments are continuously broadcast.
Harare does not treat its stars very well. It is a place where legends are turned into myth, from great musicians to talented athletes and actors that were once household names. How can a prolific artist who is held in high esteem and has contributed so much to the culture not become a perennial part of the conversation? Chikonzero Chazunguza argues that part of the reason is that upcoming artists eager to be seen as original fail to give credit to those who came before them. He adds that older artists can get isolated when fewer of their peers remain in practice: they mostly step back from competing with upcoming colleagues, so they end up only being called in as adjudicators. And the situation is compounded by a lack of institutions and a robust local market.
Back at Wade’s studio above the multistoried house he and his wife built in an affluent northern suburb of Harare, he shows no signs of slowing down. Why does he continue to create more work? “It’s the beauty of the mark, and the color,” Wade answers. “You know what I mean?”
Nyadzombe Nyampenza is a photographer and conceptual artist. His work is based on exploring his city Harare through documenting activities and the spaces. Part of his work involves telling urban stories with staged narratives, and self-portraits.