ArtHARARE 2021

The Particularities of a Place

This edition of artHARARE, navigating through the city and diasporic experiences, allowed reflections on the possibilities of presenting art online.

Tamary Kudita, That evening sun goes down, 2020. Courtesy the artist.

By Annabelle Wienand

I am struck by the unoriginal thought that violence and struggle often appear alongside the depiction of great beauty. I do not accept that artists must suffer in order to make good art. But I found myself identifying two narratives through the works exhibited at the second edition of artHARARE Contemporary Art Fair. The first was one of great excitement at the wealth and variety of talent on show. The second related to how the experience of being raised in Harare seemed to have shaped the work of these artists. I discerned references to violence that were not focused on the physical. Afterall, 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.

Online exhibitions have dominated the past two years due to the pandemic, and it is now possible to reflect on the possibilities and challenges presented by such formats. artHARARE is an online fair for contemporary Zimbabwean and Diaspora artists which launched in 2020, its second edition taking place in December 2021. In addition to its digital offering, this edition scheduled in-person studio visits and talks to take place in Harare. Sadly, the international community’s response to the Omicron variant of Covid-19 scuppered that promising element.

artHARARE’s use of 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 any physical venue subtly bypasses certain entanglements of place and privilege. Artists cohabit a collective space, regardless of whether they are self-taught, went to Goldsmiths in London, or attended the National Gallery School in Harare.

Navigating the website, the viewer encountered a map of the city with various pins and the names of the exhibiting artists; clicking on a name, the viewer was taken to a room showing that artist’s work. I found the image with location pins referencing Google Maps to be a thought-provoking device. The participating artists – local and Diaspora – were at various stages of their careers: some still establishing themselves, others with gallery representation and multiple solo shows behind them. It was a beautiful thing to find a space where established and emerging artists could co-exist.

One challenge within the digital is how to enable the viewer to take in the details of an artwork. At artHARARE 2021, many of the works were densely layered or made from alternative art materials, and it was a pity that the richness of their textures was not always captured. No doubt such wrinkles in the online viewing experience will be ironed out as the fair continues to evolve.

Works by Franklyn Dzingai (left) Wilfred Timire (right).

The fair presented productive framings of the city and of Zimbabwe’s creative identity. Part love song, part ode, its curatorial statement referred to the ways in which “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.” It positioned Harare as a catalyst and an incubator.

In taking its title from poet Dambudzo Marechera’s line “I sing no more roses but walk through Harare mazes,” the curatorial team set the tone for their commitment to growing the creative industries, not only in Zimbabwe but also across the continent. The potent poetic statement locates the creative spirit and thought behind the fair firmly in the lived experience and complexity of the city of Harare and of Diaspora identities. These experiences were also captured in the interviews with participating artists posted on the artHARARE website and Facebook page. These were not the stories one might find on international news feeds about Zimbabwe or the Zimbabwean diaspora.

In his 2011 autobiography, Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina recalls the relationship between lived experience and art-making: “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 was interested in the density of human experiences captured in artHARARE. Most of the artworks were figurative or referenced the human form. The rooms were filled with portraits, snippets of city life, glimpses into private homes, and snapshots of Zimbabwean life. There was a strong emphasis on the photographic. Even those works that were not photographs seemed to exhibit a photographic way of seeing the world. This suggested the way in which society is mediated by mobile phones and media, but also the nostalgia of old family photographs that have travelled a great distance.

Franklyn Dzingai’s rich mixed-media works Afternoon Photoshoot and Photoshoot with Uncle make overt reference to the photographic medium and to the ritual of documenting family gatherings and relationships. Dzingai’s collages of magazine images, flat blocks of color, textile prints, and painted details are timeless scenes of everyday life.

Wilfred Timire, Untitled, 2021. Courtesy the artist.

Wilfred Timire’s works similarly reference his lived experience. Timire’s tapestries are created from found packaging, the very stuff of Harare’s streets. In Lover’s Call, the red, blue, and white tartan of plastic-weave “China bags” is immediately recognizable and speaks of cross-border trade, migrant labor, and Diaspora. A number of artists, including Nobukho Nqaba and Dan Halter, explore the symbolism of this type of bag. Timire crafted the bag’s zipper section into a jacket worn by a young man talking on his mobile phone to his lover.

In another work by Timire, Untitled, a young woman appears to be styling her hair using a shard of mirror. Behind her, the elephant logo of PPC cement bags appears. The reclamation of found printed materials evokes the ingenuity not only of the artist but of the urban poor living on Harare’s periphery, who often insulate and decorate their homes with such materials. Timire’s references to scenes and people around him suggest an inseparable link between his lived experience and his art making.

Nothando Chiwanga’s photographs are also situated within the artist’s life, encompassing performance and stylized self-portraiture. Chiwanga often uses her own body as her 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, draped with a white chiffon scarf. The model is dressed in a blue satin wrap. Her gaze is direct and challenging. The sun appears strong and hot. The 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, 2020. Courtesy the artist.

The symbolic language of hoe, book, and maize reoccur in an untitled work by Chiwanga portraying a more demure subject looking over her shoulder. Chiwanga’s sophisticated lighting and styling reminds me of the promiscuous nature of contemporary photographic practice: fine art overlaps with fashion, which in turn borrows from gallery walls.

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 exploring the hybrid complexities of past and current African identities. In That evening sun goes down, the two young women in elaborate black dresses stirring a large pot over a fire appear prophetic and powerful. They could be cooking enough sadza to feed the nation from a pot that never empties. Or they could be brewing something more powerful than the promise of full bellies. The visual language is Afrofuturist and the messages are multiple.

Daniel Chimurure, Varedzi II, 2021. Courtesy the artist.

The ambiguity of the experiences referenced in the work exhibited in artHARARE was compelling. Daniel Chimurure’s collage entitled Varedzi II presents silhouetted figures holding up shapes that read either as fish traps or satellite dishes. The line of people could be fishermen working as one, or media-hungry individuals trying to find a signal. They could also be an advancing protest.

The line between protest and everyday acts of entertainment and survival linked many of the works on show in the second edition of artHARARE. Some artworks were created with materials like discarded sacking, old calendars, and card, while others were executed in oil on canvas or graphite on Fabriano paper. Regardless of their professional background and materials, the artists seemed to share a common urgency and compulsion to make – it thumped like a bass beat. This was the violence of love. It was the power of tapping into the particulars of a place. I recalled James Baldwin’s words to his nephew: “Know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go.”

 

artHARARE took place from 7 – 12- December 2021.

 

Annabelle Wienand, PhD, is a visual arts writer, researcher, and educator.

 

 

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