C& in conversation with Raphael Chikukwa, curator of the Pavilion of Zimbabwe at the 55th International Art Exhibition - la Biennale di Venezia.
C&: Tell us a little bit about your curatorial work for this year’s Pavilion.
Raphael Chikukwa: Curating the Zimbabwe Pavilion for the second time was a big opportunity for me. I worked closely with the commissioner Doreen Sibanda to come out with a diverse group of artists that would represent our diverse country. We selected five artists: Rashid M Jogee, Portia Zvavahera, Michele Mathison, Virginia Chihota, and Voti Thebe. They all work from different perspectives which ensures an artistic diversity: Michele and Virginia both work abroad and bring in the diaspora narratives. The other three artists, Portia, Rashid, and Voti, live and work in Zimbabwe.
C&: What is the show’s focus?
Chikukwa: In order to present diverse artistic perspectives, we looked at many things: strong conceptual skills and an innovative approach which the artists have proven in other projects. The artistic creation should be sensitive to social, political, economical, and historical contexts and be able to respond to the curatorial theme. What was very important, too, was their ability to put their artistic concept into materials that can be presented in public spaces, and finally their willingness to work hand in hand with the curator. I hope that these five artists with their diverse voices will provide the visitors of the Zimbabwe Pavilion with manifold perspectives.
C&: In 2010, you were appointed curator at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe. What opportunities and challenges have you encountered there so far?
Chikukwa: Funding remains a big challenge. Realizing exhibitions with a shoestring budget is not easy, nor are negotiating the bureaucratic system and balancing the expectations of the Zimbabwean art world, which are like oversize shoes. The National Gallery building is old and needs attention, which is one of the major problems. Yes we get funds from our ministry but it’s never enough. I am sure other museums on the continent face the same challenges. We cannot depend heavily on international funding. The need for the local corporate world to support the arts is long overdue and we as arts managers must educate them to see the need for investment in the arts.
C&: What is the NGZ’s political position in the Zimbabwean context?
Chikukwa: The National Gallery of Zimbabwe is a national institution under the Ministry of Education, Sports, Arts and Culture with a mandate to create a platform for Zimbabwean artists, both locally and internationally. It was created by an act of Parliament in the 50s and opened its doors in 1957 under the directorship of the late Frank McEwen. The current Executive Director is Doreen Sibanda. The National Gallery of Zimbabwe has been running an art school since the 80s and we have now formally registered the school. There are a number of renowned artists that have come out of the former BAT Studio in Mbare. In 2013 the National Gallery School of Art and Design will start a foundation course and compete with the likes of the Harare Polytechnic and Chinhoyi University.
C&: What is your view of the formal and informal art education in Zimbabwe?
Chikukwa: Formal art education in Zimbabwe is very new and informal art education started during the colonial era with the arrival of the missionaries, including Father Groeber, a Swiss missionary of Serima Mission, Canon Paterson of Cyrene Mission from Scotland, and later Frank McEwen with his workshop school at the National Gallery in the 50s. Mzilikazi Art Centre was one of the first centres in the 50s and after independence in the 80s, the BAT studio became one of the centres along with Mzilikazi Art Centre in Bulawayo. Today the situation is different and Mzilikazi Art Centre is in the intensive care unit, decaying before it is dead because there is no funding to keep it running. The Norwegian Embassy funds the National Gallery School of Visual Arts while the Harare Polytechnic, Chinhoyi and Midlands State University are government institutions.
C&: What is accessible?
Chikukwa: All these institutions are accessible depending on your financial resources and your portfolio. In the past, informal art education was for free and that was the only education blacks could get while their white counterparts enjoyed art in their schools.
C&: What is your view of art education and mediation in the social and public sphere of Harare/Zimbabwe?
Chikukwa: It is still in the early stages and the need to educate the ordinary people is more urgent than before. It is my hope that the introduction of art in universities will bring about visual literacy.
C&: You have analysed art education programs during the colonial era in Zimbabwe that were run by missionary schools. How would you describe them?
Chikukwa: Here, all Missionary schools played a very important part in developing artists in Zimbabwe during the colonial era. A number of schools were founded during this time and these include Cyrene Mission in Bulawayo under Canon Paterson, Driefontein, Serima in Masvingo under Father Groeber, a Swiss missionary, Canon Paterson Centre (Harare), and Job Kekana (Manicaland). However, it is important to note that Zimbabwean people have always been artistic, both before and after Independence, just like the rest of the African people on the continent. Many artists came out of the missionary schools, including Henry Tayali, Sam Sango, Nicholas Mukomberanwa, Joram Mariga, Charles Fernando, Joseph Ndandarika, Kingsley Sambo, and Henry Munyaradzi, to mention but a few.
C&: What have been the long-term consequences of this until the present day?
Chikukwa: One has to look back before the Second World War when the Scottish Missionary Canon Paterson arrived in what was then called Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and established Cyrene Mission in 1939. Cyrene Mission became a central school of arts and crafts. Canon Paterson then established Nyarutsetso and Farayi Art Centre in Harare. All these centres trained young black art students during the colonial period, including, for instance, Sam Sango. Today Zimbabwe is renowned within and outside Africa for its stone sculpture movement, which can be traced directly back to these missionary interventions. On the 18th of April, 1980, Zimbabwe got its independence from the colonial bondage of the British Empire, which looted our heritage and brutalized innocent people from the beginning of colonialism in 1896 until the end in 1980. After 84 years of British colonial domination it was everyone’s cry that culture was going to take centre stage, especially given that artists played a pivotal role during the struggle. Life after 1980 was different and so was the struggle. Those artists who once carried the torch of the struggle against the colonial master faced a new era. A new generation of artists was born and they moved away from folklore themes to contemporary issues. These artists included Joseph Muzondo, a former freedom fighter who traded his AK47 for a pair of chisels, as Voti Thebe always puts it. Tapfuma Gutsa, who is now an internationally renowned artist, is one of those artists who took the Zimbabwean art community by surprise. Today the National Gallery of Zimbabwe has realized the importance of re visiting the events that took place before and after Independence, since they shaped the history of Zimbabwean contemporary art. Below are images of missionary interventions led by the late Frank McEwen and Tom Blomfield.
C&: How do you see the situation of Zimbabwean students and emerging artists?
Chikukwa: I can see emerging artists writing their own history like the other generations did. After the first Zimbabwe Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale 2011, emerging artists are fired up and are participating in a number of international exhibitions. An emerging Zimbabwean artist showcased his work at the Documenta 2012. This shows that they can do it.
C&: In general terms, are the global art scene and the Westernized art schools a great inspiration and aspiration for upcoming Zimbabwean artists?
Chikukwa: Because of technology, emerging artists in Zimbabwe are aware of what is happening globally and are inspired by it. But the local context inspires them a lot as well, which can be seen in the works of Virginia Chihota, Portia Zvavahera, Tafadzwa Gwetai, Misheck Masamvu and many others.
C&: To what extent do you want to foster intercontinental collaborations with the global art scene?
Chikukwa: After ten years of isolation from the international contemporary art scene, we are working towards realizing more collaborations and exchange between Zimbabwe and the world. 2011 we realized two collaborative projects in the form of exhibitions, ‘Lagos and Maputo, A Tale of Two Cities’ and an Australian travelling exhibition. In february the National Gallery of Zimbabwe staged its first Young Curators workshop. Participants came from Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Raphael Chikukwa was born in Zimbabwe and worked mainly as an independent curator for the past ten years before joining the National Gallery of Zimbabwe mid 2010 as it’s Chief Curator. Chikukwa has been the 1st Zimbabwe Pavilion curator at the 54th Venice Biennale 2011 and has taken part in a number of Forums that include the 1st World Biennale Forum in South Korea, KLA 2012 (Uganda), Condition Report Forum in Senegal and Arco Madrid 2013.
‘DUDZIRO: Interrogating the visions of religious beliefs’, Zimbabwe Pavilion. 55th International Exhibition of Art – la Biennale di Venezia,
1 June – 24 November 2013, www.labiennale.org
Interview by Aïcha Diallo