Gallery Delta, at the heart of Zimbabwe’s art world since 1975.
Our first stop of the day is Gallery Delta. We are welcomed by the fantastic and hospitable Derek Huggins and Helen Lieros on the front porch of this idyllic ‘Robert Pauls’s Old House’, 110 Livingstone Avenue. The path towards the complex runs through the first part of the beautifully done sculpture garden in which Helen and Derek welcome us.
Helen Lieros introduces us to the vibrant history of the gallery filled with numerous collaborations and enthusiastic stories she had experienced since their establishment in 1975. In the forty-three year’s they’re running the place they didn’t only present a series of exhibitions and numerous public events (they hosted plays, poetry nights, music) but also educated a lot of students. A humble but passionate story packed with collaborations artists that studied there and now found their way into the canon of contemporary Zimbabwean art. But also stained by the difficulties the country has faced.
Helen, also practicing artist, understands better than anyone how you can help an artist to develop a practice. And of course what kind of assistance is needed in Harare with the slowly developing art scene in Zimbabwe and the continent. She works from an -in her words – ‘anti gallery system’ approach. A passionate, personal approach in which she does not draw up contracts with the artists, giving them a lot of freedom. The main reason to do this is to give every artist the freedom to exhibit where they want and to make their own choices along the way.
Right from the start Gallery Delta offered room for young, talented and aspiring African artists to explore the boundaries of creating. This gave a lot of artists over the year the freedom to step away from being traditional sculptors, the only art form that was populair at the start of the gallery, and focus on becoming painters. Something they found very important but a kind of practice that was non-existing since they didn’t have art schools in the country. All stoled under a personal preference. “I’m not interested in pretty pictures, I’m looking for innovative work.” Helen explains.
Now, over four decades later they have an amazing line of artists they’ve worked with and it’s save to say that the biggest chunk of the contemporary artists in Zimbabwe all were students at Delta, studying under Helen at one moment or another.
Which logically made the yearly exhibition of young artists a very big part of they program. Creating single handed a market for them and turning Gallery Delta into a real institution in Zimbabwe and I think even the entire continent. Since it’s inception over 360 artists studied there and many more showed works.
It’s not for nothing that they’ve been closely involved as advisors and in the development of Zeist Mocca’s catalog for the current exhibiton FIVE BHOBH. An exhibition of contemporary painting from Zimbabwe, featuring twenty-nine artists that all stept foot in the gallery.
Meeting Derek and Helen is truly humbling. And just walking through the gallery and sharing a Greek coffee with them on the porch only gives us a small idea of what happend. But it became very clear that the history is rich. I would have loved to stay there for hours, talking about their history.
First Floor Gallery Harare: Welcome to the Family
Oddly enough, First Floor Gallery Harare (FFGH) is located on the second floor of a large office building. Business has been going well and the gallery recently moved from their 1st floor (tiny) front room to their current location which also houses a few artist studios and a huge terrace boasting impressive city views.
Valerie Kabov and Marcus Gora founded the not for profit trust space in 2009 as a response to the total lack of artist-run experimental spaces in Harare. They follow what they themselves coined an environmentally responsible model, meaning that they want to invest heavily in the local art scene, and bolster visibility of the Zimbabwean artists internationally as well as locally. Valerie also refers to the gallery and its artists as “the family” since they go above and beyond to support their artists and creating the circumstances for them to continue working, be it by helping them out with paperwork, providing studiospaces, or even taking them or their family members to the hospital. It’s also a way to involving the bigger support structures of the artist (parents, spouses, friends, children) and growing the local audience.
They pride themselves on not being a UFO but instead are looking at the cultural imperatives on the ground. The challenges are plentiful in Harare, and artist are lacking funds and access to materials, decent art education and technical skills. But even though the artistic community might be cash poor, they are resource rich and FFGH and their artists are getting things done through collaboration, trading and asking senior artists to coach the younger ones.
With a fierce objective to accelerate this whole process, they developed two programs for kickstarting young artists’ careers. The first one being a three week, by invitation only, bootcamp residency for emerging artists from all over the continent. This fully funded immersive experience pushes the artists to get out of their comfort zone and freely explore the boundaries of their chosen medium. At the end of the bootcamp, the work is presented in the gallery. The second program involves FFGH’s own artists (all of whom are under 30!) who are regularly invited to present solo exhibitons, with the aim of propelling their practice and speeding up their development as artists.
It’s a far cry from the increasing urgency in the West to slow down and look for the more sustainable approach to developing an artistic practice. But in an environment where even the basic standards of arts education are not upheld one wonders if in fact FFGH is not onto something.
FFGH’s need to experiment is imperative and they are consciously staying away from Western funding, which is almost always ideologically conditioned and usually comes with strings attached, to avoid compromising their independence. Under these circumstances it took them about 8 years to become economically sustainable. Only five years ago they were the first ever Zimbabwean gallery at Berliner Liste and they’ve been doing well on the international art fair circuit since.
They are hopeful that the change of regime will attract more international visitors and curators and with their new space and ambitious program they are ready to accelerate.
Studio visit Portia Zvavahera
After our visit to First Floor Gallery we drive with our wonderful chauffeur Eddie to the outskirts of Harare. The urban landscape is changing in a rural area. New homes are being built with a barbed wire fences.
Our driver: Eddie
Why? I wonder, because the road is not easy going and as a potential thief you have to endure quite a lot of pits to get away with your loot. In addition to the large houses, small shacks are scattered here and there. Children in school uniforms wave and smile happily at us. Women in colorful clothes with their children tied behind their backs look surprised. Followed by a big smile showing their beautiful white teeth and they wave back. The landscape is arid with here and there a tree of which the blossom in exuberant colors purple and red does its best to contrast in the yellow arid landscape.
Halfway up a golden sand road Portia Zavahera is waiting for us in her shiny red pick-up. She is the artist we are going to visit in her studio. Immediately a part of our group wants to leave the stuffy van to sit in the back of the pick up and feel the wind through the hair and the sun on their skin. The landscape has changed. Large granite boulders are scattered in the arid landscape. We wonder if this is the same material from which the sculptures were standing in front of the National Gallery of Harare, which we visited a day before. The pits become deeper and the road becomes more impassable. We look at some of our colleagues who shoot up one by one in the back trunk like little pull puppets.
We arrive at a beautiful large house built from granite stones of the area with a thatched roof. In the yard are beautiful sculptures carved from the boulders that we saw on the way. Everything radiates peace and harmony. Portia opens the door to her studio and in choir we release a sigh of admiration.
The studio is very spacious and cool. Works in progress are hanging on the wall. Portia is a gentle shy woman. the conversation starts cautiously and I suspect it is because a group of 14 people in jolly voices are invading a place where peace and harmony predominate. Then the energy has to find a place. And it happens too. Soon there is a silence and I feel the peace descend into the group.
Portia is currently working on new works for 2 shows in Joburg and San Francisco respectively.
Portia is inspired by her dreams. She makes sketches of her dreams as a starting point for the further elaboration of her paintings. She works entirely from her emotions and intuition. Her work is literally built up in layers. She designs her own templates which she stipples in her work. This refers to fabrics that are decorated by women of her culture, through traditional block prints. Religion is an important aspect in her work. She believes that God gives her messages through her dreams. In her sleep she deeply connects to Him. I have rarely seen a person so much in balance with herself and her surroundings.
Portia loosens up and starts to talk more and more enthusiastically about her work and her sources of inspiration. She explains the importance of Totems in her culture. Everyone has a totem which represents an animal. The animal symbolizes a character trait. As a person you can not eat your own totem and you can not marry into the same totem. This is to keep the bloodline clean. The totem is passed on via the father line. Portia is an Elk that symbolizes hard work, but also prostitution. She giggles softly when she says that.
That she is a hard working mother of two beautiful children is clear. Success gives her the freedom to purchase materials and mix her colors. That is a luxury because many artists in Zimbabwe can not afford to buy expensive paints and colors and therefore depend on cheap synthetic acrylic paint in screaming colors that barely mix. On the kitchen counter stands a bottle in containing bright orange liquid, representing orange juice. Annet enthusiastically starts filling up glasses and some of us drink thirsty. Portia turns around and starts to laugh. It turns out that the the content needs to be diluted with water. We all laugh hilariously and the last remaining reserves disappears like snow in the sun.
Together we drive back to our next appointment on our way to Unhu gallery.
Zimbabwe has stolen my heart. Artists who, despite the limited infrastructure with so much creativity and few resources get so much done. Goethe once wrote that in the limitation the mester is recognized. I have already encountered many potential ‘masters’.
Portia says that she is happy and grateful voor everything in her life. She is a living example of living a life in love peace and harmony.
Creative open art studio
After riding on a jeep’s trunk from Portia Zvavahera’s studio in the countryside nearby Harare, we arrive at the so-called Village Uhnu. Just moving in to their new place, in a residential house of Harare, this art space run by Misheck Masamvu (successful artist represented by the Goodman Gallery in South Africa) and Georgina Maxim (his wife) feels like home. They are using the place to host exhibitions, as well as workshops, art lessons, residencies (and as a participation, the artists invited have to give one of their work in return to support the open art studio as well) and Misheck’s studio as long as he doesn’t need “another place to finish the paintings, with another light and another environment”. In the future, they also want to invest the garden, which is now hosting a container hanging on an iron structure. The idea is to build a terrace, a library, a studio, and a bar, making the place even more friendly and welcoming for artist to experiment and visitors to discover artworks. Regarding to the specific artistic landscape of the city of Harare, and the well-respected work the Delta Gallery is aiming, Village Uhnu intends to be an additional art space and wants to push the artists on more experimental projects and hangings. “Helena and Dereck are the foundation of all the artists in the country” they say (about Delta’s directors), whilst with Uhnu they want to extend the possibilities of experimentation in the area.
Georgina Maxim and Misheck Msamvu, directors of the Village Uhnu Crative Open Art Studio.
After the warmest welcome and around a delicious meal shared together, we discover the practice of Tawanda Takura, Evans Tinashe Mutenga and Epheas Maposa who we also have the chance to meet and talk to. When the first one uses trash (especially cigarette butts) and found objects from the street to build figurative sculptures, the second creates aleatory paintings on carton superimposing them and then snatching the multiples layers. The third, Epheas, uses the canvas as a way to condense several elements of the condition of life in Zimbabwe, and the composition of the paintings is particularly balanced. Feeling the atmosphere of Harare, and also the lack of facilities for the artists to be able to work, one can also relate these works to this specific context. Found objects reveals their poetic meaning, while an iconoclastic approach reminds of the publicity or propaganda imposed in the streets, and of gestures of vandalism being badly seen.
Village Uhnu depends mostly on selling the artworks of the artists they present, and the directors invest all their energy and dedication to be able to propose this space as an experimental place for the artists who want to benefit from it.
“Philosophically, the term Hunhu or Ubuntu emphasizes the importance of a group or community. The term finds a clear expression in the Nguni/Ndebele phrase: umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu (a person is a person through other persons)”. Misheck and Georgina, trying to distant themselves from the indivual approach in the artfield, definitely are building a community of solidarity in the arts around their place, and hopefully will acquire the building in the future.
Tawanda Takura “Junky II” 2018 mixed media/found objects
Evans Tinashe Mutenga paints, addition the works, pasting them one on another, and then snatches it, revealing aleatory compositions.
Epheas Maposa creates figurative paintings in which the question of composition in preeminent.