THE REAL CHANGE HAS JUST STARTED* | an interview with the Zimbabwean gallerist Jimmy Saruchera by the independent curator Inês Valle
October is without doubt one of the most vibrant months in London, from food and film festivals to outstanding art exhibitions and international art fairs that keep drawing the world’s most influential art buyers to the UK. This year and once more coinciding with Frieze, we have the third edition of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, that proclaims its focus on the Afrikan Continent, offering in both London and New York a profitable and a discursive platform to Afrika and its art players. Apart from the exponential increase of Afrikan based art galleries at 1:54 [more than 40% in 2015] and the remarkable visibility that it has been giving to Afrika’s art in the Western world, we should have an open discussion about the legitimacy of this fair since it is yet to itinerate on the Afrikan continent itself.
Whether we like it or not, the enormous curiosity about Afrika is still drawn by miss preconceptions, exoticism and paternalism, that diminish the acknowledgement of quality, diversity and innovation within the continent. Afrika keeps looking North to find legitimacy and validity, but the truth is that we have to look for a multidirectional dialogue, something that is still very weak. Moreover, using Marx, Brecht and Mayakovsky’s beliefs that art is not a mirror to hold up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it, if Afrika truly wants to lead to cultural change, shift mentalities and educate people, it has to value its roots and start funding its cultural development. It also has to stop producing blindly to hold an illusory place of influence that is undoubtedly engineered by western capitalism that values the manipulation of the other to keep power to one’s self.
Inês Valle (IV): Its 15 years since the turn of the millennium, a period in which interest in Afrika’s economic and cultural landscape has intensified. What do you see as Afrika’s contribution to our world today?
Jimmy Saruchera (JS): Today’s material culture is so compelling and convincing it can be difficult to see what our true state is as humanity. We are in a world that needs healing, healing of human relationships, healing of our ecology, and also even physical healing as we as a species have deviated from nature. There is growing re-appreciation of what is traditional, what is natural and protecting our environment, but this is not yet mainstream. Trepanation by Masimba Hwati depicts a baboon skull with a hole drilled into its head, referencing a newborn child’s fontanelle or soft skull opening. It is said that this opening heightens a child’s sensitivity to the spiritual realm, sensing quickly whether a person in close proximity is good or bad, triggering a giggle or tears accordingly. The use of mbira, or Afrikan piano keys used in traditional ceremonies in combination with the trepanned skull reference the newborn-like innocence of a traditional way of life and set against the movement of time and modernity represented by the skateboard and wheels. Because we are still catching up with the rest of the world, Afrika has the opportunity to undergo our industrial revolution in an ecologically sustainable way, to encourage consumption that is natural and good for us, to build social systems grounded in socially (Ubuntu) oriented societal structures that move away from individual selfishness.
(IV): Three years ago, we testified the opening of 1:54 in London, and since then it has been held annually there and in New York. Nevertheless, so far it has not taken place in any Afrikan city. Do you believe this may be connected with Afrika countries’ lack of support to their culture? [What are your thoughts about it?]
(JS): Art fairs by their nature are commercial, and places like London, New York or Miami are (at least from a financial perspective) art capitals where there is a density of capital and a culture of spending on art. However in terms of consumption of art, you find that ‘collecting art’ takes a different form in parts of Afrika, it can be sub-conscious as it is deeply infused into regular key moments of life. It becomes expressed widely in society through not just clothing, but also ceremonial objects, scarification, traditional utensils and cultural gift exchange. So in many respects, collecting in its western form in Afrika is comparatively limited, but as Afrikan economies grow and more people have higher incomes, the community of Afrikan collectors in the western sense will continue to grow. I’m not privy to their future plans and it may be that 1:54 have plans to host an edition in Afrika, which would be great. Overall I think it was a sensible decision to start by activating the collector bases in the main art/financial markets to fuel interest in the market. Now that contemporary Afrikan art is firmly on the radar globally and collectors are very mobile, we cannot credibly continue to have most of the major art conversations, fairs and exhibitions about Afrikans and their lives taking place outside of Afrika. Developing shows, fairs and biennale in Afrika opens up the possibility of collectors having an alternate cultural experience that is an advance on the booths, lectures, installations and receptions format that you already find in European or American art fairs. How fairs can enable experiencing of elements of Afrikan culture through art that are important to humanity such as ecological harmony, social harmony where people come away with more than artwork, but a part of life that adds something to them as people, that for me is an exciting prospect. Afrika’s wealthy also need to come to the party and help leave an enduring Afrikan artistic legacy that remains long after the resources and consumerism are gone. It helps the base of Afrikan collectors to grow if they don’t have to travel to Europe or the US to experience and buy the work of the best Afrikan artists. The best Afrikan art and Afrikan thinking needs to be found, shown, expressed, archived, traded and spoken for in Afrika. South Afrika is making some headway in this regard but it’s in the countries that are less exposed and less developed that offer the greatest opportunity for discovery and invention.
(IV): The increase of Afrikan Art Platforms [Galleries, Art Residencies, Biennials, Art Fairs], as well as, specialization in the arts within the continent is unquestionable. In what way is this multilayer of platforms educating an interest by local art collectors in acquiring contemporary art outside of the classic mediums scope, such as video-art, photography, sound art or even installation?
(JS): Of the non-classic mediums, photography is certainly gaining momentum because of its immediacy both in terms of garnering a reaction and its ability to be displayed with relatively less hassle. But even it still has a long way to go. For other mediums such as sound art and video art to gain traction in Afrika, I think they need to be taken out of the gallery or museum environment and put into the mobile environment where people are. This entails modifying the model of collecting, where alternative commercial models better suited to mobile consumption of content come to the fore. The onus is on these new art platforms in Afrika to look deep within their cultures and societies and innovate the mediums themselves to make art more relevant for their communities.
(IV): This was the third year Zimbabwe participated in the Venice biennale, the latest with works by Gareth Nyandoro, Masimba Hwati and Chokonzero Chazunguza. What are the real outcomes of these participations for the Zimbabwean contemporary art scene, on a national and international level?
(JS): The work of these artists at the Venice Biennale was incredibly well received critically. The most important outcome of these participations is what I term anti-exceptionalism. If what you are exposed to is only what is immediately around you, you can easily convince yourself that you are exceptional. But if you test your artistry on the world’s foremost platform and do well, then you have a more reliable measure of what is exceptional. The impact of this is phenomenal, it sets the bar in terms of quality for the many artists competing with each other in Zimbabwe, creating a ripple effect across the breadth of the artist community, from education, the value of artwork and the interest in our culture. Society is much richer for it, especially when as country you become consistent and regular participants at platforms of the calibre of Venice; you have a seat at the table and are part of the conversation. The greatest long term impact, is if the model of what Zimbabwe does in Venice with art, is transferred to industry, where uniquely Afrikan designs or products based on indigenous knowledge systems that most of the world doesn’t know about are forced to regularly and systematically compete in earnest with the best in the world. This would have a transformative effect not only on Afrika, but on what the world eats, drinks, how healthy we are, how we live with nature, what we sit on, what materials we use in our mobile devices and out spiritual awareness. When you have a seat at the table of value you can express yourself for yourself as happens with art. But in other industries it is other people speaking on behalf Afrikan communities where rare earth minerals for our mobile phones are mined, for ancient hunter gatherer societies who’s anti ageing remedies have been commercialised without them, a situation only helped by external well wishers coming and speaking up for them. We need the mechanisms and institutions that allow this happen from inside Afrika.
(IV): Article 20 of Zimbabwe’s constitution, assures that the population has protection of freedom of expression. Nevertheless, George Ayittey adviser to the Obama administration on forging a new path for Afrika, still considers Zimbabwe as a despotic regime and puts Robert Mugabe [in power for more than 29 years] along with Kim Jong II, Than Shwe or Blaise Compaoré in the list of most odious and despicable leaders. Taking art as a platform of freedom, how are artists coping with this continuous social-political situation? What are the big issues that you see being portrayed by the youngest Zimbabwean generation?
(JS): Ironically, the most high profile case of an attempt to ban an art exhibition that can be interpreted to be critical Mr Mugabe took place during what is known as the inclusive government in 2010, a coalition between Mr Mugabe his biggest opposition rival. It was an exhibition at the Bulawayo National Gallery, however the exhibition was not taken down for several years while the battle raged on in court. Outside of this, and I welcome to be informed otherwise, I have not seen many examples of overt government intervention in the expression of visual art. The state run newspaper runs probably the most extensive art reviews locally, so there are likely more pressing issues than freedom of expression for visual artists in Zimbabwe, chief among those bread and butter and day to day survival. 2015 is colloquially known as “Gore reDzidzo” or “the year of learning.” Graduates have become taxi touts, carnivores have become vegetarians, or lawyers have become farmers all in the name of survival. The visual arts have not been spared the ‘lessons’ of this defining point in the country’s history. Seasoned painters, who ordinarily would be agonising over what canvas to use, whether they should use oil or acrylic paint, have in many cases had to forget the very notion of painting and embrace the fact that they are artist first. They have had to look at other means of artistic expression. Fortunately Zimbabwe has a rich sculptural heritage that means many artists learn early to work with 3D objects, so many painters have become sculptors or mixed media practitioners, giving impetus to a movement known as the energy of objects – The imbued energy of found and searched for objects, natural and synthetic artefacts, material, assembled, repurposed and elevated to higher existence at the zenith of originality. The country is at a defining time, where human creative potential has been maximised not through abundance, but through scarcity and enforced minimalism. The tough economic times have also come at the same time as the explosion of mobile technology, and with it greater access to outside cultures, sometimes in a positive way but also in ways that marginalise local traditions and values. The youngest artists express a lot of these day-to-day tumults in their work. For example Johnson Zuze, his works speaks of the startling truth of now and aspirations of a ghetto free future. Wallen Mapondera uses an ecologically sensitive mind to address human oligarchy. Masimba Hwati is an anthropologist, a historian and healer through work that combines ancient Afrikan traditional values and symbolism bringing them into the contemporary. Option Nyahunzvi is an interpreter of the battle for influence of young urban minds between imported fad culture and what is traditional. Adam Madebe who we are also showing is from the previous generation that helped spawn the current generation of sculptors.
(IV):: What are the distinctions between contemporary art from Zimbabwe and that from other parts of the continent?
(JS): Sometimes to create something original, you need to be by yourself. Zimbabwe’s history, pre and post independence is marked by two distinct periods of isolation. The first isolation came from sanctions following Southern Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence form the United Kingdom in 1965 that instituted an apartheid system of governance. This saw artists shift from common media such as painting to the accessible stone resources of the country, providing them with an attractive medium that rapidly gained international attention and exhibiting opportunities not least in London in the mid-1960s and the Musee Rodin, Paris in 1972. In more recent times economic challenges and isolation have seen graduates become taxi touts and lawyers become farmers in the name of survival. Similarly artists devoid of conventional materials have become adventurous with materials, spawning the current art movement called the energy of objects. Chronic scarcity can be debilitating, but if you can find a way of tapping into this, it is explosively powerful fuel for inventiveness. That said I think you find many exceptional practitioners of the energy of objects across Afrika Romauld Hazoumé, Zak Ove and El Anatsui are great examples.
(IV):: There has been talk for many years of an Afrikan Renaissance, what does that mean to you?
(JS): Who’s renaissance is it? One that belongs to Afrika or a renaissance from the perspective of investors in Afrika? An increase in GDP and disposable incomes, which is the case in a number of Afrikan countries, is overall a good thing but that is not renaissance. The increase in global interest in contemporary and modern Afrikan art is positive but also that is not renaissance. When Afrikan art and knowledge sensibilities permeate and shape the most important educational programmes, architectural structures, healthcare, mainstream industrial and product design, government policies, then we have renaissance. When indigenous alphabets in are taught widely and considered core to literacy and being ‘educated,’ as is the case in societies like Japan and China, when Afrika’s abundant nutritious ‘super foods’ are better appreciated and by the continent’s elite and masses, that to me sounds more like a much more interesting African renaissance, the New Afrikan Renaissance that adds fundamentally makes the world as a whole richer.
(IV): Tell us about KooVha, why an “ideas movement”?
(JS): Where we operate is an environment where the physiological needs are great, art needs to matter more for it to be relevant and we feel that many of the deficits in our society can be solved when you let artists at them. There is talk of an Afrikan Renaissance, and Afrikan cities are growing faster than anywhere else in the world, but while the cities get bigger, and in some cases richer, this growth in terms of architecture, the quality of urban life and public spaces has little artistic underpinning – a renaissance without art. It is certainly a renaissance from the perspective of fund managers and businesses eyeing consumer markets. So our gallery has been involved in everything from working with urban planners from our council on congestion to even manufacturing beer and cider that uses Afrikan wild berries, wild pods and other indigenous flora to create income opportunities for everything from pickers, to loaders, food biologists and transporters. I’m currently designing together with an engineer a special vehicle inspired by the context of urban Afrika and Afrikan sensibilities that can be used as a café, gallery or shop. We have set up an innovation lab with the excellent design school ZIVA (Zimbabwe Institute of Digital Arts) where among other things we are working on bringing to life the narratives imbued in several generations of Zimbabwean sculpture using animation. Our movement is about welcoming collaboration with the best creative minds whether they are inside or outside the art world.
- Venice Biennial | http://www.labiennale.org/en/art/archive/54th-exhibition/first-time/zimbabwe.html
- 1:54 Art Fair | 1-54.com/london
- KooVha Gallery | http://www.koovha.com
*Note: This article makes part of a series of interviews “Thinking on the Global South” conducted by the independent curator Inês Valle. [ www.inesvalle.com ]
Image Credit: The curator Inês Valle and the gallerist Jimmy Saruchera at KooVha’s Booth at 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, Somerset House, London – 2015. Courtesy of Inês Valle (2015).