Barnabas Ticha Muvhuti viewed the Zimbabwean Pavilion, “Pixels”, at the Venice Biennale, as an Honours in Curatorship student last year. This year, as a researcher at the CCA, he saw the exhibition come to Cape Town. He writes of his experience of the two.
In what is seen as a huge cultural exchange exercise, the Pixels Of Ubuntu/Unhu: Exploring The Social And Cultural Identities Of The 21st Century exhibition of the Zimbabwean pavilion, at last year’s 56th Venice Biannale in Italy, opened at the Association of Visual Arts (A.V.A.) Gallery in Church Street in the heart of Cape Town on the 13th of February. It will run until the 7th of March. The exhibition coincided with the Cape Town Art Week and the Art Fair. As a national project organized and run by the National Gallery of Zimbabwe it was befitting that Mr. Boniface Mugobogobo – the Zimbabwe Consul General in Cape Town – was the Guest of Honour. He emphasized the need for countries of the Southern African region to promote unity through projects of this nature. (Image, right: The Zimbabwe Consul General, Boniface Mugobogobo, meeting artists Masimba Hwati and Gareth Nyandoro)
It is interesting that an exhibition with such a loaded title made it to South Africa at a time when the nation is grappling with so many problems that may be addressed by invoking the spirit of Ubuntu. Ubuntu (a Zulu/Xhosa/Ndebele term) is a philosophy that calls for people to respect and love one another, as ‘no individual is an island.’ The idea is central to the unity of the people of South Africa as the Rainbow Nation. The concept is well embraced by the region as a whole, hence Unhu is the Shona term for it. In fact the idea has globalised as the world now recognizes GloBuntu (for Global Ubuntu). The exhibition could not have been featured in South Africa at a better time than now. The nation is undergoing some fundamental changes as a result of the massive debates and protests centred around ‘transformation.’ South Africa has also experienced xenophobic attacks in the recent past. The perspective of the greater continent is that South Africans who attack other Africans have lost their sense of Ubuntu.
The idea of taking such a high profile exhibition to South Africa, or its regional counterparts, is something that most curators would wish for. However, the region of Southern Africa still has strict border controls. The movement of people within the region is not easy due to very strict visa regimes. If humans experience such problems, one can only imagine how difficult it is to move such a precious commodity as a work of art. In fact, this particular exhibition only opened a week later than originally scheduled largely due to complicated bureaucratic procedures. Currently it is easier to transport African art to a European destination than to a neighbouring African country. This has prompted the respected African curator and art critic Simon Njami to say that “If Africans want to play a serious role on the global circus, they have to create connections within the continent. Art cannot continue to be considered outside the place it is produced.”
At the A.V.A. Gallery the exhibition found an ideal home as the gallery has adequate space, allowing for each of the three artists’ work exhibited to be in its own room, where there is no interference. Masimba Hwati’s Urban Totems is in the long Gallery (image, right). Gareth Nyandoro’s works done by way of the kuchekacheka (cutting) technique occupy the Main Gallery, the largest space befitting the extraordinary pieces. Chikonzero’s Presence of the Pasts occupies the Mezzanine. Of the overall work, two pieces that were sold in Venice are not part of the current exhibition. Also conspicuous for its absence is Chikonzero’s Gutsameso video installation.
My favourite piece exhibited is Gareth Nyandoro’s Ihohoho Namadzibaba Ishimairi (image, right). The work is a depiction of a famous scene in which members of the Zimbabwe Republic Police were beaten by a faction of a local church, the Apostles. Interestingly, the artist does not show images of the police in that work. While this form of self-censorship might not be appreciated by art critics, it would be fair to say it also did not jeopardise Nyandoro’s chances of being selected for this national project. The pavilion of Zimbabwe in Venice is very much about promoting the nation’s image.
Although the Zimbabwean Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale was well received compared to those of South Africa, Angola and Mozambique who are its regional counterparts, it is not without flaws. Anyone who has been following Zimbabwe’s progress in Venice would have noticed that the curator went a step backwards by ignoring the female voice. However, Raphael Chikukwa adamantly defended himself by referring to the fact that in 2011 the Pavilion included Berry Bickle’s work, and Virginia Chihota and Portia Zvavahera were part of it in 2013. Therefore he feels he did the right thing.
Fully aware of the problem of regionalism in Zimbabwean politics I asked Chikukwa why no artist of Ndebele origin was part of this exhibition. He emphasized the fact that every Zimbabwean artist had a chance of being selected regardless of his or her tribe or region of origin. As the chief curator puts it – “Good art speaks for itself.”
A lot of art lovers have also questioned Chikukwa’s involvement as the Chief-Curator of the Zimbabwean Pavilion in Venice for the third consecutive time. However, I feel this has led to consistency and continuity of the highest level compared to the projects of Zimbabwe’s neighbours where the selection of the curator(s) is itself quite a process. It is fair to say Zimbabwe is well organized on this aspect. In fact the onus is on whoever shall take over from the chief curator in the future to maintain or surpass such a high standard of curatorial work.