Light, bright, clean and airy. The refurbished roof and fresh paint recently administered to our beautiful National Gallery is truly uplifting, and provides a brilliant blank slate for the Basket Case II exhibition run through November and up to 15 December.
Hosted by The British Council, Alliance Française and Zimbabwe German Society, the exhibition is curated by Raphael Chikukwa (Zimbabwe) and Christine Eyene (UK), and is world class.
A follow on from Basket Case I, this second instalment is a display of both individual artistic prowess, and the fruits of a collaborative learning and sharing process between local and international artists, and local basket weavers.
Zimbabwean basket making – according to the glossy 68-page catalogue given out freely at reception – began in the early Iron Age era, and was initially the pursuit of men and rooted in functionality.
Since its inception, like all technologies, it has undergone seismic shifts in scope and scale as materials and techniques evolved and artistic vision grew. Basket Case II celebrates the practical, agrarian roots of the basket, but also brings to light its contemporary place as an objet d’art, and basket making as a process with the scope to manifest purely conceptual visions.
Although basket making moved from a male to a female activity soon after its inception, it is Tapfuma Gutsa who steals the show. He has two works on display in the main gallery, ‘Cocoon’, depicting a chrysalis big enough for any adult to imagine curling up inside, and ‘Man of War’ which hangs tall, enticing the eye from the floor to the sunlit roof high above. Speaking to Harare News, Gutsa told of how he finds inspiration from the natural world, and having spent much time working in Honde, inspiration has been abundant.
A third piece by French artist Michel Paysant brings colour to the ground floor with life size photos of Masvingo-based women weavers holding their winnowing baskets. The baskets, which are also on display, hold a graphic depiction of a near-alphabetic code that spells the first line of William Blake’s poem Auguries of Innocence, “To see the world in a grain of sand”. The programme explains how Paysant’s work is in the middle ground, “between typography and weaving” using simple forms “that are quasi abstract and on the edge of legibility.”
The pieces on display upstairs are less enormous, but no less intricate or conceptually playful. ‘Kumvwa kukumunakwakwe’ (hear her roar) is a regal, tightly woven leopardess in a dress. The construction “addresses the history of and legacy of colonisation, the suppression of cultures, and how these turn full circle”, reads creator Delaine Le Bas’ write up. She collaborated with Binga-based weavers.
And so the exhibition continues, with old ideas and new, the simple, the functional, the abstract. There is possibly space for more local lead artists to drive concepts into their woven form, but all said, the cross pollination of ideas and techniques from across continents has yielded some sweet fruit indeed.
Visitors to Basket Case II will find their expectations for the humble basket and the process of weaving stretched. So too have the communities from which the pieces on display came from – with the collaboration bringing new approaches and ideas to weaving groups from across the country. Not to mention of course the skills acquired by the visiting artists. We could well see our ancient methods deployed by world famous artists in far-flung galleries.
Although basket weaving has suffered a decline in recent years on the back of a flaky tourism industry, events like this can reinvigorate interest in basketry, and rebuild the socio-economic benefits attached to the process.
Gutsa outlined this during an interview with Harare News: “The basic basket forms such as tswanda, matengu, and tsero have a history spanning millennia that has stayed static due to their specific uses. The challenge is to revisit these forms with the present in mind, thus creating new designs that will give the weavers a new source of income and encourage them to reinvent themselves. The second possibility is to create non utilitarian objects such as the cocoon, that give aesthetic pleasure as art.”
Basket Case II will be on at the National Gallery until 15 December.