If you mention Venice to any visual artist, they don’t just think of a city, they think of Venice Biennale – the oldest and the biggest international art exhibition and gathering in the world. The 2015 Biennale opened in May and will run till November 22.
The Biennale comprises a major curated exhibition with artists selected by the Biennale curator, national pavilions representing various countries from around the world, and collateral events selected by the Biennale jury. Participation in the Venice Biennale is probably the best opportunity to be seen by and to connect with the international art community and the world in general – more than 40,000 art professionals and press visit the biennale during the previews, and almost half a million visitors fly in during the six month exhibition period. It is also incredibly prestigious and many artistic careers are launched and elevated as a result of taking part.
Although the Venice Biennale is 120 years old and is marking its 56th edition, African countries, like most non-Western countries are relative newcomers. Presenting a pavilion in Venice is not a simple exercise. In fact, it is an enormously complex and costly logistic one, which can require hundreds of thousands of dollars to realize. Given the budgetary priorities and constraints of most African nations, it is not surprising that only a minority of countries on the continent have succeed in mounting a national pavilion. To date in this field, Zimbabwe, with its third participation, is emerging as a role model for other countries in terms of consistency and stability alongside countries like Angola, South Africa, Egypt and Morocco.
The Zimbabwe Venice Biennale Pavilion is organized under the auspices of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe and for the past three editions has been commissioned by its Director, Doreen Sibanda, and curated by the Chief Curator of the Gallery, Raphael Chikukwa, with Bulawayo based Tafadzwa Gwetai as assistant curator this year.
This year’s pavilion, entitled “Pixels of Ubuntu/Uhnu”, features works by Chiko Chazunguza, Masimba Hwati and Gareth Nyandoro. Like all the national pavilions, this exhibition is a response to the overall theme of the Biennale, set by this year’s director Okwui Enwezor, ‘All the World’s Futures’. Like many other pavilions and artists at the 2015 Biennale, the Zimbabwean trio reflects on their concerns for the future based on the trends, situations, social, and cultural environments they experience in their present day lives.
Chiko Chazunguza’s contribution titled “The Presence of the Past” is made up of a video installation and small print based-works titled ‘The Presence of the Past’. It reflects both in content and in form, on the frictions between tradition and modernity in contemporary Zimbabwe.
Masimba Hwati’s works are a series of photo-based stencilled portraits of Nyandoro titled ‘Urban Totems’ in black and white, the only colour being provided by branding circle patch – Google+, Yahoo! etc – showing the impact of globalization on Harare youth culture, which is just as obsessed with social media as peers all around the world.
The last of the trio, Gareth Nyandoro, through the theme of the street markets, also addresses the daily grind of urban life in Harare. However he gives us something more – canvases which have broken out of control, drawings which become paintings, and paintings which become installations. The graphic style of painting brings to mind the etymology of the verb kunyora (to write) is from “making marks”, marks to remember. Nyandoro’s marks bridge the past the present and the future in ways that reach beyond the context of Zimbabwe, and connects with the globalized yearning to break with convention for a new reality. His works are not afraid to look at things the way they are in order to create a better world. Little wonder then that Nyandoro attracted the most attention from international audiences, and bodes well for him, another star emerging from Zimbabwe in Venice.
While visual art tends to fly under the radar locally, the success of Zimbabwe’s visual artists is not only bringing them personal acclaim but does much to challenge media- driven preconceptions about the country. It is time that the broader community at home – both individuals and corporates – begins to recognize the value and cultural prestige that visual art brings to Zimbabwe as one of our key world-class exports. While local audiences hesitate to engage with and learn about the talent in their midst, international museums and collectors are increasingly enjoying and benefitting from Zimbabwean artistic riches.
Valerie Kabov is the Director of Education and International Projects at Harare’s First Floor Gallery
Photos: Stephen Goldsmith