The dilemma of local fine artists

Dominic Benhura displays one of his artworks

Dominic Benhura displays one of his artworks

Godwin Muzari Arts Editor
Fine artists in Zimbabwe live like the proverbial prophets that are honoured in distant lands and despised at home. Most of the artists are talented, creative and passionate yet the value in their spectacular sculptures, paintings, prints and crafts are barely appreciated at home. Many Zimbabweans have serious collections of music, films and books but the majority view visual art collection as a preserve for the rich and foreign collectors. Besides a few local exhibitions, which are mainly sponsored by foreign organisations, the artists look beyond borders for appreciation. Invitations to the exhibitions are mainly sent to embassies and international non-governmental organisations because local art enthusiasts do not appreciate fine art.

Therefore the artists look to the international market for recognition and material succour. They have lost hope in being celebrated at home. They spend days working on good pieces and show their creativity in big ways. The creations are kept in their backyards or galleries for many months, and even years.

Deep in the farming area in Guruve and up in Harare’s art institutions and roadside galleries, sculptors hammer their chisels and come up with exciting pieces. Not too many locals bother to take the stone pieces for display to their homes and the artists have to wait for tourists and hope to sell their works to the foreigners.

Artists at Tengenenge Sculpture village in Guruve or Hatfield Arts Centre in Harare have gone for months without selling their pieces because tourists rarely visit the sites these days. However, because of passion for art they continue producing pieces.

Renowned sculptor Dominic Benhura, who is Tengenenge centre director, said he is now considering taking the artists from the sculpture village on tours for exhibitions in various countries.

But the trend has affected some artists because there is also need to earn a living from sales. A recent visit to Chapungu Sculpture Gallery revealed that some sculptors have made art a part time activity.

The artists now look for other means to complement the dwindling income from art. In such developments, the artists end up distancing themselves from passionate creations. This development has also led to loss of talented creators that have a potential of taking the country’s artistic heritage to another level.

Art enthusiasts like Roy Guthrie, Tom Blomefield and the late Celia Winter-Irving took less active roles in the arts after realising that international buyers had decreased and local buyers were not forthcoming.

They have written books and documented the works of prominent visual artists in the country. Such books and documentaries circulate in some spheres far away from Zimbabwe.

Out there, they read the books with enthusiasm and invite the artists for exhibitions.

In Zimbabwe, few are interested in knowing how much time and resources are spent in creating the spectacular pieces that are shipped overseas.

Benhura says the trend is disappointing to most artists because their aim is to preserve cultural heritage through their pieces. He said his pieces stand tall in many parts of the world but he is disappointed that back home, most of his pieces are confined to his gallery. He said most pieces are affordable contrary to the belief that fine art products are expensive.

Benhura said he is saddened to note that most of his pieces have been taken abroad when his creativity should be celebrated locally. He said he donated pieces to the city council for display at Town House with the intention of encouraging authorities and the Government to start valuing visual art. However, his intentions fell on barren ground and the pieces at Town House were damaged many years ago and his bid to engage the council to repair the pieces have been fruitless.

“It is a touching experience. Artists can sometimes become emotional because of the way their art is treated. I donated the pieces to Town House because I have many other pieces in town houses of foreign cities. I wanted to encourage the authorities and influential people to collect art but the result was disappointing,” said Benhura.

“No one bothered to enquire about my intention and the pieces got damaged and were just left like that. We wanted to repair or upgrade them but the response from the authorities was disheartening. It just showed me that the level of appreciation for visual art is very low locally. It is a worrying situation. Some people aboard are celebrating our art but we fail to do so on our own. This is our heritage yet we are allowing other people to celebrate on our behalf.”

Benhura said there is need for responsible ministries to carry out campaigns to market local visual art. He said the long-term solution is to teach young people to appreciate art.

“We have to start at a low level. Pupils must be taught fine art in schools and we should do so passionately. I have tried to do it at my studio but I realise that foreigners bring their children for the lessons.

“Zimbabweans do not see the importance of fine art.”

National Gallery of Zimbabwe director Doreen Sibanda echoed Benhura’s sentiments saying the country has lost a generation that could have appreciated art.

“The problem is that most people that are in positions of authority were never exposed to fine art. If you go to many offices you see these old Rhodesian paintings or pictures. It seems the people in those offices do not even care about the paintings. If they cared they would have changed the paintings and pictures and replaced them with good art pieces that are coming from young talented artists,” said Sibanda.

“So, if people in those high offices do not see the importance of art, it is difficult to influence the rest of Zimbabweans to see the value of fine art. I think we have to start with young people and build that appreciation. On our part as arts institutions, we will continue hosting exhibitions and encouraging people to come and appreciate art.”

Sibanda said the few local art collectors should be honoured because they are heroes of this generation. Oliver Mtukudzi and Dr Solomon Guramatunhu have, at many platforms, been hailed for being some of the serious art collectors.

Mtukudzi has many paintings, stone sculptures and metal sculptures at his Pakare Paye Arts Centre. In a recent interview Mtukudzi said the value of creativity among visual artists should never be underestimated.

“This is serious creativity. Visual artists give life to lifeless objects and you should see them at work to appreciate what they do. These artists are talented. They should be celebrated,” said Mtukudzi.

Metal sculptor Odius Makoma said he rarely sells his pieces locally.

“I have tried to show people in my community the beauty of art but they do not see anything beyond these metal objects. Some of them actually laugh at me when I am looking for scrap metal to do my pieces and they seem surprised when international buyers come to take the pieces,” said Makoma.

Painter and multi-skilled artist Masimba Hwati said he has hope that local art lovers will also see the beauty in paints and objects.

But the artists continue to create because they value the artistic heritage in their pieces.

“They know generations to come will have a feel of their creativity. Just like the many pieces of first generation sculptors that are still intact many decades down the line, the artists know that they are creating pieces for posterity.

In two weeks to come, basket weavers from Binga will showcase their art at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe.

The baskets will come in many shapes and sizes but the display purpose of the pieces might not be of importance to many locals beyond their practical use.

We need to take keen interest in our cultural heritage as such skills can sink into oblivion if there is no local appreciation of our own art.