28 April 2011

Zimbabwe: Art, Images of Liberation Struggle

As we commemorate 31 years of our independence this April, Art Zone looks at some visual imagery that was created in relation to the war of independence which culminated in the hoisting our new flag of Zimbabwe on April 18, 1980.

Whilst the war of liberation raged on, many a Zimbabwean artist fought their battles in song, on the stage, in literary works and in the visual arts.

The songs buoyed the freedom fighters, the writings stirred the mind, and the plays touched the hearts of many who saw them.

The struggle was also immortalised in stone, wood, canvas and paper. However, whilst the visual arts were less confrontational and less visible, they still served as a pertinent and living record of our hard-won Independence. It is important to note that many of the works created in response to the liberation struggle were authentic creative impulses of the artists.

The worries of promotions, money, competition, acclaim and social recognition did not interfere with the visual artists of that time (1973-1980). Their art was indeed the result of genuine expression wrought out of personal experiences, the need for catharsis, and a consciousness of national pride and patriotism.

This article examines a few works of art and images of Zimbabwe's liberation struggle.

The artists produced images of war that examined the broader human context and explored feelings of hope, fear, pain, defiance, despair, isolation, family dislocation and ultimately victory over oppression. Unlike many other countries involved in political revolutions, Zimbabwean artists were not regimented to produce images of war, nor were they reactionary in their approach. Theirs was a silent and sometimes painful, personal revolution stemming from a collective consciousness, but largely devoid of a ready audience.

Although the National Gallery opened its doors in 1957, it was not until 1986 that many of the first examples of artworks depicting images of our struggle were seen publicly at the Zimbabwean Heritage Contemporary visual art shows; a trend which continued into the late 1990s.

In an important annual exhibition held at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe six years after independence, when Zimbabwe was elected to host the 8th Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), held in Harare from August 26 to September 7, 1986, some of the finest artistic talent of this country was showcased with memorable works recording the history of the struggle during the preceding years.

These art works are not a result of using "culture" as a political propaganda tool, but were works that exalted the blood and soil values of nationalism and liberation. Zimbabwean war art did not spring from literary or academic institutions, but grew out of an already vibrant artistic cultural tradition of stone sculpture, wood carving and painting.

The visual art from the liberation struggle is surprisingly not filled with corrosive or attacking manifestos or overt political activities. It is an art form resulting from individual responses to the effects, trauma and painful struggle undertaken by our gallant freedom fighters, their stalwart families and vigilant collaborators as a whole.

The fact that these war images were not part of mainstream popular culture in Zimbabwe is proof that it was genuine expression not asphyxiated by commerce or profit, unlike the overcommercialised and exploited stone sculpture of the 1990s and beyond.

In a 1999 catalogue essay entitled "The War of the Stone", for an exhibition held at Springstone Art Gallery, in Avondale, this writer alluded to the importance of recording images of the revolution in art as a way of preserving an authentic history of our struggle for independence.

From the painful struggle for the liberation, the artists created honest masterworks of passion, but most importantly, documentaries of history. The colonisation of the African memory distorts visions, warps dreams and represses imaging.

This burden can be removed physically and mentally, and can be replaced with constructive imaging of our own. It is important us to paint sculpt and film and rewrite our history in order to grasp our destiny.

It is, however, necessary to form institutions and academic attitudes that bolster socio-economic and cultural advancement. In this way a record of that art of liberation will serve social needs and bear the imprints of society and our conception of it.

Given that art, like political history, must challenge and question its own conceptual tools, it is necessary to have a war memorial gallery or museum in order to record and preserve our history and socio-cultural imaging for posterity. Art is a necessary cultural and educational tool that will benefit and inspire indigenous Zimbabwean memory.

In this historically important exhibition, Zimbabwe Heritage, 1986, are a few examples of images of the struggle. For instance, Joseph Muzondo's "Bomb Catastrophe" 1986, of stone, wood and glass, was a poignantly shocking piece of a decapitated soldier resulting from the war. It is one of the earliest examples of mixed-media sculpture, a masterpiece of conceptualisation.

Similarly, the late war operative George Neme's famous "Liberation Series" Part I and II, gouache and acrylic painting graphically depicts the struggle from the first Chimurenga to the fruits of the new harvest in 1980.

Mary Silk's "Last Blood", painting, Taurai Bedza's "Freedom Fighter", and Annette Kileffs "After the Bombs" landscape painting, and Paul Machowani's "The Last Victim", a metal sculpture that illustrates the need to take care of post-war trauma victims, are visual memories of the war. Alluding to the struggle for independence with wisdom and personal insight.

From the pain and struggle for independence many visual artists created master-works of passion and important visual documents that piece together our history. Bearing this in mind the importance of a repository for images of the war cannot be stressed enough.

Dr Tony Monda is a practising artist, visual designer, corporate image consultant and art critic.

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