I cannot think of Luis Meques, without thinking of these profound words, spoken by a painter who was a leader of his generation and icon to Zimbabwean painting for a period of two decades. Derek Huggins, friend and curator to the artist, writes of the statement that “[The words spoke] of a new generation, a new consciousness, a growing awareness a new spirit and pride and purpose of being”. They seem to me to be an expression of identity so strongly felt, so clearly acknowledged that there is no surprise he saw the world with the clarity that he did.
A collection of works from his estate were recently exhibited at Gallery Delta and it was a pleasure to see the work once again after some years (and after a period of feeling somewhat saturated of it) and to remember his extraordinary proficiency as a painter. I was invited to make a comment for the catalogue and it was a pleasure to contemplate and think about the work. The following is the catalogue text:
These paintings embody a polemic explored with extraordinary depth; two sides of visual language which confronts and challenges the viewer:
On one hand, Meques states so much with so little. Marks, gestures, lines and forms are rendered with a simplicity that belie the artistry and learning beneath. We understand that the subjects of these works are not generic representations or symbols, but are derived from and describe individual people and ideas in all their subtlety and individuality. These expressions are constructed over a complex matrix that relies on his extraordinary draughtsmanship, the result of hundreds of hours of study and observation which combine with a natural propensity for the discipline. They are built on top of structures which reveal an in-depth knowledge of the mechanics of composition, of rhythm, balance, and the ever present dialogue between the two dimensional surface and the illusions of painting. And they are made with an urgency and intensity that arrests and reminds the viewer, that this was not only the unique visual language of Luis Meque, this was also his manner of being.
On the other hand we are faced with works in which so much is left unsaid. Meques strips the subjects to their core. There is little concession to modeling, texture or any other device which would seem frivolous. Facial details are often obscured or obliterated. Extremities, sometimes limbs are redundant, and subsequently removed. There is no surplus, no excess, nothing beyond what contributes to the immediate subject at that exact moment in time. At some point the spectator becomes aware that there is far more left unsaid than the details of the subject. There is a world that exists beyond this frame, which conditions, marks and impacts on these subjects. We are aware of it through its absence. We know it through these distilled images and the intensity and conviction of the painter’s hand and voice.
The combination of these parts form a complex gestalt, one in which the subject, the context and the penetrating nature of the painter come together in a single, powerful work. Meque’s ability to achieve this so comprehensively and so often established him as a beacon to Zimbabwean painters, a position I believe he will occupy for a long time to come.
In an era in which so much of painting is informed by photographs, bound by the single eye and lacking the vitality brought through the experience of intense observation of the subjects, these works were extremely refreshing, I look forward to contemplating them again one day.
We closed our annual exhibition at the end of the Paschal term, which deserves a comment at some time, and are now firmly into Trinity term. IGCSE Coursework is well underway, as are both the AS and A2 components. Here are some fine works by Andrea to end with:
“From things that have happened and from things as they exist and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and you make it alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality.”
“Any fact becomes important when it’s connected to another.”
Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum
I cannot claim that I have made anything with the qualities of truth or immortality as expressed by Hemingway above, despite my most (earnest) attempts. But I have made new things (insofar as “original” is a possibility, a whole other argument) that derive from the sources he describes so comprehensively, indeed, quite profoundly. I hope that at least in some my work, there is enough “life” to be of interest to the spectator.
Recent works have been accumulated bringing together different threads investigated over the last year, considering identity and the meeting and influences of culture and other agents within our context. I have been pleased to tie in some of the three dimensional work of the last period and hope that in doing so, new thoughts about the works may emerge. From a slightly simplistic perspective, there is a meeting between the abstract forms (to some eyes) of the sculptural works and the figurative drawing and prints. I have intended a meeting of ideas, and that the artefacts incorporated contribute to extended meanings, not simply the pilfering of cultural heritage as has been the case in many instances.
Fourteen works make up my contribution to the exhibition “Link” currently showing at Gallery Delta, along side Arthur Azvedo, Helen Lieros, Wallen Mapondera and Thakor Patel. Five artists with completely different styles, backgrounds and artistic heritages, each with some commonality and three of whom have impacted my own career of the years. I have written often about Helen’s role in my career as a painter, and the impact she had on me as a 16 year old and beyond. As always, it is a privilege to be able to exhibit with her for what must be at least the 40th time.
Wallen Mapondera is the youngest of us, one of a handful of Zimbabwean artists for whom I have the utmost respect. In May 2014, I wrote a foreword for the exhibition catalogue of “Social Zoometry” a one person exhibition. It included the following: “Mapondera engages the viewer with sensitive, exacting marks that express penetrating observations of the various subjects, which are… rendered without exception, with a deep sense of pathos.…[He]” challenges the spectator to confront their humanity… [and allows the viewer] to identify with the subjects of these works as his/her kind. From this perspective, we answer questions [which reveal] power structures, hierarchies, abuse of power, but also kinship and companionship.” The works of “Link” build on these attributes, as well introducing challenging new thoughts and ideas of intrigue.
The first piece of art that I ever purchased was a tiny Arthur Azvedo etching of a baboon from the Annual Zimbabwe Heritage exhibition at the National Gallery sometime in the early ‘90s. It hangs in my dining room to this day. To my knowledge, Arthur was one of the founders of welded art in Zimbabwe, and over recent decades, few have reached his level of artistry in the medium. His knowledge of his subjects is penetrating, always based on the deepest observations of movement and form and translated into both his welded work, and the drawings and prints for which he is renowned.
I had the privilege (I feel this to have been a one-sided thing) of being a student of Thakor Patel at the Polytechnic between ’89 and 91’, and later to work with him at that institution. For some reason, perhaps because he taught a few of my first-year modules, many memories of our association at that time feature the ridiculously immature 16 year old I was, trying to make sense of the out-of-reach level of competition of many of my peers, materials which I had no clue how to control, models I couldn’t draw and history beyond my level of thinking and comprehension. And the moratorium on whistling which Thakor imposed.
List of Things I Aspired to, aged 16
Climbing rocks well.
Thakor’s 3 metre wide modernist paintings of the late ‘80s, on which he worked in a studio at the Poly’ made a huge impression on me at that time. They were one of the first portals into a world of art that up to that point I had known nothing about. Indeed, I did not know anything about any world of art. Knowledge of the discipline at home was confined to a few “how to draw” books, which despite my present slight disregard, actually had something to do wth me heading in the direction of the visual arts. My family home was decorated in the popular mode of the time; there were various things of visual interest, such as the highly textured abstract work my father had made, generally referred to as “thing”; though it fit well into the ‘70s, it would also have found commonality amid my works of the early 2000s, whatever may be construed from that. A beautiful, turned wooden pot stays in my mind, a wonderful percolator (a similar type of which I found on a jumble sale years later) and a wooden stool my father made which I use today in the studio.
School art had consisted of pencil-drawn calabashes and seed pods, etc. and batiks. My only visit to any art gallery up to that point was a visit to the Annual Schools Exhibition at the National Gallery, where largely, more of the same was visible, and for which my friend an I had made a pair of fencing figures. These we found broken and flattened somewhere on the mezzanine floor – the only thing that I remember (other than the ramp with the rubber which makes the special underfoot noise) about that expedition.
The scale, vibrancy and abstraction of Thakor’s work was extraordinary to me, as were the blended, controlled oil colours. Over the next two years, the only time any of us neared that effect was with the aid of the revered air-brush, a tool that thankfully seems as manacled to the ‘80s as Wham. (Sadly, the gradient effect seems to have been embraced by the makers of Power Point and Keynote, and still frequently pains my eyes). Thakor spoke of artworks having “air”. It seems a vague, unformed piece of advice and something difficult to pin down. He would page through books, tapping his fingers upon a particular work here and there illuminating his thoughts.
Until now, though this particular quality seems difficult to define, the advice remains with me and I am always aware of works which possess the particular trait, and those which don’t. It speaks of an aspect that is not related to empty pictorial space, nor illusionistic depth. It is a quality that seems contained in the making of marks and application of media, the ability for a work to ‘breathe’. David Hockney says that artists should protect the ‘mystery’ of painting (ibid.) and I tend to agree, but that is not my intention in this regard. Perhaps I shall just say that this advice is ‘vague’ but makes sense to me, and leave it at that.
This exhibition then, is about connections. Connections within my own work, the lines of thought that have preoccupied me for months, even years. Connections between artists who share a common context, and have met at this point, this juncture. And for me, connections of a personal nature, of students, artists, teachers and friends. I find it aptly called “Link”.
We are in the middle of our examinations, and heading towards the late afternoon of the IGCSE, AS and A2 coursework. Though pressure should be building amongst the students, it seems as though it is not. I fear the moments when the realisation of that begins to penetrate their teenage brains and I suffer the ramifications of their current actions!
Here is a wonderful work by Mana which is at least an excellent start…
“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large – I contain multitudes.”
Having written a few posts, I signed up to the WordPress Blogging 101 course some time back, which was oversubscribed. However, the first assignment arrived in my inbox this week (not the most opportune time…) which was to make a post defining what this page is about. It seemed a good idea, so here it is:
I am above all, a husband and parent to two daughters. These are the most sacred things to me, followed by my three dogs. Like each of the following aspects, they are part of my self-identity. More than the others, I hold them carefully and closely to me, mostly away from the scrutiny of the world, quietly: they require no public endorsement to accord them their inestimable value.
My tagline of my various media states: Artist. Teacher. Zimbabwean.
If only things were as simple as a single word. I make art and have some reputation in my country, though in recent years, my output has been a little limited. It is in constant negotiation between the other agents within my life, and has settled into a status quo that I have come to accept as part of this time of my life. A life I would dare not tamper with, for it is an excellent one! I believe wholeheartedly in the place of visual arts in society, and their ability to elucidate aspects of our context and time.
Two Lists of Observations of Teachers
They have the power, the presence, the authority to absolutely decimate one’s aspirations, to belittle, to render a sense of worthlessness.
They can humiliate beyond one’s possible imagination.
They have a propensity to fail to “teach”.
In years past (and I fear present), they can effect random beatings, with a variety of objects, as was normal in my junior and secondary education. The picking up of an eight year old by his ears and the thrashing a 12 year old with with a ruler until he begged for mercy in front of the class seem to stick in my mind. Cracking students heads together (one in each hand) was an un-extraordinary event at one institution at which I once taught, nor was a sharp blow to the face with an open hand, of each member of a class of students who lined up for the occasion.
One English teacher, made secondary school a more tolerable place than it would have been without him.
My tertiary education was full of the most insightful, hard-working and dedicated members of the profession, many of whom I have the utmost respect and for, and whose opinions about my work remain invaluable.
I am surrounded by inspirational teachers and professionals for whom I have the greatest respect, at the institution at which I now work, and at which Studio One (of which I often write) is located.
My wife Shaunagh is a Grade 2 teacher, also extraordinary, dedicated to perhaps the toughest part of any educational phase!
I am patriotic, and love the country into which I was born. It is extraordinarily beautiful, and inhabited by warm, peace loving people. Even the name is seriously cool:
Z I M B A B W E
Houses of Stone
In a conversation with the author John Irving, Phillip Dodd says “…I have a view of all of us, that we are all marked by our generation, that you can leave the ‘60s and the ‘40s when you were born, but they cannot leave you…”. I am a white Zimbabwean, born in the early 70s, and marked by that. That is, I was a child during the brutal liberation war. I am not of the generation that fought that awful, but seemingly inevitable war, nor am I a “born free”, though I certainly identify with that era. I seem to spend a lot of time thinking about my in-between status, and the manner in which it contextualises my existence.
It seems then, that this blog is a narrative of the larger strands that make up my self identity. It runs parallel to my own visual arts, that of my students, and my teaching. It is framed within an extraordinary but sometimes immensely challenging country.
“In the process of creating, meaning will emerge.”
One thing that is quite apparent is that there is not so much of a demand for mud and barbed wire in the home (not many sofas are made of mud).
Visual notes of a thing that could be matched with a sofa:
It is well that I have a salary (“Those who can do, do [rage spit, rage, spew, vomit, ire, more rage], those who can’t, etc.etc. [fury, scream, more violent rage]), thus preclude myself from the “starving artist” identity. I suppose in the minds of many romantics, that is just wrong. I betrayed the cause. God forbid I ever went a step further and marketed my work. I can see that would be very slippery slope:
The land and its central role in Zimbabwean discourse of recent years seemed to force itself into my work, I think in a general sense, into the work of many contemporary artists. I had not named the various parts of the images as I wrote last week, and the interpretation of the images lacked specificity. A sort of transformation of ideas began to take place. In part, a need to start naming things, or using things with names (as opposed to shape and colour). I think I wanted to form my own ideas a little more clearly, and possibly communicate them more directly.
As with all artistic endeavours, there are a multitude of interwoven strands from which one derives inspiration (so-called…). Like many who paint, I have always been fascinated by the effects of various media, and the possibilities of different surfaces. A student (a Form Two at the time), had crafted a wonderful torso out of aluminium sheeting. She offered me a roll which became a pivotal moment. After a few explorations, I produced the work “Corona”. In that period of a few days/weeks, a relatively brief moment, it brought together numerous ideas and opened possibilities for using particular media and items as a means of figuration.
What was of immediate interest was that in the way the veneer and wound from before had become torn surface/land, the representation of the wound had become a literal gash, so too had the representation of land, become actual soil. There were many who found a link between the barbed wire and the extremely violent assault that my family and I endured at that time. In my mind this link was not written, but the related idea of defining and identifying territories as well as the land as object (manipulated in the extreme, as had occurred in this country for over 100 years) began to emerge.
What ensued was a series of works that has continued to the present. They have engaged with our claim on resources, our position in relation to these and their central role in numerous narratives during recent years. I shall not attempt a retrospective of my work, that is really not the point, but will mention two works below:
Which brings me to the present. Almost. In 2012, the first Art/Artefact exhibition was mounted at Gallery Delta. Contemporary artists were invited to respond to object d’art from around the continent. Foremost in my mind at the time was the process of re-contextualising what are primarily functional objects. I chose to work with the Tonga door, in itself a beautifully designed, functional object. My response mimicked the form, though obviously non-functional it hopefully brought into question concepts of claims made on territories and the means in which we defend and define them.
Art/Artefact II is currently showing Gallery Delta. My response for this exhibition has been to a Giriama Funerary Post. You can find a short blurb about that object on my Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=1038223032886843&id=299747193401101. As with many artistic endeavours, the motif that runs through the work came about partly through luck, in that the wooden sections were originally conceived as moulds, as seen in the studio shots below. How often it happens that unintentional moves reveal moments of discovery.
I began this post (Part 1) thinking about characteristics of charcoal. Though I have loved the aesthetic aspects of the substance, one particular quality that is paramount, especially in relation to the funerary post; more so in relation to this extraordinary land: Charcoal has been burnt, it is reduced to a substance that has the ability to be kindled: it embodies, it is potential.
In order to form charcoal bricks, very little moisture is required. A texture like very dry pastry seemed to provide the best results. Drying a brick sized block took more than three weeks.
The work “Corona” was exhibited on the “Colour Africa II” exhibition in Munich. In my records it belongs to Suzie Gliemann of Harare, a long standing supporter and patron of my work.
Though the deadline day for the Form Four coursework was not without a significant measure stress, they all made the submission date. The marking of it is a significant task in which myself and three colleagues collaborate: We have clocked up about 10 hours this week. There has been a slight lull after the effort, though their examination is now 14 days away.
I took the Lower VI to the Delta to see the exhibition and draw from the artefacts. They are a demented group. Though I am generally slightly on edge, apprehensive about what may transpire at any given moment, they are lively and entertaining.
This interesting mixed media (iPad/Collage) work is by Oliver Harvey. Though it would not seem so, he is one of the more sane amongst them.
“The idea is to write it so that people hear it and it slides through the brain and goes straight to the heart.”
– Maya Angelou
These two images are born of different eras: The first, “Walking in the Dark”, a mono-print on Japanese tissue, is from 2007, a time (if you are Zimbabwean) I need say little about. It hangs in my office (it is in high company; gifts, highly personal in nature and a small collection of of artworks comprising primarily students’ works. Given, hand-picked (stolen?), each of the most extraordinary quality).
My students are bemused by my print: “Sir, how can you just colour a piece of paper black and call it walking in the dark?” (lol, SMH, wtf. etc.).
The tendency, because it is my work, is to laugh with them and move on.
An artwork is inextricably linked to its context. I think, in 2007, that must have been apprehended by viewers of my print series; five of the seven images were sold. I am also confident that there was sufficient artistry in their production. The lines were sharp and clear, expressive, strong tones and textures were apparent within a solid composition. They were (though I say myself) very well executed and fine exemplars of the medium. I am happy that the works stood as alone as images; indeed, one hangs in my office.
But there are a failings revealed through the telling of the story:
I have to some extent failed to pass on the ideas of meaning and context to my students. They do not, or won’t (unlikely, since many are of exceptional calibre) read the work either within the context that it was created, or re-contextualised into the contemporary context.
Within the work, there is an insufficient level of recognisable (figurative) elements that provide hooks on which meanings may be hung, or it relies too heavily on external referents which gives rise to the above.
This is what must be grappled with if one is to work in the abstract. I am of more and more the view, that it seems (with regard to the wisdom of Maya Angelou above) that the slide through the brain, is a very necessary part of art-making, and that abstract visual elements alone, more commonly seem to circumnavigate that organ.
With this in mind, (7 years and a considerable number of works later) I produced the second of the images above for “From Line to Form”, a selections of Graphics, for the 2015 Delta exhibition. The contexts are different, but there are a number of shared characteristics. A stillness, the proverbial “calm before a storm”, an air of futility, a stretching, reaching the limit of resources, perhaps even an air of desperation.
I have been working more figuratively in recent years (in one branch of my work). In the manner of the most esteemed artists, Picasso, Hockney, et. al., I took on the idea of the artist and his models, what better way to locate oneself within a context? The dressmaker’s dummy, mentioned previously, the intriguing ‘Steel Skeleton’ of my student A. du Plessis, and the flag. Yes, symbol unsaid, “second version”.
I hope that within the breathless air, the not quite logically rendered perspective and amidst my models, some observation of our context is and hopefully, some artistic sensibility prevails.
i. The best mono-prints are made with: a very soft pencil, sharpened to a needle-like point; the softest paper one can find, thin, too. Leesa Swart gave me the Japanese tissue I mention above; hardboard (masonite), instead of glass, provides a more natural feel to the work.
ii. I have stood within the “Rothko Room” at the Tate, and been rendered almost breathless by his works; Abstract, in the extreme.
iii. I have been very pleased with the prints made on the “wall-paper”, (semi-gloss, with a glue finish on the back) by Lighthouse Print. It will be better in future if I export the drawings to Coral Draw, and allow a margin around the drawing.
iv. 20,000+ people, is the figure most commonly cited as having been made redundant since the Supreme Court ruling of 17 July 2015.
This is a wire dressmaker’s dummy. Difficult to portray, possibly hard to make out from the study. A simultaneously complex and simple object; very distinctive. Perhaps it is familiar to some, had I drawn it in colour, it would be instantly recognized by many who went through the studio of the extraordinary painter, Helen Lieros.
I left school one month prior to turning 16. I was as mature as your average individual male of that age (so mentally, about 10 years old). I had no intention of ever returning, a prospect which was surely as appealing to the administrators and teachers of my school, as it was to me. Through sheer disinterest, I had maintained a spectacularly average standard in every subject. Though I had taken the Woodwork subject choice, I had written O’ Level Art. I was a reasonably able draughtsman, and by default, settled on a career of Graphic Design (“default” in this case meaning I had absolutely no other options).
Perhaps through sheer goodwill, I was accepted into the Harare Polytechnic Graphic Art and Design programme. This was a superb course, with legendary lecturers, many who have taught some of the finest artists of every field in this country, and many of prestige beyond these borders.
It took approximately 90 days before I was asked to leave.
(I shall not overdo the drama at this juncture. In this country, policies are often malleable, and once again by sheer goodwill, or in truth, by virtue of one who had accompanied my exit, and his particular relations, I was once again re-instated. I did eventually mature, and did graduate well, and had the privilege of learning from some of the most extraordinary teachers I have ever encountered. But that has nothing to do with this drawing.)
Thus, now 16, sans-education, sans-career options, sans-life ambition, I found my way to the studio of artist and teacher Helen Lieros. This was unequivocally a turning point. It is through sheer luck and good fortune that an individual encounters a teacher or mentor that can make a fundamental change, or influence or impact one’s life. It is a rare occurrence that some of us are privileged to experience, as I did at this time.
In this studio we drew. And drew, and drew and drew. And we painted, and some of us matured. Amidst us, were those who had burnt out all conventional options and gathered there, and fed off the extraordinary rich, deep environment. Some of us were nurtured, as I was, and found some purpose. We gained strength form the energy of the studio, from each other, and from the driving force at the centre, that was the artist, Helen Lieros.
Although the studio was accessible through the entrance of the main college with which it was associated, initiates never entered there. The real entrance was via the sanitary lane, past the refuse, employees car park, the quarters of the cleaning staff, and through the small door, which was located around the corner of a mural clad alleyway.
The studio was an abandoned kitchen, of institutional variety. At one end a cold room, with a shoulder thick door acted as an auxiliary store room. There was a curious L shape enclave at each end; the West end space housed a small etching press (only the elite amongst us ever touched it), and at the Eastern side the kettle, tea, single plate stove, on which we cooked our beans, and from which the patrons of the artists received their “Greek” coffee, brewed by the sure hand of our mentor.
Although there were some larger windows at the Western end, there was no view to speak of. Along the side of the room was a bank of ovens, now strange, dark cupboard like features and a countertop which carried the collection of extraordinary items and objects that had been hoarded for numerous years.
Amidst these objects was this dressmaker’s dummy. Now that I have mentioned the context, I know that there are many who now know this figure. It appeared often in still lives, in surrealistic paintings. It was a constant, a default symbol, versatile in possible iconographic expressions. It was embedded in our minds.
That studio closed in about 1993. It signified the end of an era. The end of an extraordinary creative streak that ran through some Harare secondary school and pre-university art students, those who would never enter formal education, and those so would return and contribute to the energy of that place.
In 2012, in a radically different period of life, I stood as the Head of Art and the Hellenic Academy, opening the fist exhibition of the new art studios, “Blueprint”. It goes without saying that my mentor, Helen was present. Without that history, this present would not exist. She had with her a parcel, newsprint wrapped, large, lightweight, a present for me.
As you have surely surmised, it was the wonderful figure of the dressmaker’s dummy. Figure from my chequered history, old friend long past, somehow ever-present.
I have no idea how many times I have drawn that figure; in how many paintings it has appeared. It is not easy to portray, it does not lend itself to visual expression. Nevertheless, it remains for me a symbol, a thread from what now appears as childhood, from my early explorations of visual arts, of a world outside of conventions, a world just a little bit toward the edge.
Today our A level students began their examination. It pleases me that my students were in the presence of that figure. They have no concept of its significance to me, nor, I suspect, would they find any aesthetic or conceptual value in that object.
But I like to think there is some continuity, whether it is possible to note or deduce actual consequences or not.
It shall remain to me, a curious, significant object.