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Of Writing Histories

“People are always shouting they want to create a better future. It’s not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past.”

Milan Kundera

The spirited gathering of the final assembly.

As each year passes and another group of pupils depart, I am painfully aware that they potentially leave our national boundaries for good. I suppose a good portion of that pain comes from the fact that in a few short years it will be my own children in that position and I will be faced with the crisis on a far more personal level. To this end, we continue to participate and do what we do, not only because we believe that this is an extraordinary country that we want to be part of, but also that we can one day, through our efforts, contribute to stemming this endless tide of departees from our land.

As the Upper VI Line Tutor, I am honoured each year, to say a few words to them at their final assembly. For one who is vaguely interested (some have asked for a copy), here is what I said to the leavers of 2107.

Spotted some “Vagrants” at the lock ceremony…

Usual shirt story…

and again…

Upper VI 2017

I would like to make a shout out to Vagrants, and to DJ Pardon, who may well have inspired this speech, and to note that 2017 is slightly different, because the eldest two children of the Zimbabwean Shaws, my nieces Lisa and Shekinah graduate today, which is a special milestone for the family!

You would be familiar with the song World, by Five for Fighting. In keeping with its genre, it’s somewhat one dimensional and rather sentimental, but recently, as I wallowed around in literary quagmire trying to think of what might be vaguely interesting for you to hear, the chorus caught my attention:

What kind of world do you want?

Think anything

Let’s start at the start

Build a masterpiece

Be careful what you wish for

History starts now

It’s a great idea; a clean slate; a new story. That you would walk out from here, pick a path and start mapping a story of success, of endeavour and the realisation of your aspirations. That you would build a masterpiece. That your history would start now.

Unfortunately, not only is it simplistic, it’s not true. History does not, and cannot start now. To think that it does would be to do a great injustice to that which has come before. It would imply an arrogance, and the idea that we are islands, independent of the myriad of factors that contributed to this point in time.  And I know that you don’t think that, despite the many critics of your generation, for I have seen you often exhibit a compassion and understanding for the world around you.

So I thought to consider a few strands of your paths that you have shared, and as I do so, I beg pardon from the historians and history scholars amidst you for my crass butchering of your beautiful subject and hope that through my blundering words you can appreciate the sentiment, no matter how crudely written.

Rather than being islands, we are part of an endless and infinitely wide stream. Where one part moves so must the others, to accommodate and reciprocate the constant motion and growth. As you have flowed through this path, so have your families. For each of you, this is an individual and unique tale, a complex, multi-layered pastiche. There is no doubt, however, that within these individual, shared histories there are some common elements such as joy and reward, honour, dishonour, anger and frustration. There are stories of support and stories of abandonment, each with their lifelong ramifications. There are inevitably aspects of love, trust and pride. For many, there is a story of sacrifice, and for some, great sacrifice. But in each, without doubt, there is a story of hope and faith.

Hope, that the decision to invest in you so fully, will bear fruit and rewards for each of you and for your families. I am optimistic that it will be.

Faith, that the investment in this institution will provide for you the absolute best that is on offer. I am hopeful that it has done so.

Faith, that even in this harsh climate, this could be accomplished and that the decision to be part of this country at this time would be the right one, as the shared history of you and your family has been written.

Faith that during this complex story you will have become everything that you can possibly be. I am optimistic that in this regard, you have, will continue to exceed their hopes and expectations, and I would ask you right now, to stand, and through applause, acknowledge the shared history between you and your family, and everything that it encompasses and everything that it means for the future.

And what then of your history in this beautiful, yet brutal country. How well have you understood that your moments of life in this extraordinary place are a relatively short, built on extraordinary achievements and successes as well as deep fault-lines and scars, and that each of these has conditioned your experiences till this point? Have you really apprehended that the history you have made in this privileged sphere can only be seen in relation to the space beyond this boundary, and that the two spheres are not even remotely similar? How well have you understood that at this point in time, your starting point is not even vaguely equal to the majority of your compatriots? That in fact, the extent of the disparity is quite staggering, and that the hand that you have been dealt would be eagerly grasped by many?

And what of the institution in which you have created much of this history? This Hellenic Academy which too, was built on great faith in difficult times. Which was built on a unique vision and stands as a monument to courage and perseverance. We invest ourselves so fully in you, because not only are you a product of this vision, but because you are the reason for its very existence, and because we know that through our shared history, we are also building a shared future, in which extraordinary things will be achieved.

We are proud of you and what you have accomplished.

You are gentle, and peaceful and empathetic in nature. Your year as the head of the student body has reflected these attributes and they have been passed through the school, and I applaud you for that. You have fostered a sense of pride and a sense of respect. You have added to our vision and you have added to our Academy.

And who are you? Who are the people that have experienced this history? As I wrote this, I read through your names, recalling each of you and your individual contributions. Starting with Basil, it was clear before I had reached the end of “C” that I could not mention them all, because there was simply too much to say. By that point, I noted expert violinists, a pianist, media experts and a Microsoft guru with a notable ‘fro! Athletes, academics and a high-flying triathlete, a courageous leader of extraordinary substance.  It continued throughout the class: The inspiration who is Chico. A viola player whose investment in the people of the academy has impacted my own family. A singer of transcendent power. A world-class triathlete, a world-class equestrian, a world-class super model and an artist who paints creatures with with mind-blowing humanity.

Gregory was no different. I noted a double bassist overflowing with empathy and an artist with such passion her stories eclipsed the school. A host of academics, mathematicians, scientists, and a polyglot. Darling, the cricket machine, Vlad, Sponge, Peaches and a Greek man who has stunned us, with his humbling courage and resolve.

Within John, I found a rock-musician-academic, a ballerina and an extremely caring, organisational queen. Experts in the knowledge of fauna and flora, a wildlife photographer, artists and writers. An orator, a debater of imposing force and a trumpeter. The man who is Taine. The man who is Bradley. The force of the Ocean and the impulsive, dancing persona, woman of extraordinary humility, academic, artist, and leader extraordinaire.

With respect to Five for Fighting, you cannot start history now. But you will be able to read it from this point forward and you should be aware that the steps that you take and the stories that you write from now will not only condition your future, but condition the way we read the past.

I would urge you then, to pay respect to the faith that your parents have placed in you and to pay respect to this Academy, and it’s ideals, with which you have shared your history. And to consider that perhaps one day, part of your continued story may be written in this country where your many abilities may contribute to the exceptional stories that will continue to be written in this beloved land.

I have only to speak of one more history. That is the one that I have shared with you. I am forever humbled by your achievements, your strength and your love of life. I look forward to the day that you return and we can continue to build this world together. I am proud to be associated with you, and proud that within my own story, our paths have crossed.

Go well.

Aien Aristeyien

Always Excellence.”

 

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That’s the Sound…(Part 1:Ft. Arteepeepee)

“Do a good art, even if it’s a bad art.”

Savannah Hertzberg

“Luc Dood”, L. Brazier, 2016

Historical List of Redundant Form Four Actions (2016)

  1. Wear down art teacher with persistent pleas for the Right to Drink Tea in the studio.
  2. Rename the class “Arteepeepee”.
  3. Sing the music of Queen incessantly, with absolute disregard for the subtle nuances of the great Freddie Mercury.
  4. Engage in a farcical, tea brewing, non-art-making scenario until said granted  right is withdrawn.
  5. Make a good Art
"Luc Dude", E. Robertson, 2016.

“Luc Dude”, E. Robertson, 2016.

A few weeks ago, we had the pleasure of attending the Cambridge Outstanding Learners Awards, in which I am very proud to say that the Hellenic art Department claimed the “Best in Zimbabwe” at IGCSE, AS and A2 Level, as well as receiving two High Achievement Awards for the May/June exam session last year. I thought I would post a few of the extraordinary works here, the two AS High Achievement submissions and the IGCSE Best in Zimbabwe.

Mana was one of the members of GShiz, and Melanie emanated from the Studio of “Mrs Mac”. They wrote during the May/June session (something we used to do..) and were part of a group of exceptional submissions. Indeed, since I am blowing our horn (that’s the sound…), I might point out that the lowest grade obtained for the group of 20 was a B, which is quite extraordinary. The AS comprises a coursework submission and an examination (15 hours over three days, which despite being a beast – ask Sarah – is always a creatively intense and rewarding experience). Both Mana and Melanie (Malanie/Melana) had characteristics in common: a high degree of creativity and an exceptional level of skill and a great sense of aesthetic. Here is a taste of some of the work of Malanie/Melana:

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Luc Brazier was awarded Best IGCSE Art and Design Student in Zimbabwe, an excellent result following a couple years of smouldering activity and some pretty startling renditions of Queen, not to mention being the driving force behind the Arteepeepee debacle. His submission was the first animation to be entered as a Final Outcome by the Academy (most likely by any Zimbabwean School?) to date.

Luc combined a wealth of technical knowledge and superb artistic and aesthetic judgement as he produced a work of startling weight and impact. It is not uncommon for our students to address “heavy” themes, many do as their lives collide with the raw and brutal facets of life. It is much less common that these works come over as uncontrived. For many, despite the impact of these, they are less artistically mature and some work becomes cliched, relying on predictable imagery or symbols and “shock” tactics. Luc’s in contrast, is a dark, hard hitting and edgy work. for those of us who know him, it came as no surprise that there are  heavy doses of sardonic comedy (not humour) entangled amidst the tragic narrative.

At each level it is demanded of the candidates that they support and investigate their ideas and demonstrate how these have been developed throughout the submission. I think in some regards we were privileged to be given access to Luc’s thoughts, since so much was highly personal, and which, in sketchbook form, clearly demonstrated the progression and decision making of the work.

Here is a taste of the exploration.

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Here is the final outcome:

Luc was also the first candidate from the Academy to answer an examination with pure photography. He tackled this with a similar degree of creativity and courage, and employing a level of investigation and expertise well beyond what would normally be expected from a student at this level. As before, his preparation was personal and deeply investigative. Here is some of the preparation and the Final Outcome:

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It should go without saying that there was a wealth of extraordinary work that emanated from Arteepeepee and I would do well to feature some more of it at some point. But for now, let me say as always, what a privilege it is to work with the many pupils who invest themselves as wholeheartedly in their work as they do; beyond the extraordinary amount of effort, it is above all, highly courageous.

Studio One

It seems hard to believe that we are almost the end of the art exams for Trinity term. The AS mock finished today, the remnants of Arteepeepee reconfigured as Pigs and Chickens had a taste of the 15 hour beast; they were weary, but for the most part, successful. Vagrants continued their journey through the A2 coursework,  App up the Vicious wrote their IG mock, the Form 3s (a cracking bunch) are done, so are the 2s and the Form 1s write on Tuesday. A total of 39 hours of exams.

Observations

  1. Aluminium melts at 800 degC. We know this from the IG students smelting it (through questionable means) for casting.
  2. Said molten aluminium explodes if poured into a damp mold.
  3. Percussive sounds of welders, grinding metal and the roar of the (modified) blow torch is heavy, after the 9th hour.

Still an Icon

“I am black, I think black, I paint black”.

Luis Meques, 1997.

Meques, L. ‘Street Kids’, 1997. MM on Paper, 116cm x 156cm.

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.

Meques, L. ‘Street Kids II’, 1997. MM on Paper, 116cm x 166cm.

Meques, L. 1995. ‘Untitiled’, Mixed media on Paper. 125cm x 116cm.

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.

 

Studio One

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:

Greg Shaw,

18th May, 2017. Harare

Of Imagery, Made Things and Connections

“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.”

  • Ernest Hemingway

“Any fact becomes important when it’s connected to another.”

  • Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum

The Broken Stool, 2016. Digital Drawing, 3094x4036px; printed on matte wallpaper.

The Broken Stool, 2016. Digital Drawing, 3094x4036px; printed on matte wallpaper.

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.

Arthur Azvedo, 1991. "Baboon", Etching and Ink on Paper. 5 x 7cm

Arthur Azvedo, 1991. “Baboon”, Etching and Ink on Paper. 5 x 7cm

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

  1. 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”.

Pipe Dreams I and II, 2016. Charcoal, Soil, Metal and Found Objects. Height 115 and 110 cm

Pipe Dreams I and II, 2016. Charcoal, Soil, Metal and Found Objects. Height 115 and 110 cm

Studio One

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…

Michelle with red cloth, 2016. Acrylic on Paper.

Michelle with red cloth, 2016. Acrylic on Paper.

Greg Shaw, 30 June 2016

Of lines, printed on paper.

“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


 

     Walking in the dark VI. monoprint on tissue. 21 x 30 cm     11260671_1016493625059784_8101778586272155851_n

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

OBSERVATIONS

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.

Greg Shaw, 21 August 2015.