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…
“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.