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:
“In this way, in increments both measurable and not, our childhood is stolen from us – not always in one momentous event but often in a series of small robberies, which add up to the same loss.”
– John Irving, “Until I Find You”
I have an A’ Level student who has been considering places to mount an installation, and the cleft rock at Cleveland Dam came to mind. It has been as excellent opportunity to revisit the spot, which I did with my family, and inspired a series of small explorations to the haunts of my childhood. Three years ago, I was invited by the inaugural Toastmasters’ club of the Academy to make a speech. Given my recent preoccupation with the South-Eastern side of this city, I have decided to re-hash that speech, and present it here. I hope that the speaker’s voice is not too irritating to the reader:
The ‘place’ of my early existence was the Southern suburbs of Harare. Within this domain was, amongst other features, the Makuvisi river, which I have dammed in numerous places, the Balancing Rocks, Cleveland Dam and quarry and mountainous lime dumps brilliant white, with turquoise lakes on top. The Northern end of the runway and the five levels of the Parkades, were nightly haunts and became for me the most romantic spots in the city. Every square meter was cycled and explored. Owned. As I look back, there is one significant aspect that I remember about my inhabitance of this domain:
Wherever I went, whatever I did, I took my body.
Today, the “place” of my inhabitance is considerably more vast. Indeed, it is the same territory as yours: the digital domain which extends literally, across the globe, and into space. Within this, we play and study, we are intimate, we shop, we explore. As we do so, our brains undergo the same chemical reactions that we experience in the physical world, and we are subject to the usual experiences of intrigue, pain, heartbreak, lust, jealousy and anger. And as we travel we abandon our physical selves this side of the digital frontier. We become disembodied.
It is a harsh, vulnerable condition to travel without one’s physical self. We are stripped of the defences we have so pain-stakingly constructed: our be-gymnasiumed bodies, the four corner shoes, dyed hair, multiple earings, “porno-shorts” and bizarre slippers, each which mark our individuality and sense of belonging within a particular group or structure. The curators of the spaces we inhabit know this. They acknowledge our predicament and offer us a solution:
We begin with a little badge; Status. I have “mined” various What’s App Profiles to illustrate my point: One declares that she belongs and that she “believes”; “Your need was abundantly supplied before you knew it”. Just as we do in the physical world, we proclaim our identity as defined by another: “SA” proclaims one. “JS”, says SA, and with a touchingly feminine flair, she adds a heart. On the day of his first anniversary, “PR” was “available” – very, very bad, whilst his celebrant counterpart offered the disturbing winking tongue-pulling emoji. Altogether, a most disconcerting arrangement.
We proclaim our sporting knowledge; “definitely the best keeper in the country”, says one, and stroke our egos; “Keep up, or cheer me on” announces another. Through public, visible marks, we flesh out our disembodied selves, reassuring those we encounter that we have a life: It is bigger than you see here, it has more depth. “Getting rid of memories is easy”, claims one, unconvincingly; “how do I make you fight?” writes another. Each statement is a breath, a pulse, evidence of our existence.
With status as well developed as possible, we manicure our avatars, our imagery and visual attributes: fat rolls hidden, best smiles and correct lighting. Everything constructed to best represent our self-conception, and thus embodied, we are more adequately armed to occupy these vast territories. The braver ones expose themselves, they write and blog. Some inhabit depraved spaces – but they do so under false identities, masked, like thieves. Others hack, troll and spam – the vandals of the domain.
For most, the reality is that there is little of significance that can be said to many friends, and little of value that we are willing to divulge to largely undefined and unknown audiences. Illusions are created, happy photos, great lives, good times. We engage in the curious modern phenomenon of posting the most inane, inconsequential trivia. We erect billboards for our identities, marking our success with “likes”, carefully garnered through dead-end posts such as: “Like, if you wish cancer didn’t exist”. We make desperate pleas for popularity, adding tags such as “I follow back” (The “I’ll be your friend if you’ll be mine” of social media). It matters little what is said, so long as we are noticed – It is the most fundamental of human concerns. As the philosopher George Berkley observed: “To be, is to be perceived”.
My own Facebook page prompts me daily to “complete” my profile, as though I can be neatly packaged. Nice. It wants me to state where I went to school, a miserable wreckage that I would rather conceal. They want me to state where I work, but I do not define myself by the institution that pays my salary, rather by the human interaction I engage in whilst I am there. But that is not an available option. Daily, they prompt me: “The most popular posts are short, friendly and conversational. Write a post.”
The quantity of information, the nuances and complexities of my identity does not easily fit this curator’s options. The fleshing out of my new body is a picture of what does not hurt, what is not admitted, the mistakes I have not made. If to “be human is to err” then this identity is arguably everything humanity is not. And I have already spent an extraordinary amount of time constructing it. How complex. How frustrating. How frightening. This is not the simple fathomable arena of my youth.
The Northern end of the runway is marked by a row of red lights. About one hundred meters past these is an impenetrable, heavily monitored fence. There is a road which leads to the Airforce Base to the East, and on its left is another large fenced area, perhaps of about 25 square kilometers. Within this is a large signal beacon about three meters tall, which indicates the line and direction of the runway. For what it’s worth, the beacon is accessible from the Old Twentydales Rd. It provides a spectacular view of the low flying aircraft as they land and ascend.
If you go, take your body, you will feel the downdraft as they pass.
ii. A quick internet search of Cleveland dam reflected my own view; an interesting spot, pleasant walks and fun for children. But spoilt by an excess (even relative to our somewhat questionable standards) of litter. It appeared to be an afternoon drinking spot. Nehanda Radio (http://nehandaradio.com/2013/01/28/cleveland-dam-turned-into-sodom-and-gomorrah/) paints a slightly darker picture, likening it to Sodom and Gomorrah – one would neither enjoy the company of the nightly “bouncing” cars (with tinted windows…), nor the guns allegedly pointed at the guards. Notwithstanding the fact that, according to one featured individual, if you have paid your entry fee, “[y]ou cannot be denied quality time with your wife even in the kitchen, dining room or even car.”
“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.
“My songs have nothing to do with war. They are all about the sad insecurities of a balding rock star”
– Chris Martin (The Guardian 17 March 2003)
I picked a piece off of a painting and painted the hole red. It looked like a small wound in flesh. The surface had been afflicted. It was a small wound, it could be construed to have been caused by a sharp stick. There were also scratches, quite deep I suppose. There was a slight translucency in the layers of oil, which spoke to me of a sort of bruising. Once, when I was using my sisters stilts, I slipped. There was a rusty screw sticking out of the handle, and it stuck me hard in the shin. It made a hole right into the bone, quite deep. I never talked about it because of the fear of going to hospital.
My painting spoke nothing of the carnage that was created and endured at that time. Perhaps that was not the objective. Perhaps that was simply too big to consider. But as a hole in a dam, a picked scab, the injury beneath a toyed with, nuisance piece of loose skin grew and grew: Visually, physically, contextually. I engaged with that initial hole, that small puncture wound. It was the beginning of an obsession with surface and texture, with representation and literalism that would endure till the present.
This is Part 1 of a post about that preoccupation. I write it as my work “Elegy” hangs on the Art/Artefact II exhibition at Gallery Delta, a work a long way from the painting described above. I don’t think I can really speak about it without writing of one element of it’s history, which is what I shall endeavour to do here. I will post the second part next week. (The painting with the hole (Scratching the Facade) formed part of the 2005 exhibition “Embers of Dreams”.
Between then and the present lie a collection of stories of corrupted foundations, damaged structures, isolation, wounds and destruction. Stories of despair, defence, of light, of patience. Of burning, embers and ash. Not ash. Ash has less value – it is a symbol of something departed – it is hard to work with, grey, lacking contrast, lacking substance. Stories that end with charcoal. Charcoal is different. It has another quality; It’s dense, black. It has substance. It possesses the power to be rekindled. Charcoal is potential.
As the wounds grew, so did the necessity to represent them. The acrylic/plaster base became insufficient for the task. Scratches and punctures were no longer the nature of the environment. In search of a sense of greater depth, I took to ripping and layering pieces of canvas, still incorporating the earlier base. There was a transformation taking place; what began as a representation of a wound, gave way to an actual rip and tear. The surfaces which had until now seemed to form a bridge between the abstract and the figurative became literal embodiments of the ideas about which I was thinking. I didn’t ever name the parts, though the surfaces seemed to reflect different aspects. In one a type of skin, in another, panels or rusted metal, in a third burnt panels, broken, insufficient to cover or piece together the carnage. I worked on numerous pieces at a time, as over the layers of canvas, were numerous layers of oils – glaze upon glaze. I think that they had a richness and depth, from memory they were strong, resonant images. Amidst them were moments of light, of dreaming an hope.
The culmination of these ripped and layered works ended with: “Enough Said”. What a load of crap. An total misnomer. As if there could have ever been enough said.
List of paintings that I can think of that (when standing alone) are truly able to describe horrific moments:
Not that I would rename it, it was a good title. I think for me it was enough said. It marked the end of a two and a half year obsession with those stories, and those processes. It was painted for the 2008 HIFA exhibition, “determine: Nation”, at the National Gallery. At almost two metres in height, it was somewhat overbearing, the colours were strong, the composition had some tension. It remains for me a really significant painting, one I am proud of.
The product DM6, was an acrylic base which dried into a transparent flexible and extremely tough surface. It had the added property of being extremely sticky. It was developed by Peter Eyllis of Pigmento, as far as I understand, with a certain amount of artistic input from his sister-in-law, the renowned artist Helen Lieros. It is a product no longer readily available.
I now use the PVA “book-binding” glue from A.T. Carter. It is as good a water-based glue as any I have used in my career.
Operation Murambatsvina/Drive Out Filth, also known as Operation Restore Order, was a wide-spread government clear-up (decimation) of informal settlements across the country in July 2005. According to Wikipedia, the United Nations estimated at least 700 000 people were directly affected, and over 2m indirectly affected through the campaign.
We are entering the really frantic period (more frantic that usual) of our academic year. The coursework deadlines are looming for the IGCSE students, and the Upper VI. Despite the high pressure, it is also one of the very exciting periods, as the student work peaks and the Final Outcomes are turned in. I spent last Saturday morning with some of the Form Fours. Isobel Fox presented her installation, a work entitled “Contamination”. It is a complex and intriguing work that will hopefully be included in the Hellenic exhibition next term. I have included a link to a tiny detail here: https://vimeo.com/139447880
“A person who longs to leave the place where he lives is an unhappy person”
Milan Kundira – The Unbearable Lightness of Being
For the second time in four months (at the indulgence of my family), I had the extraordinary pleasure to hike the Turaco Trail in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe. Alone. For the benefit of any readers (since my family know this), I shall state right here, that I love my family more than my own life and would rather be with them than anything else, ever. However, as confirmed, ardent introvert, time alone is relished, and rejuvenates. That slither of space alone on the edge of our land is as good a place to find this space as any other.
Six awesome things (not necessarily in hierarchical order) vis a vis the recent endeavour:
I should spend a moment defining this sojourn within the framework of Kundera above, or rather, using the space as a means of defining “the place where [I] live”. There is no discontent being part of a familial unit; indeed the contrary, as stated. The idea of a wholesale move of family, homestead and work to the Eastern Highlands seems attractive. It is possible that it may improve my “place” of abode. Yet it would destroy that place, and in doing so, render this lesser; though not polemical, it is arguable that one may exist only as the other does, and since it is unspoilt and damn-near perfect, let’s not fiddle with that! (Besides which I can see this unfolding into a discussion way beyond this brief text…).
So let think for a moment on a third characteristic: technological isolation (lol, so-called). (There is a real place like that – “The Quiet Zone”, 34 000 square km near the Allegheny Mountains in West Virginia, where the Green Bank Telescope listens to radio waves emitted milliseconds after the birth of the universe ( http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-32758042 ). But it wasn’t really like that of course, I carried a two-way radio in case of emergency, and my iPhone (my camera, video-cam map and compass (!)). Whilst most apps, including social media, were deleted to give longer battery life, communication ones were not. In certain spots (such as the peak of Mt. Nyangani), one receives and transmits welcome SMSs and What’s Apps from family; Are you ok? Are you having fun? At the other end of the mountains will you be as happy to see me as I will you?
Between those welcome communiques there was the inevitable barrage of banners and alerts of other communications, some of which in that context (to be specific, a 360 degree view from the highest point in the country), were less warmly received. Dialogues of various group chats, images and questions from students, messages from colleagues, etc.. Everything from There, was Here. What was so clearly revealed was firstly, that solitude requires considerable more design now, than previously, and that secondly, the greyed out, blurred (lost/obliterated/removed)lines of personal and professional spaces which we (I?) have become so accustomed to (designed/constructed/created) had ever so slightly, a tinge of a place I wanted to leave. Or if not leave, then more carefully and thoughtfully recreate.
Who designed the framework of that place, and what is it? Are we all part of it? I certainly own my part: “You have my number, use it – if I am free I will reply, if not, I will when I get a chance”(“my number” – maybe that says enough?). Digital images of drawings, paintings and sculptures, assessed and returned. Visual arts in binary for the progressive (or procrastinating) teacher and learner. A gradually, never-quite-considered construction employing new technologies. Opening communications, speeding up the pace of information-swapping, exchange of ideas and organising seemingly immediate tomorrows. Student to teacher, teacher to student; Supervisor to prefect, head to group; colleague to colleague, HOD to cleaner: Phone. voicemail. Video. Email. Skype. Google Classroom. What’s App. IM. Twitter. Tumblr.
I am a teacher. The best “place” in this regard is one in which the best possible learning can take place. Is this really it? This is not an unusual, profound or new question, indeed, rather run-of-the-mill. But it is mine, this week. I do not think, as I write, and as I did a month ago, that any student’s work will really be better by having me assist them once school has closed for the day. In fact, it seems more likely, that I am in fact facilitating the removal of the quintessential and defining aspect of my subject: A personal space to search, explore, err and discover. I suppose, both these things within reason. I think, as I write today, that as I remove those spaces from my students, I clutter my own. There is the possibility that this place has become slightly stained.
I would hate that it became a place to “long to leave”.
I follow some astronauts and cosmonauts on Twitter, who tweet from the ISS. Awesome.
iPhone does not need mobile data to use satellite navigation. It can monitor one’s position on the Avenza Pdf map to within one metre. Also amazing.
As well as being highly rewarding, the position of “teacher” is a very difficult one. One in which (in a curious reversal of the old report adage “room for improvement”) there is an endless capacity and space to do, or have done “more”.
“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.