The ups and downs of being a Zimbabwean artist in the diaspora
Curator Pat Allen introducing Sithabile Mlotshwa to her Majesty the Queen of England at the Kelvingrove Museums and Galleries.
The ups and downs of being a Zimbabwean artist in the diaspora
An interview with S’thabile Mlotshwa by Farai Kashiri
A few weeks ago, it was reported that Zimbabwean artist S’thabile Mlotshwa met and had lunch with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh at the royal official opening of Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow where one of her artworks is now part of the permanent collection alongside artworks by Rembrandt, Picasso and other old masters. This energetic and extrovert young woman tells us what it is all about.
Q: What is the background to having your work alongside Picasso and others in Glasgow?
S’thabile: The artwork displayed at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum was commissioned for the Cultural Survival Gallery. The curator asked me to make an installation or sculpture to represent water-related issues in the southern and eastern part of Africa. The title of the work is “Bringing Water to the African People” and it is made of ostrich eggshell, porcupine quills, hemp and charcoal. The egg vessel consists of three important elements: the rope represents continuous hope, the broken pieces of eggshell around the outer part of the vessel stand for the different communities of Africa who share the same need for water, and the lines on the vessel represent the connection the indigenous peoples have to water.
Q: How did you feel seeing your work displayed near the “old masters”?
S’thabile: When I began working on the commission, I had no idea about the works displayed in Kelvingrove, nor what Kelvingrove was. To me it was just a commissioned work, which I would do and when it was done that would be it. I began realising the seriousness of the project when I had to deliver the completed artwork and I had to work with a conservator, who in turn had to take over the care of my artwork until the time came for me to install it at the museum. I suddenly found myself in this grand, beautiful building, which at the time was still closed for refurbishment. When I saw the space, the art works, I was in disbelief. It had always been my dream to show my work in the same building where the old masters had hung. But to be able to display my work a few rooms from not only one of the old masters but a group of many of them is a great honour. Not only that but also having my work as part of the permanent collection of the second-most-visited museum outside London… wow! Not to mention having to meet and dine with the Queen… something I never imagined.
Q: Is it important to see your work alongside “great artists”?
S’thabile: Yes, I find it very important, especially because they are the greatest masters in Europe, who have left a great mark of their work and existence. Since living in the Netherlands, I never imagined it possible to have my work as part of a permanent collection of a museum with artworks by Rembrandt, but now my work is displayed on the same floor with him and others. I find it a great achievement. I am no longer in some corner only for the “African feeling” or shown in an exhibition of African art. It brings me great pride that I, Sithabile Mlotshwa Mgidi Makhawulane Ngwalazindeni Ngwalongwalo Mazibuko Phakathi, born in Bulawayo Zimbabwe, and having done my art education at Mzilikazi Art Centre, am now displayed in a grand museum alongside “great artists”.
Q: Mzilikazi Art Centre is a long way from Rembrandt. What kind of art education did you have?
S’thabile: The art education I had was Western based, without much emphasis on Western art history. It was more about the technique, which I also use, but which does not have anything to do with my expression as an individual. Having majored as a fine artist, I came out not knowing what I would do next. Knowing that my father was against me becoming an artist in the first place, made it even more difficult to find my way. I then decided to further my education by taking up a course in applied fashion and design. Within a year I knew I was in the wrong place. With the help of my former lecturer, Tomy Ndebele, I got a studio space where my journey began as a practising artist.
Q: Tomy must have been very important to you. Who else has influenced you? Who are your favourite artists, Zimbabwean and others?
S’thabile: My international favourite artists are Picasso, Goya, Frida Kahlo, Pollock and Gaudi with his amazing buildings. My favourite artists from back home are Adam Madebe, Joseph Muzondo, Zephania Tshuma and Rashid Jogee. However none of these artists have influenced my work. The international ones I got to know of when I moved to this part of the world and began an interest in what art from this part of the world was about. My work, on the other hand, has been, or maybe still is, a process that needs defining. All I can say is that my work is a representation of my feelings and thoughts, ever changing, depending on what I am feeling and where I am. My influence coming from my past and present experiences, which also depends on how much those experiences affect me positively or negatively. I must add that a sense of loss, identity, pain and a great desire to make a difference, lately seem to be what drive my creative process, in comparison to the past where suppression, frustration, anger and pain were my drive.
Q: What is the impact of your art education, the type of introduction to art you had, or lack of it, on your approach to making art?
S’thabile: The impact of my art education on my approach to making art has not been positive. What I mean is, the way I express myself in my art is related to the way I had my art education. This has made it difficult for my work to be well received in Europe in the sense that the people who have viewed my work and have loved or been impressed by it, when they heard that I was from Africa it disappointed them as my work, to them, was “not African”, what ever that means. It is something I have come across many times when exhibiting or showing people my work. Which, in turn, led me to start questioning why my work was not viewed as original but as a copy of European art?! My answer came when a Dutch fellow artist made a comment about my work. What this artist said was that she noticed that many African artists copy the European way of art-making when creating their works, and that she had noticed that I was now finding my own way which was more African. I did not really know how to react, but I was happy that at least she was honest enough to say her true thoughts about how she viewed or related to the artworks created by artists from the African continent. Many people I have met who collect art from Africa, and or are interested in what they call African art, believe that “African” artists only create works with blood, saliva, gum arabic and grass. I therefore, through my work, represent a continent and a visual culture with supposedly no diversity!
Q: How has leaving Zimbabwe influenced your life, work and approach to art-making?
S’thabile: I left Zimbabwe for personal reasons. Moving to Europe drastically changed me. In other words, it killed me. I was dead for at least 2-and-a-half years. Happy but very unhappy, in love but very lonely and alone. At home, but far from home. The out-going, outspoken, energetic, loud-laughing, free-spirited person I was, was gone. Replaced by someone I did not recognise. Someone who no longer spoke, was sad, trapped, lived in the shadows, and was dead. When you look at my work from that period, you can see someone completely lost, purposeless and directionless. It took a while but my fire came back, and when that happened I started putting together an exhibition called Living in the Diaspora. It marked my arrival, rebirth and reconnecting with my past and the world. During my ‘death’ phase, I cut off most contact with all my friends, colleagues and family. I could not reach myself and was unreachable. The exhibition was my opening window to let in the world I once knew and had shut down. I was now strong enough to let them see where I had been and what had happened to me. The exhibition itself shocked a lot of my friends and family. Some found the works depressing. Some said the work was not typical of me, that my previous works were happy and celebrating life. They could not make the connection to what was now on display. Most of them having come from far away had difficulty understanding the exhibition I had said was the symbol of my rebirth – they found it depressing. Nonetheless it was rebirth and the old me was reborn… but better, stronger and wiser.
Q: What differences are there in showing your work in Europe compared to showing in Zimbabwe?
S’thabile: The differences are huge. Showing my work in Europe has been for me the worst nightmare. I can say that it has been the biggest nail and hand that kept me dead since my arrival here. I am somehow still perplexed by why it was possible and easier for me to be in residency programmes in Europe when I was living in Zimbabwe and yet impossible to show my work as a Zimbabwean living in Europe. The worst nightmare of showing my work in Europe is and has been the representation. My experience is that it has been about showing the “African” artist, or selling the exotic “African” feeling, not really looking at the artwork or why it is made or what the artist is trying to put across. I have many times been in situations where someone looks at my work and then says “Oh that looks like you have been influenced by so-and-so”, meaning an artist from Europe. This, in turn, becoming the way in which they view my work, and which to them means that it is not an “original” artwork but a “copy” from the reference familiar to them.
Showing in Zimbabwe was different in the sense that it was about my work and not about my colour or where I came from. This I find important as it gives a sense of belonging and acceptance, which in turn leads to understanding, appreciating and giving value to the artwork. Not only that but it also helps the artists to keep growing without feeling they have to prostitute themselves in order to display their work.
Q: What is the main subject matter of your recent artwork?
S’thabile: The main subject matter of my recent work, “Footsteps of Change”, is where I examine or look back at Zimbabwe in the past and Zimbabwe today, and how it affects me and my fellow Zimbabweans living in the diaspora. “Footsteps of Change” is a large installation, which presents 12 heads, each with a name and each representing historical changes in Zimbabwe from 1900 to the present and into the future. The year 1900 is chosen because it is the year my late grandmother was born. Also part of the installation is a coffin containing a pregnant corpse covered with a Zimbabwean flag. It represents the death of hope.
On one painted panel, words appear: “We are one, until when??!! What happens to one, can happen to one!! Can you forgive, heal? The wounds of another, healing, forgiving”. Then again and again “What happens to one, can happen to one”.
And there is a fragile structure held together by a net… it is a womb. It is the desperate, uncertain and frail situation in Zimbabwe.
Q: How has the subject changed over the years?
S’thabile: When I first moved to Europe, the subject matter was more about finding myself, being lost in a country unfamiliar to anything from my past. When I look back now, I see that I spent many years in the dark, a darkness of not belonging, not fitting and being different. And this occupied my mind for a very long time and is very much reflected in my previous works.
Q: What are your current concerns and interests?
S’thabile: My concerns at present are about my country. I am constantly wondering what is really happening there, at the same time not really knowing what it would be like to go back. All I hear from my family is that Zimbabwe has become Chinese, how rapidly things are changing and how they prefer the old Egypt to the new Egypt. This constant hearing of the uncertainty of things, the value of products going from 5 dollars to millions of dollars and now to thousands of dollars does not settle in. I have been away from home for 6 years. When I left Zimbabwe, things were beautiful, hopeful, or maybe it was my longing. But what I hear now I cannot comprehend. I have a great longing to return, but so much has happened I have lost so much that I do not know where I would begin if I were to return. What I mean by losing so much is that I lost a lot of my relatives to Aids, two brothers last year and in the past two years a total of 25 people. For a while I dreaded picking up the phone with the fear that I would be told that someone else had died. It went to an extent whereby at some point my family conversations started and ended with who had died, who they thought was next and how long they had. It has now become a part of my life to get mail that two or three people have died or complete families are gone, so much that there is no one to bury the remaining sick. This is one of my main concerns… when this catastrophe will end?
My other concern is about my being in the diaspora, the difficulties I have encountered with living in this part of the world, my identity, my children’s identity and future. How it will be when I go back? I wonder whether I will be enriched spiritually and culturally, or poor, much poorer? I am occupied by the importance of not losing my roots, and preserving my culture, while at the same time embracing another culture. What interests me is how other diasporans are coping. When I look at preserving my culture, I go back to my history, to who I am and I find myself somehow filled with a sense of sadness as I am confronted by the fact that I am a product of colonisation, with a loss of historical and cultural identity.
I recall my first visit to Europe, which was in 1996 during my residency at the Konstepidemin in Sweden, which for me was the biggest culture shock ever. While in transit I had to go to the bathroom and there before me was a white woman cleaning the toilets. I will never forget how guilty I felt seeing her doing such work. In my mind, that work was meant for me, as that is what I was accustomed to. The first thought that came to my mind was asking if I could help her, then I hesitated with the shame of sounding ridiculous. I quickly left the bathroom and joined my companions in disbelief at what I had just witnessed. Later on I was served in a restaurant by another white person. The more this happened, the more I got confused. My Swedish experience was more of an unreal dream, which confirmed its unreality when I returned home to what I was more familiar… to serving, being fearful, unworthy etc.
In short, coming to Europe and living here has been a lesson that we are all the same, equal human beings, with needs, feelings, history etc. Which in turn has brought about the desire and great longing to rediscover who I really and truly am, what my rich stolen historical and cultural background is, and how I can somehow rewrite it and preserve it for my children, children’s children, and generations thereafter.
Q: You have recently started an exciting venture called Thamgidi. What is it about?
S’thabile: My reasons for setting up Thamgidi were because it was something I wanted to achieve, building a bridge between the Visual Artists Association in Bulawayo (VAAB) and an association in the Netherlands. Before I left Zimbabwe, I was the chairperson of the VAAB and we had international artists coming for exchange programmes, also from the Netherlands, and this gave me more drive to have this continuous exchange and dialogue. This however did not happen for many reasons, including my 2-and-a-half-year death period. What I came to realise was that it was very difficult for a foreign artist to get into the art scene, and all the challenges of finding a good gallery that could represent you or be forced to totally give up your artistic practice. It became my drive to create a refuge for artists. My hope for the Thamgidi Studio Foundation is to provide artists with opportunities to develop their artistic process and engage in dialogue in order to promote reciprocity of cultures. As a young foundation I think we are doing very well. This being our first year as a registered foundation, we have managed to give five grants, three of which are fully funded residency awards. The other two are prizes for stimulating artistic practice and were awarded to two artists in Zimbabwe. We are working towards many projects e.g. expanding our educational programme through our new project called Children First.
Q: And finally, what role does art have in the world today and why do you think it is important?
S’thabile: For me the role of art is breaking down barriers in order to bring about understanding and appreciation of what is happening in another culture. It is a universal language to overcome differences.