Geography of Art: A conversation for Zimbabwe.
In May this year at the Arts Lounge at Rhodes University, artist Wallen Mapondera asked Tandazani Dhlakama, the curator of the FiveBhobh: Painting at the End of an Era exhibition, if the show, which is about painting in Zimbabwean art, would ever travel to Zimbabwe. Her response was there was no space to house an exhibition of that magnitude. Even the National Gallery of Zimbabwe could not afford to accommodate the show. Immediately as I heard that, I just remembered what Frank McEwen had said in 1958 when he refused to send The Family Man exhibition to Bulawayo. He made the similar argument that Bulawayo had no facilities to house such a massive exhibition.
Dhlakama’s response also triggered memories of an encounter I had with a respected individual I interviewed during my fieldwork research. When I asked whether Job Kekana, a man who played such a pivotal role in the development of modern art in Zimbabwe, had somewhat remained outside the mainstream because he was based in a peripheral area. Kekana founded the Kekana Art and Craft school at St Faith’s Mission, which is situated in a farming area fifteen kilometres from Rusape. The response I got was: ‘Even the Tengenenge and Vukutu workshops were out there. What is a periphery anyway?’ I found that quite interesting because while the response dismisses the periphery as a place of marginality, it also downplays the role of influential patrons linked to these projects, and their established connection networks. It is difficult to imagine the Tengenenge and Vukutu projects taking off and succeeding within the colonial context, without Tom Blomefield and Frank McEwen who acted as brokers in exposing and marketing the art from the two ‘centres’ to the world.
Based on these responses by key people in the arts of Zimbabwe, I felt that something is missing in our conversations about art. We are not fully acknowledging the ‘geography of art’ as explained through the Centre-Periphery theory. Certain centres have conditions and community networks that allow artists to flourish, and there are peripheral areas that inhibit such growth as they lack the necessary opportunities. That activities are concentrated in Harare and Bulawayo where there are galleries, art schools, reputable curators and art critics, as opposed to Mutare, Gweru and the rest of the country says a lot. There is also a strong reason why several Zimbabwe-born artists are now based in Cape Town and Johannesburg. No matter how much the periphery might appear to be an independent place with no connection to the centre, that artists are migrating from that place to the centre means there is a relationship between the two.
While students of Postcolonial and Subaltern studies would be tempted to dismiss the Centre-Periphery relationship because of its roots in the colonialism, the big question would be whether we can just throw away a good theory because of a tainted association. Is the global capitalist system we are living in today not an extension of an imperialist past? There is a reason why Paris was considered a cultural capital soon after the First World War. That same reason is why New York, Berlin, London, Venice and other cities of the global north continue to be the Meccas of Art today. Instead of keeping on blaming the west in our attempts to write revisionist histories, the best we can do is to adopt some aspects of this important theory and work with them in the same way Picasso embraced ideas from African sculpture and early African modernists embraced elements of European art.
Zimbabwe’s Stone Sculpture tradition can be explained in geographical terms. Even our contemporary artists’ obsession with found objects can also be explained in terms of geography, a term that encompasses geopolitics. The ‘geography of art’ will help us explain differences in artist career development based on opportunities that some places render better than others, for their success and visibility have never been about the creative abilities of the individual.
I welcome criticism. Let us have this conversation.
By Barnabas Ticha Muvhuti (Ph.D. in Art History candidate at Rhodes University)
24 August 2019
The Rhodesian Herald, 3 October 1958
For more on Geography of Art and the Centre/Periphery Theory, see Thomas Dacosta Kaufmann. 2008. The Geography of Art: Historiography, Issues, and Perspectives. In Kitty Zijlmans and Wilfred Van Damme. World Art Studies: Exploring Concepts and Approaches. Amsterdam: Valiz, pp 167-182.
Henry Moore. The Sculptor in Modern Society, in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, eds. 1992. Art in Theory (1900-1990): An Anthology of Changing ideas. Oxford and Cambridge: Blackwell, pp 669-672.
Béatrice Joyeux-Prunel. 2014. 2015. Provincializing Paris. The center-periphery narrative of modern art in light of quantitative and transnational approaches.Artl@ s Bulletin, 4(1).
RasheedAraeen, R., 2005. Modernity, modernism, and Africa's place in the history of art of our age. Third Text, 19(4), pp.411-417.
MitaliBarnejee and Paul Ingram. 2018. Fame as an Illusion of Creativity: Evidence from the Pioneers of Abstract Art. HEC Paris Research Paper No. SPE-2018-1305.