in collaboration with First Floor Gallery Harare, Zimbabwe
In Australia, where I grew up, there is a chocolate-coated honeycomb candy bar called Violet Crumble, which etched its way into the vernacular culture with a byline – ‘it’s the way it shatters that matters’. For me, the expression always held an enticing poignancy, an implication that the essence of things is sometimes held not in what they are but when they are not, in what happens in the gaps, in the moments of destruction, deconstruction, and decay. In many ways, societies formed in the aftermath of the collapse of settler colonialism and apartheid can also be understood and made sense of by engaging with the ruptures, the gaps; that which is defined by articulating the negative space.
Pebofatso Mokoena based in Johannesburg, South Africa and Gresham Tapiwa Nyaude based in Harare, Zimbabwe are on opposite sides of grappling with the spectrum of drama and turbulence of their home cities and societies. Johannesburg is a sprawling, anxious, and dynamic metropolis established on greed and extraction of the mining industry, and was leveraged by colonialism and apartheid to become a multicultural melting pot, a destination for “making it”. It is neither a simple place, nor an easy place, nor a safe space. For a poet like Mokoena, it is both home and a puzzle to resolve into art. Amid the anxiety and violence of contested legacies and the realities of South Africa, Mokoena is reaching for the possibility of a future that escapes the trauma through the best of what makes us human, and for a reality that is explicable despite its many madnesses. Painting and art history become construction tools and partners in a project that is both optimistic and anxiously aspirational.
Gresham Tapiwa Nyaude was born and raised in Mbare, a historic neighbourhood originally called Harare, which means ‘he who never sleeps’. Mbare became the road port and residential neighbourhood for Africans working in the colonial capital Salisbury, which assumed the name Harare after independence in 1980. To a casual visitor on any given day, Mbare, like most of Zimbabwe, is sunny, green, and optimistic. People grow maize, bananas, lemons, and avocados in their front yards. The discourse of the street is busy, cheerful, and safe. Yet to those able to read the subtext, this same neighbourhood is the heart of political turbulence, one of the reddest of redlight districts, the grittiest of places to negotiate and definitively not one to venture into without an interlocutor. This is the emotional and the invisible to the outside eye spectacular, which Nyaude exposes in his works. Populated by symbols poignantly sensed by all but intimately intelligible only to insiders, his canvases are a forthright plea to engage sincerely with the drama and turmoil of life, which is invariably swept under the carpet by political band-aid measures and a culture where overt conflict is taboo.
Seesawing between Nyaude’s passionately dramatic storytelling and Mokoena’s elegantly poetic yearning, it becomes obvious that the works of the two artists speak to two sides of the same quest, which is intrinsic to all humans – to understand oneself and one’s place in this world, with honesty and compassion.
At a time when so much art is treated didactically and reductively, these artists resist the pressure for predigested content or context. As painters based in Africa, they also assert their right as heirs to the vastness of the history of painting, with full recognition of the weight that history presents to each painter who ever dared to approach a blank canvas while rising up to the challenge of having their voice heard among the giants, for whom painting was The Thing.
– Valerie Kabov ©2022