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'Art points the way to empathy'

Zimbabwean artist Admire Kamudzengerere reaches a global audience

28/03/2017 00:00:00
by Forbes.com
 
Admire Kamudzengerere
 
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ZIMBABWE born contemporary artist Admire Kamudzengerere was birthed among the ‘born free’ generation; born in 1981 after President Robert Mugabe had won his country’s freedom back from British colonial rule during the Lancaster House Agreement negotiations.

He remembers the highly divisive and long-serving leader’s hopeful pleas for Admire and his fellow Zimbabwean youths to ‘become the future leaders of Zimbabwe.’

But Mugabe hasn’t ceded power since establishing it as Prime Minister in 1980, going on to become president in 1987 and serving as such until this day. Mugabe has been accused of being a dictator and among his more heinous charges are encouraging the violent seizure of farm lands owned by white landowners by Mugabe’s friends and inner-circle.

The problem with this, aside from the obvious violence, was that these new farmers largely didn’t know how to farm that land and food production went into rapid decline and greatly faltered the country's economy. Kamudzengerere’s family felt those hardships when his father lost his job in the early nineties.

My parents couldn't afford to pay school fees, buy uniforms and make proper meals for the family,” says Kamudzengerere. Sometimes [my siblings and I were] kicked out because I didn't pay the school fees. We couldn’t afford them. But, with much effort, I did finish school.”

Nevertheless, Kamudzengerere found his own path to achievement and did in fact become a 'leader of Zimbabwe' in his particular field. In 2000, while school studying business and banking, Kamudzengerere was placed in an all-girls art class and had his eye recognised by his teacher Eugene Mugocha.

Mugocha encouraged young Kamudzengerere to paint and took him to his first gallery.

“I could not believe my eyes,” says Kamudzengerere. “I really wanted to also have my painting on the wall of the gallery. I finished school, could not find a job, but kept drawing.”

Powerful and broad archive of work



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Kamudzengerere has gone on to create a powerful and broad archive of work that consists of painting, drawing, performance and video.

He became the second Zimbabwean artist ever to be awarded a residency at the Rijksakademie, Amsterdam, 2012 – 2014, and will represent his country this year in the 2017 Venice Biennale contributing a performance piece entitled Transcultural Protocol made in collaboration with artist Rachel Monosov, as well as monotypes and work on phone book pages.

His work addresses the political violence and upheaval in his home country while tying into more global and universal themes: the bonds of the father-son relationship, masculinity and femininity, identity politics, and displacement.

“I am a part of this world, and so is my work,” says Kamudzengerere. “The direct and indirect influences of the geo-political landscape are personal for me.”

On view until April 9 at Catinca Tabacaru gallery in New York is Kamudzengerere’s first NYC solo exhibition, I am gonna… you. Till you run. The show consists of a series of self-portraits done on phone book paper in harsh but emotional style as well as a range of full-bodied male and female figures.

Kamudzengerere created these self-portraits after the passing of his late father, using his own face to recreate the lines and features of his father’s, a visual that was rapidly exiting his memory palace. “[my father] never came to me in my dreams,” “Whenever I felt like I was on to something about remembering how he looked, I knew the flash would disappear as quickly as it came, so I drew as fast as I could.”

Kamudzengerere spoke with me about this exhibition and his idiosyncratic art practice.

Adam Lehrer: Your self portrait technique, using mud and clay along phone book pages, was developed at your residency in Amsterdam. What was the inspiration behind this technique?

Admire Kamudzengerere: The actual idea of the mud phonebook self-portrait technique was initiated in Zimbabwe just before I moved to The Netherlands for a two year fellowship at the Rijksakademie Van Beeldend Kunsten. This was to be the furthest and longest time spent away from home. I spoke to my father and he told me the first thing I should do when in a new place was to take take some soil of that land, put it in a cup and add water, then drink it. And that I should also carry soil from home with me.  I came across this old phone book. There were names and numbers of people that didn't exist anymore or had changed addresses; strangers you could imagine. Immediately, something in me fell in love with the fragility of the material and its hidden importance.

At the time (2003-2004) I had no paint.  I was living in the remote village of Nyanga which is where the best weather and most fertile lands of Zimbabwe are. Around that time, fires were erupting.  I don't know if it was by accident or by deliberate effort to forcefully evict the white farmers. Or maybe it was the white farmers starting the fires out of sheer anger and frustration for being forced off the lands. All the same: the land suffered. I started collecting different kinds of soils and sieved them into a fine powdery pigment. I had to make work, and this was my surrogate.  I wanted to do something about man and the land and fire. Using this color from the land became the only way to express how I felt. 

The technique on the phone book is a printing method called monoprint. Each face is made individually. I spread the mud pigment on a metal plate then I make my drawing in the pigment using the back of a paintbrush or a stick. Then, I take the phonebook page and press it over the pigment drawing, rubbing gently with my hand. I lift up the page, which has picked up the imprint. The result is the monoprint.

AL: Is there a specific reason you use these materials to portray yourself?

AK: I feel free using these materials. Growing up in Zimbabwe, I couldn't afford any paper or canvas. I was picking up leftover magazines, newspapers, and empty packaging boxes looking for color that I didn't have in my collection. If something was blue and I had no blue paint, I would use it as a substitute.

When my father passed away while I was in The Netherlands, I could not afford to return home to bury him.  After eight months, even when I tried to recall how he looked, I could no longer put a face on his figure. I started making self-portraits while looking in the mirror to find his features in my own face to try and [mentally] put his face together.

AL: Your work has something of a sophisticated violence to your markings, a controlled chaos. Is this deliberate? Or am I way off base in my reading?

AK: There are two aspects that I think you might be reading as violence.  First the speed of my mark.  Then, and more importantly the context within which I am making.

I grew up in a continuously changing Zimbabwe. Most of my practice in drawing came from walking.  I would walk 20 kilometers a day to reach the city and would draw to occupy my mind. Everything had to be quick because I was in constant motion so what I saw was always changing.

There is a lot of anger and frustration with dreams gone wrong, politics gone violent, youths in the streets, police everywhere, roadblocks everywhere, queues for cash and bread, and political campaigns that always turned sour. People would continue to go to work without salaries for months. If you earn the money it would take three weeks weeks to get it from the bank due to daily withdrawal maximums. You are always unsure.

Today there are few industries left and the farmers are not producing much.  When the land reforms happened and the farms were taken from the experienced white farmers and distributed to friends of the government, the new landowners lacked the skills and business channels to properly farm the land.  Many people lost their jobs and the country fell into deep recession.  Not to mention the severe sanctions imposed by the West which attempted to castrate Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe but in reality hurt the people most… so you see violence?  This is why.

AL: From your bio, it appears that your work deals with father-son relationships. Because of this, I am curious where this comes from. What role has your father played in your life, and what kind of relationship to you maintain?

AK: The man lost his job, but we never went to bed hungry. He was always there helping my mum, trying out any little thing that would keep us in school and going to bed with full stomachs. He would always be home in time for dinner and always slept at home. He inspired me by insisting that the sky is not the limit.

I saw him for the last time in 2012 before I went to Amsterdam. My father knew that I had waited eight years to get myself in, and finally this dream had come true. He plucked some leaves from a fig tree and told me that whenever his father would go away he would pluck some leaves from a tree and throw them on the ground.  He asked me to do it with him. I still don't know today what that act means. Eight months later, while I was in the Netherlands, he was involved in a fatal accident that took nine lives including his. My self-portraits were my form of mourning.

AL: Masculinity and contemporary ideals of masculinity are something being questioned in numerous creative industries, from fashion (designers like JW Anderson, Grace Wales Bonner), cinema, etc.. What do you find troubling in the definition of masculinity, and how is your work emphasizing and questioning these masculine ideals?

AK: I don't really know much about masculinity. I draw the male figure because I am a man and my father was a man.  But it is a good question, as the portraits evolve and become less related to my father, the figures still exude masculinity. I don’t know how to justify it with words.

Femininity, on the other hand, seems to dominate my process.  The endurance of the repetitious act, the nod to tapestry in my aesthetics, and the care towards the multiple versus the individual are all feminine.  Although the portraits are of my father, my focus is on the women in my life.  I’ve been living with and taking care of my mother and sister.  My mother is the most important person to me. She had no boundaries.  She carried baskets twice her weight to the market, worked all day, and then came home and took care of us.  The women in Zimbabwe are amazing human beings.  They do all the work – the farming, the tiling of the land, the taking care of the kids, the supporting of the man, the taking care of the home. Even when it comes to the little bit of money available, the men use it to buy beer, but the women use it to buy meat for the family.  This is a culture that is often unfair to them as it limits their role in decision making, in opportunity, and grants men veto power and four wives if they want them.  Still, women seldom complain.  Women are stronger and so my work is made in solidarity with them.

AL: You've worked in a variety of mediums, including video and performance, but this exhibition is focused on drawing and self portraits. Was there a reason that you decided to utilize these elemental art forms for your first New York solo show?

AK: This is the body of work I’ve developed for the past few years.  Plus, this is a collaboration with Catinca Tabacaru and when we met in 2015, the first piece I did was The Paper Project in collaboration with Justin Orvis Steimer who is another of the gallery’s roster artists.  Catinca had partnered up with Chikozero Chazunguza, the founder of Dzimbanhete Arts Interactions, the art space that all the emerging Zimbabwean artists pass through and are supported by.  She came to Zimbabwe with three artists and we all created an Art Residency collaboration between the foreigners and the locals.

That said, my practice continues to include performance, video and installation.  Currently, I am working on a performance for the Zimbabwe Pavilion with Rachel Monosov, another of the gallery’s roster artists who was in Zimbabwe in 2015.

AL: You are the second artist from Zimbabwe to receive the Rijkesacademie fellowship and are also representing Zimbabwe in Venice, is it difficult to be serving as the representative of the country’s art world to the larger art world or is it something you embrace?

AK: As artists, we are always trying to put our work and our hearts out across the world. I feel as though all artists are the same: if I produce something shitty today, then I am shit. However, if I make something great, then at that moment I am great.  Of course all artists dream of being on this platform and I embrace it fully. 

AL: In regards to the description of your work that you are ‘reveling an unequal world in which the powerful ride roughshod over the weak,’ it feels like for a long time (from neoliberalism on in The States) that Americans were happy to overlook the wide financial and social inequalities in our country. But these issues have always been relevant, but do you find that your work has become more topical and important as the political atmosphere of the world has become more volatile?

AK: Being here in the US at this time, I worry of the socio-political tensions and the repetition of history.  Wars and walls have always been constructed and deconstructed.

AK: When I was born, my father named me Kamudzengerere even though his name was Kamuzengere.  He said it was because “this child moves in circles, always in motion.”  He knew then what took me almost 35 years to learn, but now I feel I am transgressing this cycle and evolving, finding rest.  In the exhibit, I show a male and a female figure.  They are my first full figures and they are quite still, maybe even lacking in that violence you spoke of earlier.  There is no better reflection of my current state.

AL: More on this issue, the purpose of art in politics and activism has come back to the forefront of contemporary discussion, what purpose do you believe art should serve or at its best can serve in the face of rising global white nationalism and economic and social injustice? 

AK: Out of anger, frustration, desperation, and fear, I pick these materials to say something.  If I can question, if I can help to create a solution, if I can offer solace and relief, that changes the way that society is conditioned to think, and I do it in my own way. Art points the way to understanding and empathy...

I think I would do this question a disservice to try to answer it shortly after such a substantial interview.  There is much I can say about race and nationalism, about white and black and African and American… economic injustice then compounds race and gender and orientation… and then you have a black man killing another black man; then you have the Philippines… this is simply something that has to be at the beginning of a discussion, not the end.


 
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