Painter pursues hope and light through his work

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By Kimberley Schoeman | Mail & Guardian

AT first glance, the work of Zimbabwean-born artist Solomon Mugutso seems simple. But on a closer look, you realise his paintings are complex, navigating the nuances of movement, belonging and hope.

Inside Mugutso’s artworks, which feature child-like human figures, a red door motif and a playful colour palette, lies a deeper pursuit of freedom and the search for hope when the world feels dark.

Mugutso’s work with charcoal and acrylic is contemporary and refreshingly optimistic during an era when art is often political. But the artist — who lives in Johannesburg — does not want his work to be political but instead a spiritual reflection of people’s quests to find meaningful work, freedom of judgment and pursue their own voices.

“My work is about giving people hope. It is to help you look at the light inside of you,” says Mugutso.

“Life is full of challenges, especially right now, and people can’t see their light.”

His hopeful paintings, such as Sisterhood and Dzoka Uyamwe (Shona for “come back to suckle”), draw inspiration from the lives of everyday people, captured in his playful aesthetic.

Mugutso notes his work is contemporary, not due to the era of production or medium, but because it reflects the world around him, drawing inspiration from both personal experiences, those of others he has encountered, and current affairs.

His work mirrors major events of the time in which they were created, including his 2012 oil painting Marikana, produced in the shadow of the Marikana mine tragedy. The Mask, done in 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, depicts a person holding a face mask.

Thinking out of the box: Zimbabwean-born artist Solomon Mugutso’s work ‘Wild flower’. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

Wings of hope

Throughout Mugutso’s body of work, is a recurring motif — a red box with a window, either in the background or in the forefront.

This red box is referred to as “the wings of hope” by Mugutso, which points to a desire for the freedom to achieve more and go beyond what one perceives as a limitation posed by an external force.

These “wings of hope” work to create a portal to transport one from a place of feeling stuck to a world of understanding life with fresh ideas.

At first, the red box seems to be a tool that symbolises the limits on one’s beliefs but, after introspection, it becomes a window when the narrative of limitation is flipped to pursue hope. “[The wings of hope are] an altar to inspire thought by means of one’s own authority from the voice, from the self, from breath, from the cosmos, from the primal and source of freedom which is you,” says Mugutso.

The freedom found in viewing his paintings is the space for anyone to interpret his work in any way that speaks to them on a psychological and spiritual level.

By weaving in the notion of hope as a philosophical concept, Mugutso drives the lives of many people across the world.

Even for Mugutso, during the process of creating a new artwork, there is a dialogue between himself and the piece. A recent painting he started working on was initially just a blue plain. But, over time, he says he started to see a boat, and then a human figure, then realised the painting links to images of immigrants who have drowned while crossing oceans.

“I have a conversation with the piece until we are on common ground,” says Mugutso. “I cannot always define an emotion; it’s constantly evolving. But the picture will neutralise the emotions. The brain will tell you what to do, especially when I resist things.”

Despite the deeper notions of Mugutso’s work, his aesthetic is deliberately relaxed and playful. Some have criticised the simple human forms in his work as resembling the stick figures a child might draw. However, for Mugutso, these folk bring playful elements to his work. Painting like a child allows you freedom from being judged, he explains, saying that these figures are still “human souls”.

Zimbabwean-born artist Solomon Mugutso’s work ‘Explosion’. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

This style is deliberate because children are free to express their emotions without sticking to rules, says Mugutso.

The stick, silhouette figures represent the human soul. Not a specific race or tribe, therefore, in their ambivalence they can create their own narrative.

“The work makes me a better person and see the world differently. It gives me peace and I’m inspired by the work,” explains Mugutso.

Thinking out of the box: Zimbabwean-born artist Solomon Mugutso’s work ‘Perfect’. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

Body of movement

In addition to Mugutso’s wings of hope and subjects of childlike freedom, the artist also turns to the act of movement as a vehicle for hope and the evolution of the human spirit.

In many of the works there is the (very human) idea of, “if I move, it is always towards something better”.

Then again, with this idea of constant movement and evolution, the artist’s works continue to carry the red box motif. In paintings such as Optimistic and The Station, bodies are in a state of movement, but physically carrying their own red boxes to wherever they are going, and wherever they come from.

“There is a lot of movement. We are not static, but we are always evolving,” says Mugutso. “We all carry that [red] box. The challenges are there, but I know I am aware of my power.”

For Mugutso, who emigrated from Zimbabwe to South Africa, this form of geographical movement is typically towards something better.

Optimistic carries an air of that exact emotion, one of unabashed positivity and enthusiasm projected through a figure following along train tracks, with arms open, perhaps a philosophical openness to new opportunities and agency over one’s own realities.

By carrying their own box, while walking towards a seemingly unknown place, which presents its own red box with challenges, the person is aware of the light within themselves, but that does not mean the absence of challenges.