Art Essay: What is African Art? A Question of Identity at Harare’s latest Gallery
By A.A.V. Amasi
ART TIMES online January 2014
For art enthusiasts seeking an edgy alternative to the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Harare, Njelele Art Station provides one of the best of the city’s creative spaces. Njelele, a unique gallery situated in the Kopje area of Harare, is a delightful sanctuary from the noise and commotion of a somewhat dilapidated part of the city. Patrons can appreciate the creative installments displayed within its serene enclosure, or meet within the gates of the Art Station’s front yard to network and discuss the works of exhibited artists. A part of Njelele’s charm is that the gallery offers a rare opportunity for the area’s visitors and residents to experience high quality, cutting-edge, culturally edifying art in the midst of the hectic atmosphere of an economically struggling area. The tranquil aesthetic inside the gallery is in sharp contrast to the hustle and bustle happening outside its gates.
Njelele Art Station was established in May of this year with the aim of presenting works by both known and unknown Zimbabwean artists. Since opening its doors, Njelele has offered outstanding exhibitions. The initial exhibit included works by photographer Calvin Dondo; and currently the gallery offers installments by the white Zimbabwean artist Shannon Murphy.
Life in Africa is often inequitable, and never more so than in the Zimbabwean art world. Zimbabwe’s art community struggles to thrive, because it is motivated by material success; it is a dog-eat-dog world for artists competing for NGO (Non-Governmental Organizations) grants and commissions. Harare’s art scene is especially lacking in financial support; it is a constant challenge for artists like Murphy to make a living creating experimental art, no matter how creative their work may be (In the Zimbabwean art landscape, an avant-garde experimental artist such as Damien Hirst would never become wealthy – nor make the international impact he has). In an effort to ameliorate this inequity, Njelele Art Station is committed to creating opportunities for struggling young talent and emerging local artists like Shannon Murphy.
Artist Shannon Murphy is a 26-year-old mixed media artist and sculptor who utilizes a wide range of materials: clay, paint, wood, stone, metal, found objects and recyclables, photographs, and drawing tools. Her debut exhibition at Njelele Art Station is entitled Home Bitter Sweet Home. This collection of creative works invites discourse on what the concept of “home” means to Zimbabwe’s diaspora population. The contradiction within the exhibit’s title indicates the many underlying conceptual layers inherent in the artist’s work.
Home Bitter Sweet Home is an exhibition of sculptural installments, including Murphy’s early works, Free Like a Bird and Philemon, as well as her newest sculptural series, Nest. One of her more thought-provoking pieces, Free like a Bird reveals metal hands struggling to emerge from a rock and take flight. Murphy explains this piece as “representing how hardship brings about learning, and the ability to let go and find peace.” From a diasporic point of view, this piece could represent the struggle to make it in one’s own country and then finally to take flight into the unknown. Philemon is a mixed media sculpture that represents the qualities in man that separates him from the beasts. This piece is created of a variety of found materials in an effort to find beauty and hope in what could be considered the refuse of a crumbling wasteland.
The Nest series explores the perception of “home” from the point of view of someone who has immigrated, voluntarily or involuntarily. Zimbabwe’s recent land disputes – and the artist’s search for a sense of belonging in this new Pan African matrix – were the inspiration for this series. Murphy’s intention is to leave the viewer with the questions, “Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going?” and to address the loss of identity suffered by those who have been uprooted from their homelands. Each “nest” was created over time, and left in many different outdoor areas the artist visited both within Zimbabwe and abroad. They have now been uprooted from their original locations, to be placed in Njelele’s exhibition. The signs of erosion and weather damage to be seen on each sculpture are an expression of inhospitable foreign environments experienced by immigrants.
The art of Home Bitter Sweet Home utilizes a myriad of approaches and materials to portray this emerging young artist’s personal journey. Many of the pieces within the Nest series give the impression that the artist feels like an alien both within and outside of the borders of Zimbabwe. The collection is not only about “home,” but it also represents the artist’s flight to somewhere and the flight back. There are pieces in this show to which many Africans can relate, and which may cause viewers to question the artist’s motives for returning to Zimbabwe.
Murphy’s exhibit at Njelele is immersive; it walks observers through the process of exodus, flight, immigration, and perceived freedom in foreign lands until the nostalgia to return to the ancestral home besieges the psyche of the immigrant. Home Sweet Home takes viewers into the inner workings of an African immigrant's mind, delving into the conflict between struggling to create a new life overseas, or returning to one's roots. The work is an expression of an immigrant’s inner monologue about home, when the fantasy of a “new life” elsewhere is replaced by reality – and the immigrant realizes the grass may not be greener on the other side.
Home Bitter Sweet Home also drives the conversation about how to define Zimbabwean Art. Some purists believe that Murphy’s art should not fall under the definition of African art at all, because she is white – a representative of the colonizing nation that originally subjugated native Africans. Others argue that she was born in Zimbabwe, from generations of white Zimbabweans, so she is, indeed, an African and her work is African art. A recent article in The Guardian Nigeria supports this second argument: The article defined African art as “produced within the geographical expression of the African continent,” supporting the idea that Murphy’s art is Zimbabwean.
(A.A.V. Amasi lives in the United Kingdom).