NEVER before has the whole world been on such high medical alert until the recent outbreak of COVID-19, the illusive, deadly pandemic that spread like wildfire throughout the world since November 2019, and its various attendant mutating variants.  

It engulfed the world; suffocated it, and locked down its entire population. It killed millions and literally brought human life to a standstill. 

With death just a sneeze away, life virtually hung in the balance, at death’s door, for two years, until its relative global containment towards the end of 2021, beginning of 2022.   

With this in mind, and death so close at hand, one questions the rational of Zimbabwe’s choice of curatorship of art made from scavenged junk (L’ Art Trouve — Found Objects Art) or Arte Povera (which translates to ‘poor’ art), to represent the country at this year’s world-esteemed art showcase, the Venice Biennale-2022, as the international art world reemerges from its quarantined order.  

Italy was one of the first and worst hit country in the world. The centre hosting the Venice Biennale-2022, located in north-east Italy, is the capital of the Veneto region and host to the Zimbabwean art pavilion.

Contemporary visual art mirrors the cultural diversity and creativity of a nation and provides the framework and cultural identity of its society, with Zimbabwe being no exception.  

Novelist Chenjerai Hove, commenting on the role of the artist said: “… the artist has duties and tasks… that make the heart and soul of the earth tick. The artist is present to instill society with a sense of self; an image of self as dreamed up by his observations and his dreams. Images, pictures and symbols help society to dream, to aspire to great(er) things … The history of any society is better studied through the broader appreciation of its artistic products.”

Where is the sense of African pride and ‘self’ in the new reimagining of Zimbabwean aesthetic in the Found Objects Art currently being exhibited in Venice, Italy?  Did the curators consider the health implications post-COVID-19, and the politics of povertyin the art, especially at a time when the new dispensation, through the NDS-1, is working towards building a middle-income society.  It is against the grain of African pride that African art should be viewed as junkyard art.  

Is Zimbabwean art, once world-renowned, now ‘a heritage of scavenged dumpsites’.

Born out of the economic strife and sanctions following the land reform of 2000, Found Objects Art became a popular genre for the visual arts of Zimbabwe. The scarcity and sometimes total lack of commercial art materials, already prevalent in the country, worsened altogether. The debris of industry became a haven of material ideas for the creation of art that aesthetically embodied the innate potential of line, form andcontent in the objects. This ‘new’ art form questioned commonly held assumptions of contemporary African art, with urban socio-political and industrial themes coming to the fore.  

The economic meltdown of our country, following land reclamation, had a ripple effect on tourism and culture.  For the visual artist, the decade of land reform in Zimbabwe, of 2002-2010, brought about a period of austerity. Visual artists and art students were hard pressed to obtain art materials required to create conventional art. Scavenged from dumpsites and former industrial spaces, refuse was resurrected and given a new life as poignant works of art articulating the austerity of the times.

However, various international industrial health authorities, medical practitioners and doctors, some who collect art, are critical in their assessment of this art form and have joined art curatorial debates about art produced from found objects, and even antiques, especially from Africa, which is generally always assumed to be underdeveloped, underprivileged and unsanitary. 

Dr Michael J. Casson, an industrial medical expert and art collector in North Carolina, postulated a number of alarming reasons about the dangers of collecting L’Art Trouve from developing countries: “In ‘found objects’, there is the question of sanitization, the toxicity of materials, the various unknown vectors of diseases present, such as tetanus caused by the release of exotoxins from the bacterium clostridium tetani, usually present in unclean objects and  environments, including various allergies to materials used to create art works that are handled by man.”  

These were some of the questions posed at a recent symposium, ‘Emergent Contagions’, held in Saragossa, Spain.

At the same symposium, art collector Dr Allan Rawthorne, said: “I am skeptical about the hygiene and provenance of this new found Junk Art – the modern art from Africa.  Why is Africa so badly portrayed as artists in a state of poverty when African culture and antique African art is beautifully rich and well preserved in its content, material and aesthetic symbolism over centuries?”  

Questions of attribution and signatory authorship of the work arise by virtue of its heterogenous anonymity of style. Especially when artists use the same found materials. A case in point being the use of plastic petrol containers by several artists throughout Africa.

In many developing countries where industry and residential conurbations exist side-by-side, conditions are most favourable for the accumulation of contaminants harboured in industrial metals, plastics and other supplies that constitute the bulk of materials sourced to create Found Objects Art. These materials can be hazardous to man and beast.  Needless to say, it is vital for art authorities and governments to be wary of the potential health hazards endemic in this media.  

Are Zimbabweans cognisant of these facts?

Contemporary Western Art history has numerous examples of art created from industrial debris, amongst them, Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), the German Dadaist sculptor and poet who experimented with found objects to express his ideologies and known for his Merz junk constructions and his Merzhau sculpture in Hannover, Germany, which I had the privilege to view, and many of his pieces displayed at Hatton Gallery in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in England, during the course of my studies in the mid-1990s. 

I also studied the works of Pablo Picasso (1889-1973), and his ‘ready-made’ assemblages at MoMa in New York and Museo de Arte Moderna in Sao Paulo, Brazil; as well as the art of Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), one of the most innovative artists of the 20th Century, whose mixed media constructions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art are iconic pieces made from found objects; and French avant-garde artists Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985) and Niki de Saint-Phalle (1930-2002), avant-garde self-taught artist, known for her 1960s ‘shot-reliefs’ — relief assemblages of found materials. 

I was privileged to see all these and other works during my studies.

‘Necessity being the mother of invention’ triggered off a search for alternative materials for Zimbabwean artists to express their artistic concepts, notions and debates.  Local artists interrogated the cultural and socio-economic circumstances of the people and times in Zimbabwe through the endless possibilities of artistic expression. It was in these times of desperation in the early 2000s that Found Object Art, often constructed in a crude manner of execution, found its foothold in Zimbabwe’s contemporary art.

Found Object Art is being condemned as unsanitary.

Urban dumpsites, where artists collect their materials, became a haven for the found objects genre. These unsanitary sites are particular minefields for viruses and pestilence that cause diseases. The complex, fluid and interactive interdependence of people, environment, animals, disease, human health and welfare are inevitably linked, and thus susceptible to a myriad of contaminations. 

Dumpsites harbour discarded chemical containers that can be a source of organophosphate poisoning. Equally so, diseases such as skin cancer, scabies and industrial dermatitis, tetanus and siderosis are common amongst iron metal workers and assemblage metal artists.  Additionally, viral pneumonia, fungal skin infections and silicosis from mine dumps are some of the occupational health hazards associated with visual artists who practise the art genre of found objects.

With global warming, freak weather and a new global era of contagions and diseases, the importance of sanitisation, decontamination and general cleansing is germane. Today, many potentially deadly viruses are being contracted by animals (especially dogs in cities) and passed on to man from unclean urban environments with unwholesome polluted surroundings and germ-laden materials. Invariably man is potentially a target of untold ailments – old and new, yet to be identified.

How can we be certain that the Found Objects Art are safe; virus and disease-free, especially when moved around the globe?  

What are the WHO’s guidelines in such matters?  

Did Zimbabwe make the necessary maritime due diligence precautions of fumigation, lixiviation and disinfection? 

Must Africa, including Zimbabwe, be forever portrayed as the continent of peonage  — underdeveloped, under-privileged, inexperienced — scavenging garbage sites for art materials when we have a rich visual culture and aesthetic history and so much yet to offer? 

The centerpiece of a nation is its creative identity. 

Is this the face of Zimbabwean art nowa heritage of scavenged, salvaged junk?  

Art and cultural progress are not only the result of government policy and bureaucratic cultural decision making; the people are the agents of culture; amongst them, the visual artists, architects, writers, theatre performers, filmmakers and graphic designers et al who constitute the cultural personnel matrix of the creative industry. Hence, apart from robust policies, the cultural industry requires technical intelligence, institutional wisdom, fiscal support and sustainable public and private sector patronage.

Visual art is an integral part of human development, employment creation, tourism, culture and education. It is a tangible and accountable national asset that drives inclusive growth and fosters international engagement and diplomacy. Government, business and civil society, thought leaders, et al, are duty-bound to explore ways of growing the creative economy by harnessing and judiciously funding the visual arts in Zimbabwe.

The Second Republic’s new dispensation, through its arms of art and culture, needs to extol the virtues and relevance of our national cultural endowments, such as the visual arts. This will reflect the ideology of ‘development inclusivity’ and the legacy of ‘no-one will be left behind’, as espoused by President Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa.   

Dr Tony M. Monda Ph.D, DVM, DBA, writes in his capacity as an art consultant and cultural critic.   E-mail: tonym.MONDA@gmail.com 

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