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Found objects… an art form reflective of our times

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A NEW and exciting artistic heritage moulded and assembled in the hands of underprivileged artists, mainly from high-density areas, is emerging as a new contemporary art movement by Zimbabwean artists. 

I predict this is the next international craze.

Salvaging trash; metal, wood, glass, plastic, textiles, rubber, electric cables, nails, nuts, bolts, pipes, cans and plastic containers as artistic media, witnesses the birth of a contemporary, post-industrial Zimbabwean art.  

Whilst not totally new to Zimbabwe, art of ‘Found Objects’ was practised by veteran metal weld-artist Arthur Azevedo, although he worked exclusively with metal assemblages. 

His metal art is well finished, aesthetically pleasing and technically flawless, radiating an energy and movement that brings his work to life. Similarly, Keston Beaton, Dumi Ngwenya, Maxwell Gochera, Costa Mukoki, Paul Machiwani, Cyril Taringwa and Juliet Copperi also practise this form of art.

In this review, I single out four trending innovative mixed-media artists whose works are not just narrative in subject, but penetrate and interrogate the very fibre of our Zimbabwean socio-economic, political and cultural trajectory with incisive insight.

Conceptual ‘Found Objects’ artists Antony Chidyamatiyo, Clive Mukucha, Victor Nyakauru and Johnson Zuze as well as a host of other Zimbabwean artists, mainly from the high-density areas, construct their art from the debris of today’s modern consumer society in Zimbabwe. 

Works of great iconographic and technical complexities are executed by the ingenious visual artists who use intricate and sophisticated methods of assemblage and joinery that defy many scholarly Eurocentric positing on aesthetics, culture and art techniques. 

As a result, their art challenges stereotyped Western positions and discourse on art production in Zimbabwe.

Beyond the object, concept and imagery, the four aforementioned artists create artworks laden with socio-political commentaries on the recent socio-economic history of Zimbabwe.  

Incorporating an ensuing interest and context in the ‘ready-mades’, not unlike the conceptual work of French artist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), these young pioneering Zimbabwean artists have opened the door to a new innovative art expression in Zimbabwe that cannot be ignored.

Following the decade of land reform (1999-2010), at a time when  hyper-inflation, fuel shortages  and illegal Euro-American sanctions created untenable working conditions for visual artists, many survived on innovation, serendipity and dedication to their profession. 

Forced to create art without tools and conventional art materials (even today), many artists turned to the scrapyards and rubbish dumps of high-and-low density suburbs to scavenge for discarded ‘found objects’ to create art and earn a living. 

The results of their innovations and visual alchemy in their art works has attracted an international audience since the beginning of this ‘new’ movement in 2001.

The resultant waning of cultural tourism in Zimbabwe, at the time, further distanced the viewership and audiences of this art form and yet the artists persevered and continued to produce formidable works of art with an element of meaning inveigled in their creative production.

Hardships, like necessity, ‘is the mother of invention’; it forced Zimbabwean l’art trouve artists to give primacy to the idea and concept over craftsmanship and commercialisation.  

The physical object, when remade in a new light, time and place, altered the original purpose of the found object, now endowed with new relevant, personal, aesthetic and socio-political content, pertinent to our times.

According to former EU Ambassador to Zimbabwe and patron of the arts, Aldo Dell’Ariccia, writing in the foreword of the  exhibition catalogue to ‘Redefinitions IV’, held at Gallery Delta  “...the conceptual works of the found objects artists of Zimbabwe give a new existence to daily objects endowing them with an unexpected lively presence and re-defining their functionality beyond their primary purpose into a poetic dimension.

Visual artist Clive Mukucha’s early work ‘Gonhi Rerusununguko’ (Freedom Door – 2013), shown almost a decade ago at Gallery Delta, is an art installation of found objects made from old empty plastic petrol containers transformed into agonised faces, reflective of the typical long, endless queues at filling stations in the country, is a wry commentary on the petrol shortages and unemployment of the times.

Similar to the vitality and powerful presence of classical African masks, but with increased emphasis on physical distortions, his series of mask-like portraits titled ‘Evocative Heads’, using discarded petrol containers, known in the vernacular as zvigubhu, depict vivid angry faces to reflect the socio-economic experiences of the people. 

Mukucha’s art recaptures the severity of the hardships faced by the common Zimbabwean and the inclement socio-economic times of the past, in the three-dimensional sculptural plastic assemblages of faces and portraits.  

At times, a tenderness and uncouth charm emanates from his works which works which are tangibly expressive and poignant.  

Antony Chidyamatiyo has more exacting social statements to make. His artwork ‘Mazvake Mazvake’ is a Janus-headed wood and metal scissors, which speaks about the breakdown of the nucleus family and strained domestic relationships. 

The expression ‘mazvake mazvake’ in Shona translates to ‘each man for himself’.  

The saying has negative connotations and usually signifies a breakdown of values in a society.  

It is, in fact, the opposite of the African-centred belief of hunhu/ubuntu – ‘I am because you are’.  

The meaning of Chidyamatiyo’s assemblage art is clearly articulated: “African-centred culture, custom and tradition have lost value in the face of economic instability – they pull in different directions”

Victor Nyakauru combines discarded metal, animal bones, wood and stone to create highly animated sculptures of the animal kingdom. 

Contextually, his animals are conceived in a Shona linguistic frame-work.  

His sculpture ‘Imbwa Nyoro’ (Gentle Dog) is from Shona proverbial lore meaning while a dog may look gentle it has the potential to be vicious.  

Says the artist: “My sculpture makes reference to back stabbers, liars and deceitful people who pretend to be good but do bad things behind closed doors.”

Johnson Zuze assembles works possessing great emotive power with an emphasis on simplified forms created from an array of materials such as leather, wire, glass, plastic and electronic components. Largely self-taught as an artist, he learnt joinery skills from his father who made hardware and metal domestic utensils.

Zuze, who has since won public recognition for his work, is drawn to the visual form and aesthetics inherent in discarded objects. 

Lines, curves, shapes and the recognition of the inner form informs his work. His work poses philosophical questions about the socio-economic state of Zimbabwean society that reveal the sense of angst typical of modern man.  

Creating formidable human figures and quirky animals; most of his works are thematically witty, with a touch of drama and animation.  

Some of Zuze’s titles have unexpected word-play that riddles the viewer. Statements and questions about poverty and the struggle for survival are recurring interrogations throughout his work.

As artistic vocabularies, conceptual assemblages and ‘L’art Trouve’ (Found Objects) are new creative forces in Zimbabwe, that continue to assert their presence in local contexts, ideologies and languages in the field of contemporary visual arts of Zimbabwe today. 

The real gift of the artists is to see beyond superficiality. Here, their primary objective is to strip society of artifice and pretence.  

These gifted artists reveal the underskirts of Zimbabwean society and the socio-psychological pressures of life in a challenged economy set to renew its outlook.

No doubt ‘Found Objects’ (L’art Trouve) will pave the way to return visual art to its fundamental African core, which is to communicate and elucidate the state of our times and project solutions for a better future and society. 

Dr Tony M. Monda, PhD. DBA. E-mail:tonym.MONDA@gmail.com

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