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Venice Biennale 2011: Zimbabwe Pavilion

Raphael Chikukwa, the curator and one of the artists featured in the first Zimbabwean expo, discusses young African art, digital media and painting as art form

The theme of this year’s Venice Biennale is “Illuminations” and Zimbabwe has often been in the limelight for a number of reasons, including the civil war and the economic and food crisis. This is the main reason why the establishment of the first Zimbabwean Pavilion at the Venice Biennale is to be considered as a vitally important achievement. Curated by Raphael Chikukwa from the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, the exhibition currently showcased at the Pavilion is entitled “Seeing Ourselves: Questioning our geographical landscape and the space we occupy from yesterday, today and tomorrow”, and tackles issues of representation of contemporary African art, analysing also the role of the artist in society.

The exhibition features the work of four different artists, all pushing the boundaries in their works: veteran sculptor Tapfuma Gutsa presents mixed media installations; Berry Bickle’s video “Ze” examines the contemporary reality of Zimbabwe, while photographer Calvin Dondo focuses on German couples who have adopted African children, exploring in this way issues of identity, citizenship cultural diversity and integration. The youngest artist showcased in the pavilion, painter Misheck Masamvu, presents instead works verging on the poetical and the surreal that shine for their hope and optimism.

DD: How did you get involved in this project?
Raphael Chikukwa:
I joined the National Gallery of Zimbabwe last year, at the end of June. I came up with this project since I thought it was very important for us to be visible in Venice because the representation of Africa here has always been very shaky. The theme of the exhibition – Seeing Ourselves – is a way to get back into the international or global arena, a very strong statement from us.

DD: How did you choose the artists showcasing here?
Raphael Chikukwa:
The Zimbabwe art scene has mainly been known for the Shona sculpture movement that started over 50 years ago. Yet there are currently so many artists coming out of the country, from photographers to visual artists and I thought it would have been brilliant to bring something new rather than falling into stereotypes. Somebody asked me who is your favourite artist of the ones exhibiting their work here, but they are all my favourite artists. In a way I worked like a visual DJ, rather than a traditional curator.

DD: Do you feel younger artists will be inspired by this exhibition?
Raphael Chikukwa:
This is a major opportunity for the entire country. We are opening this space to the next generation of artists and it will hopefully inspire and develop the artistic and the curatorial practice back in Zimbabwe. We still have a dream, to keep the pavilion for the future and even showcase during the Architecture Biennale.

DD: You're the youngest artist exhibiting here, how do you feel about it?
Misheck Masamvu:
I'm excited, but I must admit I'm taking the advantage of being young, I'm sort of using the “arrogance of the youth”, if I can use this definition. When you're young you can see yourself like a bridge, you can ask what's at the front and what's at the back and to some extent you are also the vehicle for different things. There is a three-generation gap between me and my team and it's really interesting because this has allowed me to hear the views of other artists and at the same time it has given me the chance to invite them to think in a different way.

DD: You express yourself through painting, traditionally considered as a classic art form, especially in the context of this Biennale that has focused a lot of new digital media, do you think that painting can still inspire younger generations?
Misheck Masamvu:
Painting for me is a reaction, it shows the personal and the constant struggle. It is not a simple medium, since it takes a lot of patience and also deals with self-awareness. Yet in my opinion it is even more relevant and engaging because it brings you closer to your surroundings and it's also about emotions and you relating to the others.

DD: There is always a sort of multi-layered theme in your paintings, what inspires it?
Misheck Masamvu:
I usually combine together many emblems and motifs. I'm very aware of the multi-layers that actually exist in my works and these layers are the things I want people to discover while they look at my paintings. I want them to relate to these elements in an emotional way. The subject matter may not be really direct, but it is inspired by themes such as relationship and hierarchy.

DD: In your opinion, what's in the future of Zimbabwean art?
Misheck Masamvu:
There is so much potential in Zimbabwean arts, but we must be honest and we must be conscious about what we can or cannot do. The whole point for an artist is to generate and radiate energy and this only comes when one is patient,conscious of their ability and also humble enough.

The Zimbabwe Pavilion is at the Church of Santa Maria della Pietà, Calle della Pietà, Castello 3701, Venice