03.07.2014 – 01.08.2014
Once, at the height of the Zimbabwean economic crises, I heard a journalist friend describe a young woman in a Joburg bar as: ‘one of the orphans of Harare.’ Suddenly, from then on, her identity as a Zimbabwean born female became wrapped up with notions of tragedy in my imagination. I remembered that incident as I walked through the exhibition of Portia Zvavahera’s work at the STEVENSON Gallery’s Joburg premises.
Zvavahera is exhibiting a new collection of paintings under the title ‘Wayfinding’. Read together with the titles of her paintings, it becomes tempting to understand the exhibition as a reference both to religion’s propensity to offer paths of escape and to painting’s own capacity for catharsis. I am thinking here of the paintings that are given titles like Ndinzweiwo Ishe – Shona for ‘Hear Me Lord’ – and Ndahwarara, which translates loosely to ‘Penance’.
In these works the artist confronts her audiences with figures of women bent by mysterious tragedies of existence, kneeling or prostrated in observance of their submission. In two of the sixteen works on show, the grief stricken figures are depicted lying face down – the artist doesn’t even allow them the chance of returning the gaze of the viewer. These are defeated subjects. The only act of personal agency open to them is to will themselves into surrender to a higher force in their lives. The painting titled Ndiregererewo Murume Wangu or ‘Apologies To You Husband’, inflects the figures’ gendered subject condition and in a single stroke, gods and husbands are clubbed into a singular league of authority over women and children.
What helps in creating the morbid mood in her pictures is Zvarahera’s use of oil based ink on paper. The ink, which is usually used for printmaking, proves a perfect material for her chosen subject and its attendant atmosphere, giving her images a chalky and flat texture. As she produces her colour fields and layers her marks over each other, the force and passion of her process becomes readable in the work. This gives the work an assertive urgency.
The constant motif in Zvavahera’s work, apart from the women, is the iconic patterned Dutch wax cloth, used most notably in a contemporary art context by the British-Nigerian Yinka Shonibare. In Zvarahera’s hands these patterns become more emotively gestural. What is more, the cloth is a loaded reference to its ubiquitous presence in the visual culture and image grammar of media reportage of African women in conflict areas. More than a veil against natural elements, it has acquired a status as a popular social visual code, referencing a hybrid postcolonial identity.
Perhaps the work that most stands out in the show is Zvavahera’s largest work to date. An oil on canvas titled Vhoiri Rimwe, or ‘One Veil’, it depicts a group of eight women gathered in a blood red colour field that shrouds them like a thick impenetrable mist. Like a coven of witches or witnesses at the site of a terrible occurrence, the women float about the gory firmament with a ghostly reticence. The dark inviting eyes of the figure on the far right suggest they are all caught in an altered state on mind, something akin to religious ecstasy or the kind of traumatic daze induced by great anguish, marking the piece of cloth that snakes across the picture plane, wrapping itself around their heads. These women, with their shared condition and fate, are a monument to ‘the orphans of Harare and their mothers.’ Zvavahera herself is based in the Zimbabwean capital.