He took her by the hand and said to her ‘Talitha Cumi’, which means ‘Little girl, I say to you, get up!’ This of course, is the story of one of three miracles performed by Jesus in the fifth chapter of the Gospel of St. Mark, where Jesus raises Jairus’ daughter from the dead – it is also the title of Portia Zvavahera’s latest exhibition.
Zvavahera communicates her longing for spiritual transcendence and freedom from the ongoing cycle of human suffering, shown through the canvas as well as the title: ‘Talitha Cumi’ – expressed in Aramaic, (an ancient Semitic language considered a holy language within various religions) it fully encompasses this desire for ascension.
Zvavahera starts off her paintings with dreams. Dreams are an integral part of who we are and a window into our subconscious – that private space between what we think and say, what we hope and fear, what we reveal and conceal and what lies latent. Dreams provoke and agitate but they also affirm and soothe. At times they mediate and reconcile our material and spiritual existence. We centre stories around them as we move across space and ferociously colliding plates of rock in the universe, attempting to make sense of the world around us. For Zvavahera, they function as an enduring understructure upon which she has built her career-long exploration of spirituality and memory through ceaseless experimentation. Her oil-based printing ink technique translates tales into form while simultaneously transporting us towards non-material dreamscapes.
This language of dreams reaches out to us in the form of sacred shapes and tessellated textures, consolidated around mystic and somewhat eldritch figures – torsos with unnatural limbs, dislocated beings and non-beings. These figures are painted and veiled (and unveiled) and imprinted upon with weblike ornamentation, echoing the delicacy of lace work. Seated in Agony (2019) depicts a woman hunched forward, an arm and a leg branch out, enclosed by deep shades of red and purple – a haunting presence depicting torment, sorrow and anguish. This sorrow is once again evident in Arising from the Unknown (2019), this time ushered by a sense of surrender – a rising, lifting, ascending.
Within this body of work, Zvavahera layers gesture upon gesture resulting in densely textured works. This becomes a complex process of netting intimate moments, carried through by a stillness or more appropriately, a very low frequency of sound and movement. In the paintings this manifests as a tension between the tangible and intangible.
Zvavahera’s talent for converting very personal circumstances into something relatable is evident throughout the exhibition. Circular motions and creeping lines exude an energy that sends shivers down every nerve of your body. The work is demanding and requires emotional engagement. As the viewer you have to move closer, turn your head, squint, perhaps move back again. Bodies are contorted and inverted (Kubuda Mudumbu Rinerima (Rebirth from the Dark Womb), 2019), they glide (Gliding on My Knees to Heaven, 2019) and they float (Ngirozi Yangu (My Angel), 2019). One can feel the emotion and intensity within each of the paintings. Within the context of the exhibition the weight of the work is punctuated by the sparse layout and a coolness in the atmosphere of the new Stevenson Gallery in northern suburbs of Johannesburg. These punctuations provide the viewer a space to breathe.
Interestingly, despite its unsettling nature ‘Talitha Cumi’ is seductive and bring us closer to a kind of healing. Painting here takes on spiritual significance and becomes an instrument of faith – it presents itself as therapy and prayer.