17.06 - 05.08.2023
For better or worse, subconscious fear has come to fascinate me. I remember the adrenaline I felt after I first awoke from a nightmare as a child. I had no interest to discern any meaning from my encounters, I was just happy to be alive, albeit in darkness. This ‘darkness’ — which I’ve written about in a way before — has a generative quality which goes unchecked when animating one’s imagination. Whether awake, asleep or in-between, it can very well persist. And there, right before the panic, where there is only the certainty of uncertainty, lies fear. And fear can teach us as much about ourselves as fantasy.
For artists, there’s ample opportunity in the conceptual unknown to manifest one’s deepest and darkest. That could-be-anything-place has plenty of room to give life to their world. But, fear is an easy thing to catch and keep in the body’s memory. For Portia Zvavahera, the term of her recent pregnancy was rife with what the exhibition text for Pane rima rakakomba terms, “energetic connections.” The artist describes a battle between recurring symbols of “horned beasts” and “angelic beings” amongst rats and trees underneath layers of ink, oil and wax.
Walking through the exhibition space, and frankly quite used to dimmed lighting lately, I’m easily pulled into Zvavahera’s orbit. There is stillness, as it’s barely after ten on a Saturday morning, and besides the two directors and one security officer, I believe myself to be alone. I am guilty of usually wearing my headphones with loud music when walking through an exhibition space by myself, but despite the exhibition’s quiet, I don’t. I insist the silence onto myself, along with the creeping bareness and low light.
The presentation includes seven large-scale works made “amidst feelings of anxiety and disquiet,” with titles such as Abatwa (2023) and Gonzo wavingei (2023) which translate loosely from Shona to he has been caught and where did that rat come from? respectively. I take in the long, broad lines made across the canvases, all of varied dimensions, as well as the smaller, curling patterns synonymous with the artist’s hand. I languish in the familiar aesthetics of her palette of deep purples, blues and reds and admire what strikes me as new in the yellows and soft greens.
In Ndirikukuona (I’m watching you) (2023), a figure hovers clothed in golden yellow. Zvavahera’s technique of etching into the layers of her paintings and the repetitive designs of her thinner mark-making reveal, beneath the bright colour, a muted pink in the figure’s robe. Juxtaposed by, yet bleeding into, the surrounding shroud of darkness, the texture of the so-called angelic being’s ‘wings’ are testament to the effects of the artist’s use of oil bars. The process allows the artist to move the paint around the canvas after its initial layering. To me this speaks to how Zvavahera revisits her dreamspace, interpreting the liminal feelings of her experience, while shaping her discoveries.
The paintings’ titles sound to me like things muttered in and out of sleep. “There is too much darkness. You cannot take them. Hey, bird, why did you throw your horn? I’m watching you.” While giving more thought to the mindset of someone who is sleep-deprived, anxious and also creating, I imagine the sound of Zvavahera’s mark-making. Each etch, each brushstroke, the friction of the oil bar smoothing over the paint on the canvas and her breathing punctuating each effort. I think about the sounds at the hour of her night terrors in concert with the artist’s creative process. I hope that somehow each one of these marks offered some relief for her.
I cherish how rare a gift it is to be standing alone in a room full of Portia Zvavahera paintings, unattended. I circle around the wall that separates the front and main gallery spaces. It’s an easy, satisfying circuit and, as I pass the small room to the right of my rounds, again, I peek inside the small alcove, halved by drywall where Gonzo wavingei (2023) waits. I stare at each painting for a while, thinking about the weight of the darkness fulfilling the feeling of “too much” that the artist describes in the exhibition’s title.
Times such as these, when we reach the frays of our consciousness, symbols abound to guide us, perhaps to what the text refers to as “respite and triumph,” or at the very least, a full and sweet night’s sleep. Zvavahera continues to sink herself back into her dreamscapes to interrogate them and their many doors: drawing, divining, and determining what—or, who—lives there. Making this story tangible for an audience, Zvavahera had to return to the darkness of her own accord. Each repeated line is a reminder, and a bold reckoning.