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  • Osart Gallery

In conversation with Richard Mudariki

Andrea Sirio Ortolani: Concerning the growing international interest in African contemporary art, we would like to have your point of view, since you are a point of reference as an artist and as a person for many artists in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Richard Mudariki: I can start maybe about the growing interest in contemporary African art, and my point of view has always been fascinating by art that comes out of the continent, I think the light is shining over the African continent right now, but there were over the years lot of exciting, and powerful artworks that won't come out of the African continent. It’s only that now it has been given attention, which is a very good thing, we also need the limelight to showcase to the rest of the world our creativity and uniqueness as artists, as well as our story... I think because the African Continent is quite diverse, with different backgrounds, and cultures, and all that mixed up is very powerful, very interesting, with various stories of artists... I think the exciting emerging talents are coming out of the continent, with also local people living and practicing on the continent, or those who have left, in the practicing, or in the diaspora, maybe in Europe, or America, in the UK, everywhere in the world, and it was overdue that we should get the attention, so...

S: In your work, you often make references to social and political issues. Do you think art can influence political and social situations, or not? R: Just to give a background, obviously there are social and political situations, sort of like interpretations in my work. About the politics in Zimbabwe, there was a little bit of obvious depression, a little bit of less freedom of expression, in speaking of certain things, and my way of the outlet was through the painting, visually. And what was happening around me at that time, was all political, and the social and economics that was happening in my own country were political. I responded to my environment with my work, including the political commentary in it. So it was the situations where I found myself in, as I started my practice, and the only way to respond to what was happening in the country was to include it in my work, and comment, hopefully encourage discussions, on these things. People couldn’t actually talk about these things, because of this repression by the government. Then I left Zimbabwe because I wanted to get those places where I could actually create work without too much of that noise and create a community of artists and art professionals with whom I can collaborate, and work with, sort of like, move my career in another direction. When I came to South Africa as well, it has its own political situations, and social and economic issues, that I interpreted in my work as well. From then I realized that it’s not about a state policy, but the politics in society, in our own lives, I can say there are political issues in the art world, there’s politics in the relations between a man and a woman, there’s always a kind of politics, there’s politics in the school system, whenever two or more forces are interacting, and crushing against each other, in terms of opinions, then there is some form of fiction which causes the politics, and that’s why now I’m also integrating my work and especially situations that I find myself in as an artist as well. So the early politics was state politics, as I said, with the influence of where I grew up and where I started, and now I look at another kind of form of politics in the development of my practice.

S: In the two paintings on show in African Characters, Lost Lover and Art Fair Booth, you make many references to the History of Art, (from Courbet to Leonardo, from Vermeer to Mondrian...). Tell us about this continue dialogue with the past you maintain in your work. R: So, I never went to an Art School, I had, as a mentor, a very famous Zimbabwean painter, called Helen Lieros, and another group of artists as well, sort of like a bit above my generation or about the same generation as myself. I was introduced obviously to Art History as an artist by interacting with my mentor, and my other fellows. And from then I discovered these masters, I never had the ignorance of not recognizing they were other people who made amazing paintings before I did, so in my way of studying them, there was a way of actually integrate some of the works that they created, some of the works that interested me, into the work I was creating, so sort of like my earlier work, in my first show in Cape Town, there was a lot of influences... reinterpretations. Instead of just rereading, I actually looked at those pictures and tried to put myself in the studio setting, and painting, and then I would try to incorporate in my work, with a different message obviously, it’s two different times, and incorporate my message, into the work. So the references are basically that: me trying to make a rearrangement to create a new body of work, that comments on the contemporary, being inspired by the past, and that’s how the references to the Masters started being incorporated into my work.

S: In both the canvases now on show, there is someone hidden (in Art Fair Booth the man behind the ATM, that could be the gallerist; in Lost Lover the one opening the door, that could be a customer). Is it an expedient to narrate a story? Are there any other motivations underneath these hidden figures? I saw that it is not unusual for you to give clues like these to the spectator. R: Actually the characters are supposed to be mysterious, that’s actually what I want people to say: “who is this character that we don’t see? What has he done?” And I think sort of like inviting people to have those questions, in a way it make them look at the painting longer and interpret it with their own ideas after looking at the painting, so there’s always this element that makes people ask “what this element means, why is this character opening the door, why this one is hiding...” in many cases that might be the artist as well, because the artist is always in the background, and then what everybody sees is the painting. So I’m trying maybe to hide me in the painting, maybe is the artist, the one who is hiding behind the ATM in Art Fair Booth. I work in the studio, I work on a painting – those large pieces – for a period of time, and every time you go in and go out for every session, you incorporate different things. So, I might start with an idea, if I want to paint something about the politics in the art world, I have a certain idea, about how it looks like, but then at the end, various factors come into the work, something I heard on the radio, or read about, or a discussion I have about a specific topic, and that ends up in the painting. It’s quite difficult to explain some of the works, so I always say, the painting musts speak for itself. I can say what influenced me, the different aspects, but the painting must stand on its own, and speaks on its own. Whatever interpretation or whatever way speaking to them, it’s the right way for that particular audience. So there are multiple interpretations, that come over our background... that is also very interesting for me when people come and tell me what they see in the painting, and maybe it’s something I never thought about that painting. That is amazing.

S: You are one of the founders of Art Harare. Do you want to talk about this project? R: Well, there was a group of Zimbabwean artists that decided that actually, we needed an event that is entirely focused on the contemporary art scene that is happening in our own country, event thus we are all scattered around the world, someone is in South Africa, in the UK, in Europe, in America. We have been successful individually, on our own capacity, but never really actually did something united, to showcase, not only to the world, but to our own fellow countrymen back in Zimbabwe, because our country is in any cases in a very bad situation, and in one way we tried to contribute with some form of positivity, and I think art always drives when things are quite difficult. That’s why I believe that there is so much art coming out of Zimbabwe because artists are also pushing on boundaries for surviving or trying to work as artists. That can be showcased in a singular event, that is actually showcasing the contemporary Zimbabwean artists, still living and working there or commenting on the situation happening in Zimbabwe. In the end, we decided to come up with Art Harare, which we wanted to look like an art fair, but I think it’s more than an art fair, it’s more like a coming together of the artists. What we have with Art Harare is a platform showing the art world, with a program of conversations, a lot of discussions about our state, or the different impulses from different sides of the world, or the different experiences in different spaces, I don’t know, maybe for younger generations in the country. That’s how basically the idea of Art Harare came out, nobody ever tried to come up with something similar, and I think the artists tookthemselves out and said: “Okay, we’re not going to wait for someone to do it, for the country to arrive to a better state, or for someone who is in an institution”. So we did it on our own, and we leverage on this huge digital move into the online space, obviously as a result of covid-19, but not only. There was a huge shift in the art world, with an audience “consuming” arts online, and in that way we thought, okay, we use this platform, and we showcase our work as artists and also have conversations that don’t restrict us in terms of boundaries, there are artists in Zimbabwe, USA, South Africa, UK, etc., but can all come together in this space, online, and I think that is crucial for the development of the contemporary art scene in Zimbabwe because there aren’t so many infrastructures, and I think there are only three or four commercial galleries, and the National Gallery, and that is not sustainable for careers of artists. Especially young and emergent artists, they always have been going to other places – which is not a bad thing, because you have to go to another country, to develop your career, but I always pursued having that locality, where people can understand where you come from, your background, and you can be an inspiration for another generation of artists...

S: Who are the artists participating? R: There are fifty artists, we have artists like Wallen Mapondera, Dan Halter, Kresiah Mukwazhi, Masimba Hwati, that is based in Michigan, in the United States, Kudnazai Chiurai, who’s gonna be part of conversations, also, about his experience, and many others...

S: And who are the founders? R: The founders are me and a colleague of mine, Aya Koudounaris, she is based in London, she studied at Sotheby’s Art Institute, so she has a background in Art Business, she worked in international art fairs, and so on, so we’re leveraging on her experience. And I, as an artist, created during the years very good relationships with artists abroad and locally. All we’re just doing is bringing all those people together and creating an event, and trying to come up with a program, creating a platform in which we can have conversations and dialogues on different aspects.

S: This project could be a little revolution in which understand the importance of collaboration and cooperation in the art world. Maybe this event could become something else, like an association... R: Yes indeed, nobody makes on their own; you know, people were excited that we were able to talk about several issues we used to discuss in private, and people, concerning the politics I was mentioning before, now have a platform where to talk about these issues, and how can we solve them. As artists, we are creative people and we can also come up with creative solutions to problems, and new opportunities, our creativity shouldn’t stop in the studio, we can expand it into different aspects. Art Harare can develop in an association, or we’ll see what is coming out for such coming together. You know, there were a lot of Zimbabwean artists who were successful in the Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, but nothing happened in our own country that is a celebration of what we do.

S: How Covid-19 affected your practice? R: With the lockdown, most of the galleries were stopped out, closed, and the exhibitions were rescheduled. For some artists like myself, that can lie on the galleries and museum to showcase their work, when everything shut down, it was like a stressful point, for any practicing artist, who has planned something, it was. The good thing was that we didn’t have too much pressure and deadlines, events happening, and it allowed me to focus on the work without the pressure of the commercial part, for me was quite important, I could set in the studio and totally focus. Artists looked at themselves and asked: “what can I create now, that is all quiet, obviously responding to what is happening? I’m just creating for now”.

S: It’s quite curious you deleted all your social profiles during the lockdown... R: That was becoming a sort of like a beast for me, and I just wanted to be in the studio and not having all those things happening around. I wanted to have the focus on myself, my work, my family. Obviously, I read the newspaper, speak with a lot of people all over the world. Social media are important but at that moment I just wanted to focus on myself.


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