A visual artist’s interpretation of mbira Masimba Hwati

Dzikamai Chiwawa

Arts Correspondent

A great display of creativity, provocative thought, maturity, and a sense of origin are best to describe the Mbiracoustic series that visual artist Masimba Hwati recently unveiled.

For Hwati, the Mbiracoustic series was not just art but a statement, advocating for change on how we view the African culture in relation to other cultures and completeness in the depth of his understanding of his roots.

It took three years to create, perfect and conclude the journey of artistic mastery and his use of the mbira instrument was a display of an in-depth understanding of the need to migrate from complexity to simplicity in telling the pan-African story, focusing on the common material that Africans use on a day to day basis.

“The Sun and the Rainmaker were the first steps in this seven-piece Mbiracoustic series which began in 2013 and continued until 2015 when I finished,” Hwati explained the series.

“The Sun is another variation looking at rethinking and challenging the orientation and form of mbira. The circular shape is very potent especially in traditional Zimbabwean architecture (Zezuru, Karanga, etc.) It’s a symbol of wholeness and carries with it the philosophical ideas of continuation and renewal. The idea is to reimagine, improve, and challenge the form. Asking questions like what else can it be?

“Rainmaker is a sextet functional mbira based on the Nyunga Nyunga with extra chromatic keys the six mbiras are in different keys and are meant to be played together by a sextet. The piece suggests the idea of communing and co-creation on a singular instrument. It’s another attempt to augment the idea of the traditional instrument pushing boundaries and mapping out other possible trajectories.”

Hwati seeks to develop ideas of what the mbira can be, transforming and developing the indigenous idea into something new that is banded on the traditional culture yet at the same time questioning it.

He says: “My work is based on the idea that cultures and knowledge(s) are progressive and we, the indigenous people, have the poetic licence to develop and augment our material cultures instead of immobilising and freezing the time when it comes to material culture.”

Hwati assumes the role of an interrogator in society by challenging the status  quo, he sees himself as a provocateur of new ideas around material cultures by inventing new ways of thinking, new approaches to problems, new instruments, and new sounds.

In 2014, he went head-on against the establishment by challenging western culture’s safe compartmentalisation of the mbira. His pieces Trepanation, Juggernaut, Prototype, and Prototype 2 push boundaries of form, function, and culture.

His display of artistic mastery particularly on the Juggernaut fuses a conventional double bass instrument with a spear, an African traditional broom, or mutsvairo. He replaces the strings with mbira keys in an arrangement that boggles the mind.

“Juggernaut means an unstoppable force. In this piece, I’m exploring the idea of sound as a sensory socio-political experience. There is a clear difference between sound and music in my practice. Music is a cultural asset that is produced by sound. Again, I’m not a musician or an inventor I’m an artist and that allows me to go deeper into some of these abstract ideas. The piece is quite obviously suggesting the weaponisation of sound or the militant aspects of it as you can see the combination of warfare paraphernalia and sound-producing apparatus such as the mbira and double base, mutsvairo in the composition speaks of the cleansing aspect of sound,” he adds.

In “Trepanation”, Hwati delves into the act of drilling a hole into the skull practiced in ancient times. Trepanation was thought to be a treatment for various ailments, such as head injuries. It may also have been used to treat pain. Some scientists also think that the practice was used to pull spirits from the body in rituals.

The hole on the head was made by an ancient Aztecs in the spiritual practice of Shamanism with the belief that this will increase spiritual consciousness. The practice was common in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and ancient China as much as it was in Ancient East Africa

“I’m thinking of Trepanation as a metaphor here, not the actual thing. Trepanation was also suggested neuro-surgical/ medical practice in the ‘60s to release pressure from the skull. And we can look at this idea socio-culturally like how do we release mental pressure from our heads in times like us so it’s a metaphoric reference to all these things that the modern man is facing,” says Hwati.

The mbira in this instance makes up the wings of the bird-like motif presented.

It also suggests the figure of Horus in Egyptology originally the Sky god, but he is also known as War God, Hunter’s god, the god of Kingship and others. He played the role of the protector of the ruler of Egypt.

Prototype 1 on the other hand is an attempt to fuse Mbira with a draughts game (Checkers).

“I’m an artist, not an inventor, so I’m interested in absurdity and challenging status quo but I also like to play in my process. This piece, if functional, the mbira on it is a triptych of Nyunga Nyunga’s in keys D, C and I added a few extra keys in chromatic progression to the standard 15 key structure of the traditional Nyunga Nyunga,” said Hwati.

Prototype 2 is another variation thinking of mbira in a traditional keyboard arrangement

Hybrid was the final piece in the series, combining a conventional guitar and elements of a Nyunga Nyunga (one of the Mbira variations that we have in Zimbabwe, this variation is a 15-key combination and is believed to have originated in Manicaland).

The piece is semi-functional. The Mbira closer to the soundhole is made up of a chromatic scale while the one closer to the bridge is a traditional Nyunga Nyunga tune in the key of F.

“The idea was to modify both the guitar and the mbira through a process of hybridisation. I’ve been always a proponent of assembling different elements to create new forms; there is also the idea of the transformation of indigenous knowledge where we have to deal with changes as our indigenous culture encounters other cultures and digital media platforms. The job of the artist is to challenge the status quo and provoke change. We are thought leaders not makers of nice things. I’m a proponent of the progressive mode as opposed to the preservation mode when it comes to some aspects of material cultures not all, but some,” said Hwati.

What he portrays in this series is the simultaneous existence of cultures as they evolve and sometimes the tensions and sometimes how they acknowledge each other. He maintains the originality of both cultures in their different viewpoints.

Indeed, the words of the legendary Oscar Wilde resonate in the progression of this Mbiracoustic series that, “No great artist ever sees things as they are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist.”

Indeed, an artist never finishes his work, but merely abandons it. The Mbiracoustic series, though an in-depth and limitless, cutting across various cultures, lives an appetite for continuity, and one is left with a sense that he should have done one or more pieces in this series but he has since abandoned the series like the tower of Babel.

The Mbiracoustic series is a way for Hwati to search for a new language by using basic material from his Indigenous culture to contribute to the global conversations. He deviates from the usual preservative mode of the local culture and instead braves in the progressive mode whilst at the same time being true and original in his ideas.

His artistic prowess makes one wonder who he is, how he has managed to dig deep into the creative mind to come up with such a magnificent series of artistic pieces.

His accomplishments testify that he is a force to reckon with in the daring world of artistic geniuses. He has featured in various exhibitions such as the Montreal Museum of Fine Art’s exhibition, Face to Face: From Yesterday to Today, Non-Western Art and Picasso.

In 2017 he was a featured artist for SMAC Gallery in Art Brussels, Belgium. In 2015, He was also one of three artists selected for Pixels of Ubuntu/Unhu, for the Zimbabwean Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale. He was the winner of the Cape Town Art Fair’s Special Projects Section: Tomorrows/Today, with his solo presentation: Don’t worry be happy. He is an honorary research fellow at Rhodes University Fine Arts Department in Makhanda, South Africa.

His solo exhibitions include Instruments of Memory / Simbi dzeNdangariro, SMAC Gallery, Stellenbosch, 2016 and, 2014 and Facsimiles of Energy in 2011 which he all presented at Gallery Delta, Zimbabwe.

Hwati has also been involved in international group exhibitions include Trek – Following Journeys at SMAC Gallery, Cape Town in 2015, Between the Sheets: Artists’ Books Exhibition at Gallery East, North Freemantle, Australia, 2012; Colour Africa: Zeitgenössische Kunst Aus Zimbabwe, Kulturallmende in Munich, Germany; and Food for Thought, National Gallery of Zimbabwe, both in 2011.

In 2012, Hwati received an award for Multi-Media — Tradition, Family, and Religion exhibition — sponsored by the European Union. He is a member of the Zimbabwean Cultural Centre of Detroit (ZCCD) Artist Exchange program between Detroit, US, and Harare. Hwati is currently an artist in residence at Hub Bub, Chapman Cultural Centre in South Carolina, the US.

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