Reclaiming our lost tradition of art


a yellow tie and an old blue jacket. The jacket and tie were quite old but in better shape than the trousers.  On his feet, Panichi wore self-made sandals made from tires, manyatera.

At one time Panichi’s trousers must have been plain black but now it was made of many colours. It had several patches of whatever piece of material Panichi or his wife sewed on to keep it intact over the years. I could recognise pieces of my mother’s apron, blanket, an old dress, dhuku, quilt, our old school uniforms and many others.  The front zip had since disappeared, replaced by a brown patch from some other garment. For a belt, Panichi used a piece of bark string. The visitors took several pictures of Panichi focusing mainly on his pair of trousers and kanhava, his little shoulder bag.

Judy, the senior poverty researcher, grabbed my cousin Piri to translate for her. “Ask the drummer how he managed to put all those patches together.  How did he choose the colours?  Tell him we are so impressed. It’s great art work.”

Piri looked at me, wanting to know if what she heard (in English) was correct.  “Sis, ari kutiiko murungu uyu? Ari kuti marengenya aya akanaka?”

I said, yes, Judy was saying the torn trousers were a great piece of art. Piri shook her head and mumbled something about the madness of foreigners, to see rags and call them art. “Even you too, Sis, sometimes you get possessed by the spirit of madness, to see art where there is no art. A rag is a rag. This is poverty not art.”

Judy and her workmates continued to take more pictures of Panichi. He started showing off, pounding the drum and dancing like a crazy man. In one photo, Panichi smiled straight into the camera showing three missing front teeth and the remaining tobacco-stained ones. Judy and friends loved Panichi’s performance. They took turns to give him more beer. They hugged him and took more pictures. An artist discovered right in the middle of our village.

On our way from the village with the visitors, we stopped at the sculpture garden near the big round-about in Chitungwiza.

Piri stayed in the car, grabbing the opportunity to drink one or two pints of beer while the visitors were busy looking at sculptures. Earlier on, I had told Piri that some Western people did not like to see people drinking in the car, especially in the morning. So if she was going to drink any beer, she would have to do it when they were not watching. Because you never know what they would say or write when they got back to England. What if they wrote that African women drink beer in the morning? And we all know that only a few do. Zimbabwe had a bad enough name overseas as it was.

Judy and the others walked around the garden trying to identify the sculpture pieces they wanted to buy.  Every time I turned to look at Piri in the car, she had her head down, seriously gulping the beer quickly. I had to stop her because she has a tendency to raise her voice quite loudly after two or more beers. One of the guys selling sculptures followed me to the car.

The guy asked Piri to come out and look at the sculptures because he was going to make one very cheap for her. “Mother, please huyai. I will get you something you like,” the young man begged her. Piri does not like being called “mother”.  She always tells me that she is way too young to be called mother by all these men who are too old to be her sons.

Piri opened the door a little and frowned at the sculpture seller. She said she was not mother but sisi. Then she said she did not buy dolls made of stone.  “Ini kutenga zvidhori? Unondishura.” She turned away from him and concentrated on her beer. The sculptor shook his head and walked away. 
Piri grudgingly came and helped us carry our visitors’ small sculptures.  In the car, she asked (in Shona) how much these zvidhori (dolls) cost. I said it was not my money or her money so the price really did not matter to her. She sniggered and said, “I thought these people, varungu venyu ava, came to study poverty. Now here they are buying stone dolls.  Ah, ini zvangu ini. God did well by not giving me too much education otherwise some of it would have been wasted on walking around with foreigners who do not know where to throw away their money.”

Judy asked what Piri was saying. I explained that Piri had a limited understanding of art, like a whole lot others who did not have the same kind of exposure I had. Piri understood everything I said. She smiled at Judy. One of the visitors sitting next to Piri hugged her gently.  Piri responded to the hug politely.

The hypocrite.
I hoped our visitor could not smell the beer.  But I could tell that Piri was waiting for an opportunity to get back at me. Later on when our visitors had gone back to their hotel, Piri reminded me about the misfortune of our cousin Addmore who wanted to be an artist. Back in the days when Piri and I lived in the village, my cousin Addmore carved out anything out of wood or stone.  He was a gifted artist. But we did not know that.

One day, when Addmore was in Grade Seven, he took an axe up the hill, cut off the trunk of a certain tree and brought it home. He sat under the mango tree in the village compound. We watched him with amusement because he was not making a mortar and pestle, nor was he making a drum or the figure of a human being. Towards sunset, he finished his carving. It was a lizard, mupurwa chaiwo.  Then he got sand-paper and made his lizard very smooth to the touch. We asked if we could play with it but he said no, this mupurwa was going to stand at the main entrance of the village compound, guarding it.

Mbuya VaMandirowesa only saw mupurwa three days after he had been sitting there and people stopping to look at it. She called Addmore and twisted his ears hard. “What kind of spirit is this? Mweya werudzii? Why do you carve strange gnomes? The lizard is not a lizard. Chidhoma. A messenger for witches.” She threw it in the fire and Addmore’s lizard burnt to ashes.  His creative spirit squashed.  But only for the few years he remained in the village.

At that time, most people in the village thought Addmore was possessed with a spirit that forced him to see things, objects from tree trunks and stones. Addmore left the village only to come to Harare and find a spot under a tree in Mbare where he sits and carves wooden objects for sale.
“Addmore listened to the voice that told him to carve things. Because he calls himself an artist, he has remained poor ever since,” said Piri.

But I have since moved on from that time I knew nothing about art. Just before Christmas, I took Mbuya VaMandirowesa’s gano, the small axe women carried on long journeys in pre-colonial times. It was in the granary, hanging on to the wall. It sat there for many years and I had taken no notice of it during my visits to the village.

The gano originally belonged to my great grandmother Mbuya VaMiti. It must be more than 150 years old.  It is made of dark old iron, sharpened smoothly. The handle is made of old wood with several layers of copper tied around it. Besides the gano,  I also collected an old duri, the mortar, pestle, guyo the grinding stone and its huyo, including, tswanda, the basket smeared with old cow dung. They were old and beautifully made.

Then I took one of my mother’s clay pots with chevron patterns to remind me of the time when she made various types from big to small pots, mhirimo, mbiya and hadyana. Many were broken, but there were a few that have survived the ravages and changes that come with time. I found an old blanket and cushioned the clay pot, hari yamai vangu.

During the days of Rhodesia, when we were growing up and going to school, my mother walked through the villages selling clay pots. Because people did not have cash, she exchanged clay pots with grain. Then my sisters and I went to collect the grain. My mother made seven-days brew from it. My late sister Charity was an expert at grinding the fermented millet. Aikuya mamera. Almost every Saturday or Sunday, Charity sold the beer and I sold pieces of cooked chicken in the village homestead. That is how my mother managed to pay our school fees, with money made from her work making clay pots and brewing beer.

Looking back to those colonial hard days, with the knowledge of art that I now have, I see that my mother was an artist. If we knew the value of her work then, we would have asked her to teach us so we can pass this form of art to the next generation. Today, you find lecturers with practical knowledge of pottery similar to what my mother had, teaching pottery classes in schools of art and design. I should have learnt pottery.  But it is too late now. That traditional art of pottery making was lost to me and my sisters at the most crucial time when such art was not seen as art.

I look back at how we lived back in the village then. I remember the images of my mother pounding clay to make pottery, making furnaces in the ground. Mbuya VaMandirowesa always busy drying tomatoes and mushrooms in the sun. Sekuru VaNzenza carving axe handles, stools and headrests. He also smelt iron and made hoes and axes, vaipfura. My uncles collected reeds from the rivers and made baskets and mats. Sekuru Dickson was well known for his ability to make rugs from cattle and goat skins.

In the dry season, we used to sit among the women and watch them threading their beads and plaiting hair in fine intricate patterns.  Mbuya VaMakumbi cut nyora marks or tattoos on the stomachs and thighs to enhance beauty.

In those days, nobody just sat there with their hands doing nothing, the way we do now while watching television or sitting for hours at church. Such long periods of nothing, folding our lazy hands and forcing our brains to forget creativity. We are losing the art of plaiting hair.

Some might say, why waste time getting your hair plaited when you can simply borrow hair from someone else and weave it on? Or better still, why not throw on a straight wig, the way you would wear a hat? And yet it is a lot cheaper to plait hair. It is authentic, it’s beautiful and it costs less. Plaiting African hair is a work of art.

In my travels overseas, I have seen so many artefacts in various galleries and museums displaying the African objects I used to ignore, not knowing they were art. Today, you will find Zimbabwean pottery, sculptures, axes, baskets, and mats made from grass and other natural materials in Europe and American galleries.

I read somewhere that at the start of the 20th century, artists like Picasso, Matisse and Modigliani were inspired by African art in the Trocadero museum in Paris.  They saw a certain kind of indigenous art that was very sophisticated. Picasso and the others from the “School of Paris” collected African sculptures and artefacts.   Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon made between 1907-1909 was influenced by the art of Gabon and so was his white sculpture, Head of a Woman (1929-1930).
The majestic stone walls of Great Zimbabwe in the 13th and 14th century are great works of art. The carved stone birds found at the site represent the symbol of the nation of Zimbabwe.

We were artists. We still are.
Art is a cultural and historical expression of who we are. The journey to understand it begins back there in the village where the elders sat and captured the spirit of our lives and means of survival in art. We could also learn to distinguish the difference between poverty and the luxuries of art. We do not have to travel far and see how others live to realise and then celebrate the value of our own village art. It has always been here with us. If only we could reclaim that creative spirit and value it more than we do now.

Dr Sekai Nzenza is a writer and cultural critic. She holds a PhD in International Relations and works as a development consultant.

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