Where darkness persists, praying praxis is protest
with Portia Zvavahera
Of the 13 years that her practice has been public, ten have been with Stevenson. A relationship that began when Stevenson encountered Zvavahera’s work in the Zimbabwean pavilion of the 55th edition of Venice Biennale in 2013, the relationship has seen the artist through several wins like receiving the 10th Tollman Award for the Visual Arts in 2013 and the FNB Art Prize in 2014 all the way to being a part of the main exhibition at the 59th Venice Biennale. Straddling ancestral, extraterrestrial, schizophrenic and divine stances, we consider the tenuous bridges Zvavahera builds between these understandings in this week’s Re:View.
A means to probe religious themes such as condemnation, confession, salvation, cleansing and rebirth, Portia Zvavahera’s work examines the links between spirituality and religion in postcolonial Africa. Working with a mix of oils, wax and silk screening on large canvas, Zvavahera’s style blends a series of enthusiastic (uninhibited) ink washes together with delicate and intentional linework to bring portraits of layered, otherworldly beings and their milieus.
Committed to this combination of gestural, spontaneous brush strokes and repetitive mark-making, Zvavahera’s latest solo exhibition with Stevenson, Pane rima rakakomba, follows suit. “When I say ‘Pane rima rakakomba’ it’s a spiritual thing. It’s the feeling of complete and total darkness, when you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel and you feel hopeless,” explains Zvavahera.
Respectively titled “There’s too much darkness/ Hey bird, why did you lose your horn?/ There’s too much darkness/ Why have you come?/ There’s too much darkness/ I’m watching you/ You cannot take them/ There’s too much darkness,” together, the works forming Pane rima rakakomba reads like a visual hymn of supplication, informed by the fear, guilt and despair that comes from perpetual affliction.
Seeping into (or emerging out of) fluid and floral backgrounds of ink, the figures foregrounded in Zvavahera’s works have few demarcations. Unclear where one ends and the other begins, the scenes make for a dream-like haziness. “That’s where my subject matter comes from,” explained Zvavahera who sleeps with a sketchbook under her pillow. Urgently cementing the unrefined sentiments that come as soon as she wakes from her dream-filled slumber, Zvavahera moves from this position because, “Dreams are like the future — telling, letting me know what to do next or what’s happening in the spirit world that I should be aware of. And then I should take action in prayer.”
A part of Shona folklore, the tale of Zizi naNhegure revolved around a horned owl who one day gathered all the birds of the forest for a meeting. The only bird with horns, Zizi used his difference to declare authority over all birds. Ruling with absolute power, Zizi’s reign went unchallenged until the fork-tailed drongo, Nhengure decided to test its vigour. Pecking the crown of the owl’s head, Nhengure shattered Zizi’s horns into a confetti of tiny feathers. A nocturnal bird, thriving in the shadows of the night, read within the framework of Shona folklore, the owl is an apparition signaling complete darkness.
What is comforting about Zvavahera’s work is the artist’s ownership and reimagination of divinity. In a world where religious figures are often self-righteous, blemish-free white beings sporting golden halos, Zvavahera’s figures are allusive, mystical, unlimited and lend themselves to a spirituality that goes beyond the narrowness of Western interpretations of the divine. And although her work lends itself to Christian referencing, Zvavahera’s message does not alienate secularity because the need to transcend suffering is a global, denomination-defying desire.