Part of Zimbabwe’s ‘born-free generation’ Misheck Masamvu bucked expectations when he decided to become an artist. Born in the 1980s to a Shona blue collar family from Mutare and Marondera, there was an implicit understanding that as the eldest he would provide for his family. Invariably this meant choosing a safe vocation; in a patriarchal traditional Shona culture, art is not safe. From those early days being a creative ‘free thinker’ placed Masamvu squarely outside of the system. He has come a long way, in 2011 his work was shown at the Zimbabwe Pavilion at the 54th International Venice Biennial.
The Case of the Missing Fish, 2012. Courtesy of Gallery Françoise Heitsch. Photo |Heike Geismar
Masamvu found his calling as a painter, first specialising in what he describes as “the style of realism”, and later in work tinged with traits of avant-garde expressionism in his use of rough brush strokes and in his at times heightened depictions of controversial subject matter. Indeed Misheck Masamvu’s works, such as Dispute, The Passage to Untold Stories and Empty Shout, stand out for their expressionistic depiction of the plight, political turmoil and concerns of Zimbabweans.
Empty Shout, 2009. Courtesy of Gallery Delta.
Masamvu’s work deliberately pushes his audience to the lower echelons of visceral discomfort and in so doing aims to “draw attention to the intellectual decisions made in the halls of financial institutions that lack the humanistic spirit”, according to the artist himself. More than anything his seminal work that formed part of the Seeing Ourselves Zimbabwe Pavilion in Venice highlighted what he describes as “Zimbabweans still paying the price of economic bad policies implemented to sustain political mayhem”.
With recurring socially driven themes embedded in his work, Masamvu’s work is a reminder that the artist is a citizen, indeed a necessary voice to give shape and form to a humane sociological topography. In his words he calls art the “will, energy, and knowing of how to take decisions and to take stock of the situation looking for solutions that can strengthen our legacy with regard to the next generation.” His politically charged, award winning work certainly leans towards this perspective. More so it shows an artist whose opinion, work and history will always leave him gazing inwardly placed firmly outside ‘the system’ but affected deeply by it as a socially engaged artist. We caught up with the introspective Masamvu recently.
How did you get here, and how would you describe your personal journey so far?
Misheck Masamvu | In the absence of fear, one longs to define freedom. Growing up, I felt my tongue go numb and my throat began to swell. It became clear to me that I had to find a different way to speak. The main obstacle was, I had very little information and means to follow this path.
What is the subject matter of your current body of work?
MM | The internal politics in ones state of conscience. Politics is a bad art form of deceit, and it thrives on riding on the backs of the voiceless majority. Current work seeks to raise a conscious state of ‘being’ in relation to humanitarian acts not prescribed from a charter but a pursuit of acts that retains dignity.
How would you like contemporary art in Zimbabwe to progress?
MM | There is need to harness, rather stimulate the immediate audience using art as a catalyst in sharing experiences and voice concerns that may arise. Often what is missing is the professional engagement with the audience.
What is the most recent life changing experience you’ve had?
MM | I am still recovering, no details.
What has influenced your most recent work?
MM | Personal tragedy and how one recovers from rock bottom.
What is your current guilty pleasure?
MM | Not guilty but the pleasure of being a father.
Born in 1980 in Penhalonga, Zimbabwe, Misheck Masamvu studied art with Helen Lieros at Gallery Delta in Harare and at the Kunstacademie in Munich. Masamvu’s haunting depictions question the continent’s current trajectory by dramatically exposing psycho-social and political realities. His work has been shown internationally at Galerie Françoise Heitsch (Munich), Zimbabwe Pavilion at 54th Venice Art Biennale, Influx Contemporary Art (Lisbon), Africa Museum (Arnhem), National Gallery of Zimbabwe (Harare), Gallery Delta (Harare), Dak’Art Biennale 2006 (Dakar) and more.
All images courtesy of the artist. All rights reserved.
Written by Kudi Natasha Maradzika.
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