In conversation with First Floor Gallery on the responsibility of artistic institutions in shaping emerging discourse.
Self-declared as Zimbabwe’s first emerging artist-run gallery and operating in a country where the majority of the population is under 30, Harare’s First Floor Gallery forms part of a young, developing cultural landscape.
Marcus Gora and Valerie Kabov (founders of First Floor Gallery), and artist Moffat Takadiwa at FNB Joburg
Art Fair, 2014 presenting New Models for Art Organisations in Africa-First Floor Gallery Harare: A Case Study.
Founded in 2009, shortly after the end of the country’s decade long economic tailspin, the gallery describes itself as “dedicated to supporting the professional and career development of the emerging generation of contemporary Zimbabwean artists locally and internationally through education, experimentation and artist exchange.”
Zimbabwe is a young country; the majority of the population [65%] is under 30 years of age. This means that emerging artists have the ability to represent the country, its concerns and issues better than anyone else.
–Valerie Kabov and Marcus Gora
Following their recent participation this past August 2014 at the FNB Joburt Art fair, we caught up with gallery directors Valerie Kabov and Marcus Gora to find out their opinions on Zimbabwe’s current artistic climate, First Floor’s focus and contributions to the country’s emerging generation and what the future holds for artistic discourse in Zimbabwe.
Houghton Kinsman | How would you describe the current artistic environment in Zimbabwe?
Valerie and Marcus | Zimbabwe’s contemporary visual art scene today is going through a phase of a vibrant revival. After the turbulence of the financial crisis [2002-2009], which forced galleries to close and some artists to move abroad, the past four or five years have witnessed renewed energy. A number of new art initiatives have opened up with a new generation of artists claiming their space and some established artists, curators and educators returning to the country.
In terms of institutions, the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, which has branches the major cities of Harare, Bulawayo and Mutare, is of course mandated to present and preserve the country’s contemporary art and visual heritage. Together with galleries like Gallery Delta they ensured that contemporary artists manage to weather the storm. Since 2009, when First Floor Gallery Harare, opened up the first independent artist led initiative, a new wave of visual art initiatives like Village Unhu, Chinembiri Studios, Njele Art Station and Koovha projects, have come on the scene. Right now we are also seeing older initiatives like DAI – Dzinbanhete Art Interactions being re-launched and there is a sense of enthusiasm and opportunity. The Harare Polytechnic and the National Gallery Visual Art Studios remain the main institutions for visual art education, although new universities like Chinhoyi University of Technology are working towards developing quality Fine Art curricula.
Zimbabwe has produced a number of internationally successful artists. In terms of contemporary art, artists like Tapfuma Gutsa, Berry Bickle, Calvin Dondo, and Chikonzero Chazunguza have established international careers. Kudzanai Chiurai belongs to the younger generation of artists, as does Paris based Duncan Wylie, those who have spent a part of their careers abroad. Equally from the younger generation, Misheck Masamvu, Virginia Chihota and Portia Zvavahera, who have represented Zimbabwe in successive Zimbabwe Venice Biennale pavilions, are building up impressive critical acclaim and collector interest.
And on their heels, we have artists like Moffat Takadiwa, who is already showing with galleries in New York, Wycliffe Mundopa, Admire Kumadzengerere, who recently took part in the Moscow Biennale, as well as Tafadzwa Gwetai and Richard Mudariki who have been successfully showing in South Africa. We also have exciting young talent like the painter Gresham Tapiwa Nyaude and sculptor Terrence Musekiwa, as well as emerging curators like Mtabisi Phili, who are developing experimental practices. In the field of installation we have an impressive young artist Anne Zanele Mutema, who at 25 is already taking part in international festivals in Africa and Mavis Tauzeni, whose print-based works are starting to gain international collector attention.
What sort of role do you as a critical art gallery play in helping develop momentum behind what is happening in Zimbabwe artistically?
When we founded the gallery in 2009, the objective was to develop a space for genuine experimentation and freedom of expression, without ideological or commercial pressure. At the time there were no artist-run initiatives in the country, little funding and artists had very little confidence in their ability to start things independently. From the outset, part of our programming involved an educational component with master-classes, artists talks, and crit sessions etc. It was obvious to us that emerging artists in Harare needed to their develop skills, professionalism as well as a broader awareness of and engagement with international contemporary art. This vision is still with us, and is pushing us to be vigilantly responsive to the needs of artists and audiences in developing innovative exhibitions and projects. For example, last year we were the first to bring performance art to a Zimbabwe gallery space by co-hosting Afiriperforma Biennale of Live and Performance Art in Harare. This year we hosted our very first all Zimbabwean video art exhibition. In 2012 we were the first Zimbabwean gallery to take part in an art fair, and in 2013 represented Zimbabwe at 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, where we were one of only 5 galleries from the continent.
Artist Talk held at First Floor with Toni Crabb, Tapfuma Gutsa and Moffat Takadiwa, 2013.
Our objective however is not necessarily to do what has not been done before, but to do whatever we believe is necessary to support the development of an international quality visual art sector in Zimbabwe. Whether that means creating educational resources or bringing established practitioners to work with young artists, or ensuring that artists are able to make a living from their art by going to art fairs, then that is what we do.
A key priority for us at the moment is developing broad-based local support for visual art; not just audience engagement but also a strong individual collector base and corporate support. To achieve that on a long term basis, it is clear that we need to engage both with the general education system in which visual art is absent in many schools, depriving Zimbabwe of both future artists and future art supporters. It also means we need to support and encourage collector education, to build confidence in people who have the means to collect contemporary art but don’t feel sufficiently well informed. The art market in Zimbabwe is currently very small, and certainly not big enough to ensure a living income for the artists practicing, but there is great potential, if we have patience and perseverance – that is our goal. We are fortunate that in Zimbabwe, small initiatives like our own can have a significant impact.
How important is your approach to helping develop emerging art practices? Is this a priority for you?
As mentioned above, developing emerging art practices is crucial to our approach and our practice. There is nothing that we do that does not address that and we have a holistic approach to this i.e. we look not at just the artistic product but everything it takes to create it. It is not possible to exclude the individual and their personal needs from the artistic process. Perhaps this can be done in the West, but certainly not in our context. So we know that artists have trouble sourcing materials and good quality materials, especially painters – so we have developed a number of projects to overcome these difficulties and as a gallery, giving a small materials budget for every exhibition we have at the gallery has always been part of our practice.
We are very passionate about ensuring artistic freedom for the artists that we work with. We believe that the best work comes, when the artist is supported in pushing themselves and their talent to its limits.This is why we have shied away from projects and funding that undermines individual vision and integrity of the artist. It has been a privilege to see how far some of the artists we have worked with over the past five years have come.
© Moffat Takadiwa. Disinformation: Super Highway to Africa; computer keys, 2014. Courtesy of the artist and Vigo Gallery, London
© Moffat Takadiwa. Disinformation: Super Highway to Africa; computer keys (detail view), 2014. Courtesy of the artist and Vigo Gallery, London
How important do you think emerging artists are to the continued development of the country’s artistic discourse? Why?
Zimbabwe is a young country; the majority of the population [65%] is under 30 years of age. This means that emerging artists have the ability to represent the country, its concerns and issues better than anyone else. However in order to meet that responsibility and challenge, emerging artists need infrastructure and support to give them greater visibility as well as the skills to articulate and present their vision.
In the past, becoming an artist in Zimbabwe was always a ‘plan B’ educationally speaking, and it is still positioned as a vocational, skill-based practice rather than an intellectual one. There has not been a broad-based recognition of the potential that art and artists can have in the national cultural discourse and articulation of Zimbabwe’s vision for the future, and the role of cultural self-esteem in the nation’s progress.
Conversely, increasing engagement with the international art scene, is putting pressure on artists to build up their intellectual armour as it were to meet their peers abroad as equals. Emerging artists are increasingly recognising the need to articulate their vision, and to voice their concerns. We at the gallery have regularly been hosting panel discussions and discussion based events, such as film screenings, to support the development of artistic discourse and to create opportunities for artists to discuss broader historical, cultural and intellectual perspectives. For example we are currently presenting an exhibition titled “Wayland Rudd Collection”, curated by a gifted emerging curator Yevgeniy Fiks, which has toured from New York and is focused on the ideas of Africans in the Soviet Union, during its push to support African independence movements and anti-Western-imperialism. The exhibition raises a lot of issues about the over-simplification of history of race relations in Zimbabwe in particular. As part of the exhibition, we hosted a panel discussion inviting a historian from the University of Zimbabwe, a performance poet and writer with expertise in history of cultural practices in Zimbabwe as well as one of the artists in the exhibition to discuss ideas of the exhibition in the local context. This produced a very intense discussion and fantastic insights and perspectives on contemporary history of Zimbabwe but also its impact on artistic practices.
First Floor Gallery is run by Marcus Gora and Valerie Kabov, and operates simultaneously as both an exhibition venue as well as an educational facility. Through the implementation of artistic workshops, talks, video screenings, performances and panel discussions, First Floor offers the fundamental components necessary to stimulate and inspire critical artistic dialogue.
Currently, they represent eight Zimbabwean artists including Moffat Takadiwa, Gresham Nyaude, Wycliffe Mundopa and Terrence Musekiwa, and have recently been included in Art South Africa’s Interview Issue, highlighting their contributions towards the invigoration of emerging Zimbabwean practice.
Major exhibitions include Time to Pretend – Constructions of Heritage, Memory and Belonging; No Limits – HIFA Exhibition; Harare Haarare | Harare does not sleep and its inaugural exhibition Exit 2009.
This article forms part of the series Next Chapter: Inquiries into emerging artistic practice
Zimbabwe | Doing our part to combat immappancy
Images courtesy of the artist, First Floor Gallery, Harare and Vigo Gallery, London.