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Postcard from Harare 0

Valerie Kabov, Art Researcher

How does a girl born in Minsk, educated in Australia and writing a doctorate in Paris, end up founding Zimbabwe’s first artist run space?

It all began in November 2009, with a “once only/once in a lifetime” invitation from a friend working on a film in Zimbabwe to visit Africa and side-perk of giving a lecture at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Harare, about my doctoral research. My vision was firmly on developing my career as an art critic, academic and curator with projects in Europe and Australia. Life however has a way of placing us in situations where our principles become a call to action and in my case, shifted me from position of a dispassionate art critic and observer into an activist.

What I found in Harare however, stirred me both as a human being and an art professional and became a call to action. Prior to coming, I knew exceptionally little about the country and Africa in general. My impressions a collage of childhood stories – elephants, giraffes, hippopotami and zebras offset by sensational news headlines about hyperinflation and financial crisis, poverty and heat and almost a complete ignorance of local contemporary art and art tradition. 

My first expectation of finding a vibrant culture of street art – given the political turmoil was entirely disappointed and called for investigation.  

My experiences over the following days and weeks confirmed that and other “anomalies” to the occidental view of art world. They also forced me to temper my critical agendas by absorbing and addressing the economical and historical day-to-day realities of lives of artists in Zimbabwe.

My experiences over the following days and weeks confirmed that and other “anomalies” to the occidental view of art world. They also forced me to temper my critical agendas by absorbing and addressing the economical and historical day-to-day realities of lives of artists in Zimbabwe.

While we can relate to the perception and realities of elitism in the art world, in Zimbabwe this perception arises somewhat differently. The visual arts in Zimbabwe are also considered elitist in Zimbabwe, having been historically sponsored and “consumed” primarily by whites compared with the popular and populist music and performance arts. 

The perceived elitism of visual arts, makes them generally although not always, fly under the radar of the government censors, which could give visual artists in Zimbabwe a freer hand in critiquing the politics in their country than their thespian and musical counterparts. However what the censors “give” in freedom of expression, poverty takes away.  

Struggling to support your practice financially and reaching broad audiences are the most common concerns for artists world over and have been for centuries. In Zimbabwe, however, these are played out on a completely different game board. In Zimbabwe, artists are not a disenfranchised minority the way artists perceive themselves in many countries of the world. They are part of the mainstream trying to re-build, restructure and reinvent the country and the future in the aftermath of financial collapse and deterioration over the past decade. 

The small domestic market for art however is dominated by expatriate diplomatic and NGO “missionaries” who want some “authentic Africana” to decorate their apartments and or seek a better kind of souvenir. When I first came in 2009, there was only one properly operating gallery representing contemporary artists, Gallery Delta, which is barely made ends meet and relied on sponsored exhibitions to keep doors open. Moreover, there was and still there is no state funding for the arts and at most National Gallery of Zimbabwe exhibitions all the artworks are for sale!

In a sad Catch-22, while artists can hardly afford to buy materials, they also cannot afford to “waste” them on work that is not for sale, which will not sell. This means that work that is purely experimental or political, including street art is by and large out. Many artists are reduced by poverty to making tourist oriented artefacts. 

Factor into this the impossibility of access to “live” contemporary or historical art (money to travel and difficulty of obtaining visas); difficulty of virtual access to art and art opportunities due to difficulty of access to internet and computers (money, money and money); and finally enormous shortages in educational resources both at practical and theoretical levels. All this results in entrapment of the artists in the chains of poverty, ignorance and bad taste and non-art motivations of their main NGO clients. The few escapees I encountered in 2009 have all been aided by personal contacts and access to some education abroad but for the majority this is more than a pipe dream.

Meeting more artists during my first visit, I learnt that there was also simply a lack of space for experimentation. There were no artist-run spaces in Harare and to be honest, in all of Zimbabwe. The pain of the situation was for me exacerbated by the fact that I met some genuinely earnest and eager voices with ideas that had potential for flowering if only the opportunities were there. So when one evening over a dinner conversation, Marcus Gora a young music executive suggested, “Well, I don’t know if this can help, but in our office downtown, we have a spare room next to the tailor’s workshop, if you want you can come and take a look,” I jumped at the opportunity. 

The space was a room at the end of a long corridor on the first floor of an old art deco building downtown, with a textile shop downstairs and a tailoring workshop next door. The walls were a grey version of former peach, the wooden floor splattered with paint and it was filled by ironing boards, strips of fabric as well as a mysteriously placed school blackboard on one of the walls, the windows were letting in natural light even late in the afternoon, the ceilings were tall and the 40 square meters of it were entirely free. So it was perfect or as perfect as any run-down light-industrial building space that was hijacked by artists in a semi-clandestine manner, which I have around the world from New York to London to Sydney and Moscow.

That was the genesis of First Floor Gallery Harare and I thought, the end of my ad hoc sortie into the world of gallery running. Life was to decide otherwise. Unexpectedly, in May of the following year, I was invited to come back to Zimbabwe on a teaching assignment for British Council. I found the fledgling space in a hiatus and the young artists at a loss what to do. The problems were clearly conceptual. Young artists were suspicious of the idea and did not trust that a gallery could exist in a shabby building like that and they wanted to know how the gallery was planning to market the artwork and get them sales. 

So we gathered forty odd young artists for a “town hall” meeting and an “Emerging artist run space 101”. I took a risky soapbox approach: “You are young artists and you are all still very very bad. You want to know how the gallery will market your work? But it does not yet deserve to be sold. If you don’t work on your art, if you do not develop your skills, if you do not get feedback and criticism from your peers, you are never going to get better. If you think you are already wonderful and you don’t need to grow, then this place is not for you. If you think that a gallery should have marble floors and art is only for the rich, then this place is not for you. This is not just a room, this is your window to a global community of contemporary artists, who are all struggling for recognition and making work in rooms just like that… So if you think that this is a place that can help you grow and you are an artist with ideas and merit, then please put your name down for our mailing list and specify if you want to make an exhibition proposal for a show with the gallery.”

By the end of the meeting we had 25 signatures and eight exhibition proposals and young committee of artists willing to work with the space headed by young sculptor Moffat Takadiwa and Marcus Gora, who became the gallery administrative manager. That was the second birth of First Floor Gallery Harare, ironically 9 months following the initial conception.

First Floor Gallery re-launch exhibition, First Steps in July 2010, however was an unexpected and unintended commercial success. More than half of the works sold and the interest in events and exhibitions from artists and the public held a lot of promise for the future.  For me, however the experience also showed that our young team was going to need ongoing support and mentoring to build up skills needed for running an exhibition space, relating to audiences and curating. But the enthusiasm, dedication and the talent were there, so what was a critic to do but to put on a hat of an educator and mentor.

So here we are, middle of 2011. First Floor Gallery Harare is mid-way through its 2011 exhibition programm, which has seen it hold four gallery exhibitions, two off-site exhibitions in Harare – one featuring an international guest artist from Australia – Richard Butler-Bowdon – a show during which we took over a section of a major nightclub in town to create an improvised gallery during the Harare International Festival of Art. We have also established an ongoing educational commitment hosting regular master-classes featuring international guests and local veteran artists, like our Women and Art master class for which we brought over Berry Bickle, a Maputo based Zimbabwean artist, currently representing Zimbabwe at the Venice Biennale.

In May we had another international first, with our Harare-Paris exhibition, in Paris, which attracted supporters and interest from across Europe as well as invitations to take part in exhibition in places as disparate as Lisbon and Bangkok and Sydney. Our artists have found supporters and collectors in Hong Kong, London, Paris and Melbourne. We managing all this on a wing and a prayer with a policy of remaining independent rather than compromise our vision to obtain funding from “well-meaning” NGOs. NGOs, which give money to art “edu-tainment” and propagandist art projects, which illustrate NGO goals and priorities – from HIV/AIDs to water-purification, rather than genuinely encourage artists to develop their vision and ideas authentically and in a way, which can enable them to engage with their peers internationally as equals. This is the freedom that First Floor Gallery Harare works hard to defend, to support the new generation of gifted Zimbabwean artists.  

First from the left: Valerie Kabov herself

Where to next? Step by step the gallery is reaching out to the world. Life is long time – anything is possible. 

Read also other Postcards from all over the world:

Aging and Dying Out: Letter from New York
British Art Education or Learning to Live: Letter from London
Letter from Contemporary St.Petersburg
Letter from New York

Soul Laboratory: Letter from Ghent
The Myth of Mitte: Letter from Berlin

Modern City: Letter from Chicago
Melbourne Bound: Letter from Melbourne