Scrawled on rough newsprint, the artist’s hand-written description says: “Three women are brewing beer and another one is carrying a clay pot of water. Two men are helping themselves to seven-days beer. Two women are pounding maize for the meal. Another two women are shucking maize while a son is sleeping. Three children are cleaning their father’s car. They have a tin of water.”
Attached to the back of the painting, the note is wrinkled having been folded and unfolded by prospective buyers. There’s underlying poignancy in this piece of work. It shows the natural order of things in rural Zimbabwe, where traditional culture is still ingrained despite Western influences.
Wilson Mudadza’s painting reflects daily rural life in Zimbabwe just as it has been for centuries. The country has been battered by years of political upheaval, bloodshed, economic crises and mass unemployment—but life goes on.
Depicting rural life with warmth, humor and frankness are women (and a handful of men like Wilson) in the Weya district of eastern Zimbabwe, some 170 kilometers from the capital city of Harare. The women are subsistence farmers, mothers and householders as well as artists. Most fend for themselves and provide for their families, not easy in a country with an unemployment rate of between 70-95 percent.
Wilson is one of the few men working in this community. While not traditionally Zimbabwean art, the so-called Weya style has been adopted here. Weaving, fabric appliqué, fabric painting, embroidery, quilting, tapestry, plus acrylic painted wooden items depict village life. Themes on water shortages, wildlife, hunting, agriculture, ancestors, marriages and transport problems are among the issues expressed—rich in humor, with anecdotes and digs at social injustices.
They breathe life into old pieces of fabrics to create appliqué of tight-knitted composition. Most of their pieces have no preparatory drawings, allowing patterns to develop spontaneously. All appliqués, wall-hangings, fabric paintings, tapestries and embroidered items hold a unique hand-written note tucked into a tiny pocket sewn into the back.
Pamhidzai Rinomhota’s fabric painting about an elephant invading a village shows the human-animal conflict that has long been a problem in Zimbabwe. Because of differences of opinion when it comes to killing endangered wildlife and human survival, an elixir game management program known as CAMPFIRE was established in the early 1980s. Initiated by Clive Stockil, a local rancher and staunch conservationist, so dedicated he received a knighthood from the French for his conservation efforts, the program has been applauded internationally for the methods it promotes to encourage locals to managing their wildlife sustainably.
Sadza - the traditional stiff porridge made from pounded maize and the country’s staple food—is sometimes used to provide relief and texture to acrylic paintings. On batiks sadza paste is spread onto the fabric (instead of wax) then washed off and the cloth is dried out in the sun.
Ednight Mungure ,43, creates sadza paintings depicting wildlife and folk tales. She has six children. Her husband, who used to work on a commercial farm, died in 2002. She says: “It is difficult to be a mother and a painter at the same time. There are too many things to do at once.”
Fabric painter Veronica Chitsike Shonge, 53, is the second wife of her husband. She has three children. Veronica felt art was something she could do while still being a full-time housewife. She also “fetches firewood, does ploughing, herds cattle and takes them to the dipping tank. I have quite a lot of work.” She likes to paint village life and wild animals, “baboons who live here in this place.”
The Weya Community Training Center just off the main Harare-Mutare road in Chiendambuya village was established in 1987. Ilse Noy, an art teacher with the German Volunteer Service, came here to teach. She and Agnes Shapeta, a local seamstress, got together on a project to teach local women—many of whom had no skills at all—and bring the work up to a level good enough to sell. They hoped to target international tourists coming into the country.
The African artists have obviously been strongly influenced by Noy’s Western heritage, and some critics believe that this results in a less valuable product than indigenous art of Zimbabwe. Others say that we are in a multi-cultural world where cross-pollination occurs readily, besides, Weya art is appreciated by Western collectors and museums.
As Robyn Sassen, in an article for PopMatters, an international magazine of cultural criticism, says: “The stories told in the appliqués are about AIDS, unemployment, crime, wife-beating and baby-dumping. They’re strong, gutsy and don’t pull punches. These are appliqués with balls.”
Selling to visitors worked for a short time until tourist numbers declined dramatically in 2000 following the government’s land reform program where large-scale commercial were forcibly removed off their land. The resulting turmoil and violence at the time scared many tourists off; they are yet to return.
Some Weya artists used to sell their work on makeshift stalls along the roadsides and in local markets but the government demolished many illegal traders’ stands in 2005 in another brutal campaign that became known as Operation Murambatsvina (or Operation Drive Out Rubbish).
Some Weya works were exhibited in Harare’s National Gallery of Zimbabwe in April this year. The Zimbabwe Artists Project, a non-profit organization based in the USA, was founded in 1999 by Dick Adams, a sociology professor.
“Since the market for Weya art in Zimbabwe is extremely limited, sales in the United States are critical. The ZAP pays the artists for their work directly at the time of purchase,” says ZAP CEO Theresa Burk. She said that the ZAP’s aim was to educate Americans about Zimbabwe’s history and culture, as well as about the artists’ lives. They have a partnership with the Weya community, providing the artists with advice, feedback on their work, workshops and funds for health care.
John Vekris, ZAP’s representative in Harare, says, “With the local market dead and since 2008 the US market also declining, it has been tough going and few of these artists have prospered.” They select only the very best pieces for sale in the USA. “It’s unfortunate but we cannot accept all work,” he says. “We want to humanize Africa. These are real creative wonderful people doing their work to sustain themselves.”