This First Word comes at a time when Zimbabwe's continued visibility at the Venice Biennale is in question because of the country's current economic and political challenges. The Curator's BlackBox seeks to trace Zimbabwe's journey to the Venice Biennale from 2011 to the present, a journey that has so many chapters. Zimbabwean artists are the major players in this journey and my job as the chief curator of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe has simply been to create the platform for their chapters to unfold.
To those who regard themselves as our teachers yet question how and why the Zimbabwe Pavilion is at the Venice Biennale, it is interesting how no-one ever questions the presence of Western countries' pavilions. An African country's visibility on any global platform seems to always raise questions. However, I think our visibility at the Biennale is important given how non-visibile our nations are on most global platforms. The Zimbabwe Pavilion at the Venice Biennale has shaped many artists' careers, from 2011 to the present, and it has connected many Zimbabwean artists to the global art market. The pavilion has provided Zimbabwean artists the space and capacity to experiment during all these editions.
Zimbabwe's journey to the Venice Biennale would not have been realized if it were not for the persistent voices of diaspora curators, who include the late Okwui Enwezor, Simon Njami, Salah Hassan, and many others. It would be naïve and selfish, in my opinion, not to mention their contribution to what are now known as African country pavilions at the Venice Biennale and many other global platforms. Their role is immense and yet they have been misunderstood. Some have called them gatekeepers, and yet many of us, myself included, have learned a lot from their persistent voices. Their critique of the vocalization and theorization of the West at that time gave some of us energy to understand and to see how we could create opportunities for artists in our own countries. In my view, the visibility of African artists in key Western institutions and platforms today can be traced back to those curators.
The idea for a Zimbabwe Pavilion at the Venice Biennale was set in motion upon my arrival at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in 2010. My curatorial work was inspired by my involvement as a volunteer at the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale in 1997. That Biennale, curated by the late Okwui Enwezor, was a platform that provided opportunities for many curators and artists. For me, the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale was a free learning ground that provided an opportunity for us as young learners in the arts to interact and get educated about the global contemporary art world. This was a very important platform that South Africa provided not only to its citizens but to the continent. I am aware that there were those who doubted what the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale achieved, and yet it inspired so many artists, emerging curators, and projects around the globe.
The title of the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale Biennale was Trade Routes: History and Geography, and allow me to say that many trade routes got opened there, and I am one of the people who took something out of it. My interaction with many curators, museum directors, artists, and other cultural workers grew my network. The Pro Helvetia team that I met there in 1997 and later in 2001 provided me with a curatorial residency at Centre Pas Quart in Biel, Switzerland. It was a rare opportunity to be mentored by the Centre Pas Quart's director at the time, Andreas Meir. The residency included a trip to Venice and Art Basel in 2001—yet another huge platform to understand the global art market and its players. I arrived in Venice a few days after the official opening with Patrick Mautloa, a South African artist, and we visited all the venues, but what bothered us was the absence of African country pavilions. This absence stuck in my head.
On my return to Zimbabwe, I was given an opportunity to curate a Zimbabwean show during the Commonwealth Games in Manchester, England, 2002. I went on to co-curate Visions of Zimbabwe: When Words Fail, Art Speaks at the Manchester Art Gallery with James Walmsley. Some of the artists in that exhibition included Grace Mutandwa, Bill Saidi, Tapfuma Gutsa, Calvin Dondo, Berry Bickle, Voti Thebe, Michele Mathison, Chaz Maviyane Davies, Chiko Chazunguza, and Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi. It was this exhibition that I wanted to take to the Venice Biennale in 2005.
My time in Manchester laid the groundwork for me as a young curator to question what it meant to take a production from the undernourished contexts and communities across Africa and bring it into the UK's highly interpretive and well-serviced museum and gallery infrastructure. It also taught me a lot about differences in cultural thinking, the role of language in defining production once it has entered the museum/gallery environment, and curatorial responsibility.
These exhibitions resulted in me curating an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum North entitled African Heroes, a photographic exhibition that traced the Africans who fought alongside the British during World War II. The untold stories of the forgotten heroes of the Commonwealth is even now an unfinished project, for some of those men who fought for the empire were never compensated and went to their graves with £5 as gratuity. Their fellow white veterans got land and a lifetime pension. The Imperial War Museum exhibition questioned how we share experiences as colonial subjects, to better understand our own histories from different viewpoints.
Through Michele Robecchi and Andreas Rose of the British Council I had the opportunity to briefly meet two Spanish curators, Rosa Martinez and Maria de Corral, who curated the Venice Biennale 2005. This is when my lobby for the Zimbabwe Pavilion began. The Spanish curators were announcing their curatorial plan and country participation. Unfortunately, the lobbying process was hard and we failed to take Zimbabwe to Venice at the time. I continued my work as an independent curator without giving up on Zimbabwean artists. Around 2003 I invited Michele Robecchi and the Flash Art team to Zimbabwe during the Harare International Festival of the Arts exhibition. Looking back at my interaction with Flash Art in 2001 at the Venice Biennale was a great opportunity, and so it was important for this team to visit Zimbabwe to get an understanding of its art scene.
In 2009 I went to study for my MA in curating at Kingston University in London. Afterwards, I joined the Creative Africa Network as one of its founding members. It was there that the Zeitz Musuem of Contemporary Art Africa was conceptualized. Upon my arrival back home in 2010, I joined the National Gallery of Zimbabwe as a curator under the leadership of Mrs. Doreen Sibanda, the executive director, and Tapfuma Gutsa, who was the deputy director. Tapfuma did not stay long after my arrival, as he left to pursue his artistic career.
After my appointment, I remember saying, “I want to take Zimbabwe to Venice,” and many people said it was impossible. Because I had been thinking about this project since 2001, I had to go back to my network. Tate Modern had invited me to join many other African curators to a forum entitled Curating in Africa. Some of the curators who attended that symposium were the late Bisi Silva, Ngone Fall, Marylyn Doula, Maskreem, and others. Before my trip to the UK I communicated with Andreas Rose, British Council former Head of Visual Arts, about the idea. She loved the idea and said, “This is the right time to have a Zimbabwean Pavilion, let's do it.” Marie Claud Bean, who was the director at Creative Africa Network, also loved the idea and even sent a delegate to meet me in London to discuss it.
Christine Eyene, with whom I also worked at the Creative Art Network, was interested in the project and she helped with fundraising and later contributed to its catalogue when the first Zimbabwe Pavilion at the Venice Biennale debuted in 2011. By the time I arrived in London for the Curating in Africa symposium, I had a lot of meetings lined up for this groundbreaking project. This was a point of departure for me as the newly appointed curator of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe and for the Zimbabwean art sector. Andreas Rose opened the door for Zimbabwe to the Venice Biennale and we got our official invitation. She also linked us up to Paul Bradley, who is still our technical person. I traveled to Venice in December and located the Santa Maria Della Pieta church, which has become our traditional home in Venice.
The first Zimbabwe Pavilion was entitled Seeing Ourselves, and this was an opportunity for Zimbabweans to tell their own story through the voices of the four selected artists, Calvin Dondo, Berry Bickle, Tapfuma Gutsa, and Mishack Masamvu. The exhibition was commissioned by Mrs. Doreen Sibanda and I curated the show. This was an opportunity for us as Zimbabweans to claim our piece of the global cake and not remain passengers in our own ship. For Zimbabwe, the national pavilion gave us a voice within the global community. The Biennale was a great opportunity to showcase Zimbabwean contemporary art to the wider audience and it was and still is a great occasion to be part of the global art family. As an inaugural exhibition for our country, the pavilion attracted many people from across the world. I would like to acknowledge the support that was given to the pavilion from our partners: the British Council, Nouveau Museum of Monaco, Culture France, and the Government of Zimbabwe. This inaugural show inspired Zimbabwe's presence at the Venice Biennale till today.
The second edition of the Zimbabwe Pavilion in 2013, entitled Dudziro—Interrogating the Visions of Religious Beliefs, was yet another opportunity for the five featured Zimbabwean artists to shine at this global platform. This time idea was to pay tribute to veteran artists like Voti Thebe and Rashid Jogee, whose contribution to the history of Zimbabwean contemporary art is immense. They were joined by three emerging artists: Virgnia Chihota, Portia Zvavahera, and Michelle Mathison. After we announced the artists, an anonymous email circulated to my network lambasting their selection, the Commissioner, and myself as the curator of the show. The anonymous writer asked for a meeting with me and I agreed; yet, on the date and time of the meeting, the writer never turned up. All the selected artists and their families were devastated by the attack, but we managed to pull ourselves together and we soldiered on. It was during this 55th Venice Biennale that Angola, with Edson Chagas, won the Golden Lion Award. Zimbabwe's participation for a second time made it important to continue what we had started, for Zimbabwean artists to bring yet another perspective to the international audiences.
In the third edition, Zimbabwe showcased three artists: Chiko Chazunguza, Gareth Nyandoro and Masimba Hwati. Some viewed Zimbabwe's third consecutive participation as “third time lucky,” and yet they had no idea of the dream and passion behind this bigger project. Entitled Pixels of Ubuntu/Unhu, the show interrogated social media in the twenty-first century and the way our Ubuntu/Unhu is pixilating. By this time, the Government of Zimbabwe had realized the soft power played by a Zimbabwe Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Furthermore, Zimbabweans could neither afford nor accept to be outside of this important global cultural arena where art was canonized and promoted. Zimbabwean art was now being discussed globally.
In 2017, Zimbabwe saw itself back for the 57th Venice Biennale with four artists: Admire Kamudzengerere, Charles Bhebhe, Dana Whabira, and Sylvester Mubayi. The exhibition was entitled Deconstructing Boundaries: Exploring Ideas of Belonging and was led by our veteran sculptor Sylvester Mubayi. The four artists conceived new works incorporating sculpture, prints, drawings, objects, paintings, and sound for the six galleries of the Pavilion.
Deconstructing Boundaries questioned the issue of belonging through the voices of these four artists and their experiences in the ever-changing world. In the face of relentless globalization, physical boundaries are being blurred and challenged. The voices and perspectives of artists in this regard are important, for they are the mirror of society and the mirror of the future. Deconstructing Boundaries allowed these artists to reflect on their own experiences and question boundaries that currently exist in one form or the other. As they cross different borders and boundaries, they carry with them their unique experiences about the different spaces they visit.
When I look back to the 2017 Zimbabwe Pavilion that provided another perspective on the themes of identity, migration, patriotism, and belonging, I see it replicated in events taking place in the world today: South Africa's xenophobia, migration issues in America, Italy, and around the world at large. The ideas of here and there, seeing and being seen, legal and illegal remain subjects for debate and for this exhibition. Borders are an unavoidable part of life but people continue to cross them, legally and illegally. Deconstructing Boundaries tackled a vast topic which has become a central issue on a global scale, and the 2017 Zimbabwe Pavilion exhibition illuminated some of its diverse perspectives through the works of Admire Kamudzengerere, Charles Bhebe, and Dana Whabira.
As we approached the 58th Venice Biennale with no improvement in Zimbabwe's economic situation, we thought we were not going to make it to Venice in 2019. We had to work twice as hard with our parent Ministry of Youth, Sport, Arts, and Recreation to realise this one. The Ministry's understanding of what the Biennale meant to the artists and to the image of the country is what enabled us to get there. After years on the third floor in our traditional venue, the Santa Maria Della Pieta church, we opted for the ground floor, which is smaller than the upstairs venue. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise—many people used to get lost trying to find us, and opting for the ground floor increased our visibility and accessibility. The 58th Venice Biennale Zimbabwe Pavilion was represented by Georgina Maxim, Cosmas Shiridzinonwa, Kudzanai-Violet Hwami, and Neville Starling. These artists responded to an epic poem written by our late nationalist Dr. Herbert Chitepo, Soko Risina Musoro: A Tale Without a Head.
In conclusion allow me to say that the time has come for Africans no longer to remain passengers in their own ship—the time has come for Africans to realize their own dreams, not other people's dreams. The Zimbabwe Pavilion project allows us to tell our own story, because for years the vocalization and theorization of African art has come from others, from those who want to remain our teachers. I am grateful to Zimbabwean artists for making me stop and think and research. I have a whole new map in front of me as a result of what these artists have shared, and I believe our journey is just the beginning. To Mrs. Doreen Sibanda, the executive director, and the rest of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe team, allow me to say, “What we have started should continue, for the artists continue to work and without them and their work, we will not have work, so let's value what they do.” They give us their emotions and all we have to do is to create more platforms for them and collect for the future generations.