Saturday, June 8, 2013

Creativity and condescension in the rebirth of Zimbabwean sculpture

Back in the world of African art, I’ve just read another fascinating chapter from African Art andAgency in the Workshop (Sidney Littlefield Kasfir & Till Förstereds., Indiana University Press 2013). This one is by Elizabeth Morton, an art curator and art historian, and is a study of “Frank McEwen and Joram Mariga: Patron and Artist in the Rhodesian Workshop School Setting, Zimbabwe.”

There’s a lot to the story she tells, and I’ll only focus on one part of it. But the broad narrative is that Frank McEwen left Europe in the 1950s because he was “disillusioned with newer trends in Western art, such as abstraction” (275), and came to Zimbabwe – Rhodesia at the time – where he sought to train artists who were more in touch with the collective unconscious than the over-schooled artists of Europe had become.

McEwen’s notions today seem only a step away from other Western fantasies of the noble savage. But in Rhodesia at that time, the opportunity he offered to African artists was evidently unique and attractive, and for offering it McEwen was reviled by most Rhodesian whites. Moreover, McEwen was apparently a tremendously effective operator in the international art world. And he fostered Zimbabwean art. It seems fair to say that there was no extant tradition of Zimbabwean sculpture when McEwen arrived. McEwen played a crucial role in helping African artists (among them, Joram Mariga, the other person named in the title of Morton’s chapter, and the person who actually rediscovered Rhodesia’s deposits of soapstone, which became a primary medium for the new sculptors) to invent this tradition. Within 15 years of his arrival in Rhodesia, McEwen had “mount[ed] … triumphal sculpture-only exhibitions at MoMA (1968), the Musée d’art modern in Paris (1970), and the Rodin Museum (1971).” (282-83)

Morton writes that “[i]n his catalogs and publicity for these successful shows McEwen asserted that the sculpture dealt largely with the supernatural and that it could be explained primarily in Jungian terms.” (283) One might think, at this point, that McEwen’s notions amounted to a harmless overlay on a creative movement that proceeded freely because of his help and despite his characterizations. But that isn’t true, particularly in one very important respect. McEwen, who had worked closely with the sculptor Joram Mariga, betrayed him (the word “betray” is Morton’s, and appears just). Morton thinks the fundamental reason was that Mariga, who was both a Christian and the child of a traditional healer, was “a didactic, forceful intellectual” who could have “disrupt[ed] the flow of the supernatural and mystical carvings that were becoming increasingly lucrative.” (287) Mariga’s career was blighted for almost two decades, though happily it eventually recovered, and he ultimately forgave McEwen as well.

Given how seriously McEwen pursued his notions of African art, we might now think that McEwen would have blighted careers in another way – by denying admission to his world (and, more specifically, admission to the Workshop School at McEwen’s Rhodesian National Gallery, though as a site of regular classes the Workshop only lasted till 1964) to those who had the taint of formal art training. In fact he tried to do exactly that. Morton writes: “His preference was for illiterate, pagan Africans untainted by exposure to Western schooling or religion and who were potentially capable of expressing the collective unconscious. As a result, he tried hard to keep trained artists out of his workshop.” (276)

But he failed. The African artist whom McEwen “entrusted … to act as the workshop’s gatekeeper,” a man named Thomas Mukarobgwa, had himself “been taught to paint by a local missionary.” (276) With Mukarobgwa playing this role, “[t]he end result … was not the exclusion of mission-trained artists from McEwen’s workshop. Instead, they simply hid the facts from him.” (276-77) So McEwen’s fantasies were undercut by the very person he relied upon to implement them.

One can’t help but feel that justice was served – both in Mariga’s eventual return to international art success and in Mukarobgwa’s subversion of McEwen’s patronizing admission rules. But it seems, at the same time, that McEwen was a tremendously powerful and positive force in the development of what’s now Zimbabwean sculpture. The artists and the patron were interconnected in ways that aren’t easily summed up as all good or all bad, all agency or all domination.

Perhaps the clearest lesson is that people given the chance to work creatively will do so, despite whatever obstacles or presuppositions may still constrain them.

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