Artist in the Park

gukurahundi_cartoonA few weekends ago, wrapped in cardigans and winter coats, we went to Art in the Park in Pietermaritzburg where artists from all over South Africa and beyond displayed their paintings, ceramics and other bits and pieces. It was a lovely set up in Alexandra Park with a young singer songwriter doing an acoustic set,

There were fifty-five stands of very beautiful art ranging from still life beach scenes to vibrant modern paint-spattered canvases. A ceramic artist displayed the most incredible depictions of how life can come from death using blackened raku-fired pots with white glazed birds emerging from them.

Living in fear

Towards the end of my lap around the stands, nestled between huge prints of Nguni cattle and paintings of delicate ballerinas, was The Zimbabwean Artists stand. Dog-eared drawings of war scenes were tacked to the temporary walls, and several framed paintings of more sedate scenes hung to the side.

In the middle of it all there was a hand-written plea for a journalist to put words to his story. What is his story? Life and death during the Gukhurahundi massacres that took place in the 1980s in the Matabeleland area of Zimbabwe, a tribal war during which thousands died at the hands of the notorious Korean-trained Fifth Brigade.

The artist made me promise not to use his name. Hundreds of miles away from his home country, he still quite clearly lives in fear. He produced tattered copies of Zimbabwean exhibition programmes where he showcased his work in the good old days. Now, he scratches a living in Johannesburg, which he spends on transportation costs to take his paintings to places like Pietermaritzburg in the hope that someone will take an interest in his story. It was the second last day of the exhibition and he had sold only two paintings. Unfortunately it is not surprising that art lovers would choose not to hang a burning bus full of passengers being taunted by red beret-wearing soldiers on their wall.

Art for arts sake

The contrast between the intricately detailed portraits of the Big Five that hung directly opposite, and the tortured scenes of terror that The Zimbabwean Artist had painted was stark. Frank Lloyd Wright said, Art for art’s sake is a philosophy of the well-fed. It was so apparent that my Zimbabwean friend did not paint for arts sake, but rather as a scream for help. As his little sign showed, he had even reached the end of art as a medium to convey his truth.

There are some things that I cannot paint, he told me. These ones are fine, but how can I paint my sister getting raped? Who will want to buy that?

As I moved away from his stand to drink hot chocolate beside the bonfire I wondered how he ended up being chosen from the hundreds of applicants to display his work at the exhibition. His art was so different from the rest of the paintings and his desperation for a sale so raw and unbridled, but, as someone once said, All great art comes from a sense of outrage, and perhaps that is what the exhibition organisers saw.

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