African Art: A question of identity

For art enthusiasts seeking an edgy alternative to the National Gallery in Harare, Njelele Art Station provides one of the best creative spaces. This unique gallery situated in the Kopje area is a delightful sanctuary from the noise and commotion of a somewhat dilapidated part of the city. The gallery offers a rare opportunity for visitors to experience high quality, cutting-edge, culturally edifying art in the midst of the hectic atmosphere of an economically struggling area.

Njelele Art Station was established in May of this year with the aim of presenting works by both known and unknown Zimbabwean artists. Currently on show is Shannon Murphy.

Life in Africa is often inequitable, and never more so than in the Zimbabwean art world. Zimbabwe’s art community struggles to thrive, because it is motivated by material success; it is a dog-eat-dog world for artists competing for NGO grants and commissions. It is a constant challenge for artists like Murphy, 26, to make a living creating experimental art, no matter how creative their work may be (In the Zimbabwean art landscape, an avant-garde experimental artist such as Damien Hirst would never become wealthy – nor make the international impact he has).

Murphy is a mixed media artist and sculptor who utilizes a wide range of materials: clay, paint, wood, stone, metal, found objects and recyclables, photographs, and drawing tools. Her debut exhibition at Njelele is entitled Home Bitter Sweet Home – inviting discourse on what the concept of “home” means to the diaspora population.

The Nest series explores the perception of “home” from the point of view of someone who has emigrated, voluntarily or involuntarily. The land dispute – and the artist’s search for a sense of belonging in this new Pan African matrix – were the inspiration for this series. Murphy’s intention is to leave the viewer with the questions, “Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going?” and to address the loss of identity suffered by those who have been uprooted from their homelands. Each “nest” was created over time, and left in many different outdoor areas the artist visited both within Zimbabwe and abroad. They have now been uprooted from their original locations, to be placed in Njelele’s exhibition. The signs of erosion and weather damage to be seen on each sculpture are an expression of inhospitable foreign environments experienced by immigrants.

Home Bitter Sweet Home also drives the conversation about how to define Zimbabwean Art. Some purists believe that Murphy’s art should not fall under the definition of African art at all, because she is white – a representative of the colonizing nation that originally subjugated native Africans. Others argue that she was born here, from generations of white Zimbabweans, so she is, indeed, an African and her work is African art.

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