Valentine Magutsa

Valentine Magutsa. Photo by Mai Palmberg

"I'm trying to give people hope"

Valentine Magutsa was born in 1975 in Mberengwa, but grew up in Chipinge and Mutare in Manicaland , Zimbabwe . He is a painter and teaches painting in Bulawayo .

Tell me more about your coming exhibition?
It is titled "Passion, feelings and emotions"; it will now be held in Harare . In this particular exhibition I am commenting on my passion for art. In most of my paintings, there is a road and the road is symbolic for all the ups and downs that I've faced as an artist to get to where I am now. I was also commenting on the subjects themselves, like the landscapes are living as I portray them…

How do you mean they are living?
You see they have their own feeling, like they have moods at times, they have moods, like if you go under a tree when you are depressed or sometimes you get a pleasant mood, a pleasant feeling and this is what I was trying to convey.

You talked about the ups and downs as an artist.
As an artist I have faced ups and downs in trying to get my work to an acceptable level. There's a style that I'm trying to bring now, it is very textured and to get this style to an acceptable level, it took me ages.

When you say acceptable level, does that mean acceptable to you yourself?
No, to the clientele, like the galleries and there have been collectors who now have a following of that work, that's what I mean.

You are working as a teacher—is that something that just a way of earning your bread? Which identity is more important for you, to be a teacher or to be an artist?
I would like to be a full-time painter, but at the same time I have to make arts more relevant to the society. Even if I stop full-time teaching, I still have to organise workshops and art exhibitions trying to teach and then make art more relevant to our society.

Tell me about your themes. It seems that so many of your paintings look like portrayals of nature?
Not all of them are portrayals of nature, but I also try to comment on the society, so my work is basically a social commentary, I talk about the people, how they live, how they work and how they socialise and how they try to go ahead in these difficult times.

Given that we probably can say that Zimbabwe today is a society in crisis, how would you define or describe that crisis? What does it consist of? And secondly how does it affect you as an artist? And thirdly, how do you express that, how does it get expression through your art?
Firstly I would say my art, I think, is there to talk about the society and if the society is in crisis, I think my work has to reflect that, so I will basically comment on the way the things are. On the part how this is affecting my work, it has something to do with the exposure of the work. Tourism is no longer booming, so there are fewer buyers around. But I think this gives me more drive to produce more work and comment on that type of crisis.

When you have showed photos of your paintings there were some which sort of depicted crisis and difficulties.
Yes, one painting is called "Drinking my sorrows away". It has got a person, who walks into a bar, then he gets very drunk and he sleeps. So I was looking at that person - as I was sketching he was asleep and when I finished sketching he was asleep. Sometimes you try to forget your sorrows through drinking but then after that drink, after that feeling is gone your problems still follow you. So I'm commenting that – I'm trying to give people hope.

There is another, "Smoking my sorrows away". I also try to give people help in some titles like "Nera Manyana" or "Nyarara Mwana – Don't cry baby". He has got a mother who is singing, trying to quieten that baby sort of singing a lullaby. So I called that one "Don't cry baby". The mother is trying to give that child hope.

Then also there's a painting called "There's light at the end of the tunnel". It is of someone walking down a cave. The cave is very dark but at one end of the cave there's light. So this gives people hope that at the end of the tunnel there's light.

What about the one of a bus rank?
The painting called "Commuters' Nightmare". It has got people trying to board Kombis that take commuters back home. Every time when you get out of your home in the morning you think how are you going to get back home because at the moment we are facing a fuel crisis. So there are many people in the queue and the Kombis are very few so you have to fight your way in now to get into the Kombi. So it's actually a nightmare when you've finished work and you want to get home.

Here is one painting here with mbira inside and I'm wondering if that has any particular meaning or symbolic, symbol for you. And then the other one with a woman who is playing the mbira, and the one feature about her is that she is white.
Yes, on these particular paintings I was working on a musical theme. The first one is a study of the mbira this has got – I did it all in newspaper and then I also used found objects, on the outside are bottle tops, they are stuck onto the painting to make the whole composition.

Then the second one was an observation of one of my lecturers, she is Irish. She used to play a guitar and then one of my colleagues in class played a mbira so they exchanged ideas and she ended up playing mbira very well. So I called that painting "Cultural Exchange". And then a third paintings on part of that collection, is called "Rhythm Spirit", it trying to show the expression on this particular lady's face, how she got lost in the emotion of the dance.

Was this music theme something that you felt like doing or was it for any particular context?
It was something that I just felt like doing because when I paint I listen to music. I listen to instrumentals and jazz. So these instrumentals, when I listen to them they guide my brush strokes. When the music goes slow my strokes go slow as well and when they go fast I also paint vigorously on the canvass or on any surface. So I was commenting on the instruments they use, for these instrumentals, so it's part of the inspiration of the music that I listen to when I'm painting.

So the reason why you are in Bulawayo has to do with your other work as a teacher, is it?
The reason why Bulawayo is – I feel that to achieve what I want, like I was talking about holding workshops, when I go full time painting I have to be equipped for that. I have to get all the necessary skills so that I can teach what I start doing my own workshops with other artists and thereby inspiring them. I feel I have to get to a certain level with my art education. So I have to go in stages.

[Interview in National Gallery, Bulawayo on 30 November 2002]

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