Misheck Masamvu

"You are outside the system"

Misheck Masamvu. Photo by Mai Palmberg

Misheck Masamvu was born in 1980 in Penhalonga, Mutare and grew up in Maroindera. He is a painter associated with Gallery Delta in Harare. His has had works exhibited in Germany and United Kingdom.

How did you get into painting?
I did grow up with talent, that is what it used to be called, in the lower grades it was recognised that I was good at drawing representations – things the way they are or let's be honest, the totally expected.

I went to school in Maronde. In the last two years, where there was no art by the way, I stayed with my father, who worked in town, while my mother was in the rural areas. She did come and visit at times, but we fell out. She thought I was disobedient. We sort of lost touch.

But my father organised some opportunities for me to use my talent, I designed printed T-shirts in an indigenous business for four months in 1988. This is the only time I have worked in my life. I gained confidence from the positive reactions in the public, but I could not help thinking, what else can I do? I spent the rest of they year at home, and the rift between my parents and me got wider. Most age-mates continued school.

My parents wanted me to work to earn money, but I did not want to work. I am the only boy; there are four sisters. It was easy to say that this one is idle; he inherits everything anyway. But I wanted to realize my potential, and I was not for the material.

I have read some philosophy: Plato, Aristotle. I read how they define justice and so on. I am not into religion as such, but I believe in the spiritual nature of the world. One must love the other as oneself.

I have to begin with myself – I see a beggar, but I see myself in there. They are rejected by society, but I have also been like that. We are women and men. Very few are human beings.

Is there a direct link between your philosophical thinking and your painting?
Yes, when I began I was commenting on society, what was happening and stuff like that. In this period I could have been either man or woman.

Then I came to a period when it was only I, myself. This was like being selfish but it was also spiritual. Then I went out of that stage.

Now it is the next person and myself. Me and the next person; that is the point of humanity. It is like joined oneness, unity. If they accept it or reject it, that is another matter. Yes, this is where my philosophy comes in.

What made you move from your previous stage to this present one, of the next person and me?
It sort of happened. In my personal life something is missing, I had been rejected. Not only by society, but also by the people I lived with. My parents did not want to accept my way of thinking. They rejected me. I was thinking, now if this is what happens in society, where do I stand? I can see that OK there is love, but if it has managed to divide my family, and me what is left in me? I became – not quite selfish, but very personal.

But then I was going on to the next stage saying me and the next person, the point of humanity, where I am saying, yes, I grew up a life with humiliation, but I said, Lord if this is what is meant let me understand. I think that this made me stronger, more natural, and not artificial in my relationship with society and people. I have been helped to survive – I was sort of a destitute – and now I think: what can I give back?

Why were you rejected?
After the year at home, 1998, I applied to Gallery Delta, which I had heard about and they said I could send my art works to them to see. In January 1999 to my surprise, the National Gallery exhibited the pieces I had taken to them. They were in the style of realism and quite stylised. I did not know then how to manipulate brushstrokes.

I applied to Gallery Delta to take part in the Annual Young Artist's Exhibition in 1999. I came to Gallery Delta from Marondera every weekend for four weeks before Helen Lieros said that I could draw at the back of the Gallery. She said also that I could attend her class but I would not pay.

I managed to come to the gallery every Saturday for the class for a year, the rest of the week I would do something at home. It went on like that. Helen Lieros then told me that I could enter an artwork for the 2000 Annual Young Artist's Exhibition. As it happened I had several works at home in Marondera. But before I could take them to Harare my mother destroyed them. She tore them all up except one.

Why did she do it?
Well, our culture respects in laws. We were hosting a function and we had limited space. I had to choose to attend or throw my paintings out. I decided not to attend the function, and my paintings would sit for me. My mother reacted by tearing them up.

It is the difference between native and primitive. I belonged to my family regardless of the situation, the circumstances, and the norms of culture. But these norms were so primitive, and could not be proscribed to the present space. I find it so primitive that one fears to learn and cannot adapt to changes. There is the primitive feeling towards art; you do not want to understand why it is being done. My mother did not want to accept her transformation in relation to me. She did not have me in her.

After this incident I had to stay by myself. But now they accept me, they do not ask me for money anymore. They say that I have chosen my life.

My father has been here (at the Gallery) once; my mother does not even know the place. For the past four years I have been here, but she does not know it.

But today I can feel her presence in my art.

I cannot blame her; she is conditioned by society to be what she is. But it inhibited me.

You are now preparing to ship down thirty-three paintings to have your first solo exhibition, in the National Gallery of Bulawayo. What does this mean to you?
I have exhibited even outside Zimbabwe , in the year 2000 in a group exhibition of the Gallery Delta in Munich . But this Bulawayo exhibition is big for me. I may not be famous, but if my art can be useful... You know, what separates us – Shona and Ndebele – is just the language. We are just the same person. I see it from the point of humanity. I look forward to seeing how people react to the challenge of my paintings.

How do you relate to the fact that many or most of the spectators are black Zimbabweans, while perhaps most of the buyers are from outside Zimbabwe?
It does not matter. But the first black and white painting I did, was bought by a black woman. But often they might not have the material means to buy. But I do not want demarcations. It is not a problem if all paintings are sold to abroad. The main thing is the experience. Either you take it in or not. It is a fact beyond boundaries.

Art for me is not a talent to be pursued as a hobby; it is a discipline. Zimbabwe does not still respect its artists. From that rejection you are sidelined by the system. You who are outside the system – you can understand it, but they cannot.

[Interview in Gallery Delta, Harare on 31 October 2002]