Victor Mavedzenge

Victor Mavedzenge. Photo by Mai Palmberg

"Labels, no!"

Victor Mavedzenge is a painter and poet who works in Harare. He was born in Masvingo as an only child, and believes that painting was one way of filling the void. He works with many techniques, making collage of paintings on canvas, paper, oil, acrylic and ink. It is his view that an artist must create from his inner world, just as much as reflecting the world outside, and he is inspired by Salvador Dali's paintings. He also is a poet, and has organised several multimedia shows of art, music and poetry at the Book Café in Harare.

Tell me about your background as a painter.
I was born in Masvingo, but my mother trained in Bulawayo . One day when she was going off to work, she was in a great hurry and to keep me out of her way she said: “Draw something!” and I drew a pencil sketch of my dad. That was my first sketch and that is how I got into art. During hours of loneliness, I would pick up a pencil and paper and it soon developed into a habit. The habit became a kind of fountain I could plunge into when I was alone. My drawings were mostly from fantasy and from the worlds I wanted to be in but couldn't, or, a world I'd seen before and wanted to recreate in order to get a grasp of it, hold onto it.

Very often children are drawing wonderfully at home. When they start school, they are asked to draw according to instructions and may therefore feel constrained. What is your experience?
I guess it was always in my nature to follow my own path, but even though I had to do some things in school, I still did not lose the burning passion for my own stuff. When I got to high school I really wanted to become a teacher. There was no question what I would teach, because I had an absolute passion for art. At present, I am actually teaching art, but the option would be to be a full-time artist, although art material is expensive and art doesn't sell so well. I'm 28 now, so if I do not do it now, I most probably won't ever do it. I am thinking of cutting down on my teaching and concentrating more on painting, drawing, and exhibiting my work.

With you work, how will you find time?
I have to find time. Usually I leave school at 5 o'clock, get home by 6 o'clock and work in my flat—which also serves as my art studio—from 6 till maybe 3 a.m. That's the only way to do it, otherwise my art dies.

Do you reflect on the different worlds in relation to your art?
I grew up on the borderline between rural and urban areas. During the holidays I would spend time with the folk in the rural area and when the school term started I would come back to town, so from my perspective—which I would say would be very accurate—the local people prefer realistic work, work which is narrative, depicting exactly what's going on and none of this abstract stuff. To them abstract art is not art. It is nothing beautiful, nothing that they can connect with. They consider it too Western.

What do you say if you come into an argument about that?
I've learned not to argue but to try to break down the barrier between the two cultures. I explain the emotion involved in abstract art. Some people get the idea how to read lines and connect with the picture.

Where do you get your inspiration?
I think my inspiration comes from all directions. I watch a lot. You can tell so much from a person's face, you can tell where they come from, where they're going, what they've been through. People inspire me a lot, both visually and through verbal contact. I do also appreciate other artists. They give you that drive you need to sit down and do a painting, do a drawing and come up with a piece of fabric that you might want to experiment with. I also read a lot. I love Shakespeare and Dambudzo Marechera,* the late local poet. When I read their work, I connect with their images in my own way and that inspires me to come up with something new, a painting or a drawing, or a new poem.

You are a poet as well.
I did not get serious about poetry until 2001 when I entered a poetry competition on the Internet, at poetry.com, International Library of Poetry. One of my poems was selected for the semi-finals, but after that I didn't hear from them. I've got the two letters sent to me saying: "Your poetry is very good, blah, blah, blah, we're going to put it in our edition." That's when I started going into my poetry seriously. I'm working on a collection. I wouldn't say I'm ready to publish. I'm actually studying more poetry so I can see if I need to rewrite pieces.

What about the distribution of poetry?
They used to have a poetry corner on Radio before the restructuring of the radio early this year. They moved studios, some to Bulawayo , some have remained here. Radio One, which used to be the family station, is now Sport FM, so I do not know what has happened to the poetry readings.

How would you define yourself as an artist? How do you react to labels such as: African artist, Zimbabwean artist, Harare artist or Shona artist?
I do not think I fall under any of those labels. The more I get into the art world, the more I realise that it is so universal. I don't believe that because you are from Africa , therefore your work should be African, you know what I mean?

The label is not necessary. The moment I put a stroke down on paper, it is already classified as African because I am African. The title does not fit in my perspective because you get inspiration and influence from all over. You saw my abstract work, would you then say that it is not African, because African art is not abstract? There I am in a dilemma: one, I'm an African, and two, I paint in a Western style, portraying an African feeling. As an artist, I would like to be viewed as somebody who feels and is caught in a web that's so rich in imagery, in feeling and spontaneity, that if I choose to label myself, I will be limiting myself. I do semi-surrealistic work, I do abstract work, I do abstract expressionist work—which is more like the American style, and I also do what you term very African work—which turns out to be a bit decorative, a bit narrative in it is manner, but labels, no.

[Interview in the Book cafe in Harare on October 21 and in Mavedzenge's studio and home in Harare on October 25, 2002]

*Dambuzo Marechera was a gifted, irreverent and rebellious writer, who died of AIDS in 1987, and has become an icon for new generations.

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