Richard Jack

Richard Jack. Photo by Mai Palmberg

"I would go back"

Richard Jack was born in 1949 in Harare, Zimbabwe. He is a sculptor and has worked both with stone and painting. He works now with multi-media sculpture. He moved to England in 2002 and continues sculpting and exhibiting.

How did you become an artist? And why?
I studied graphic design and photography at the art school in Durban in South Africa, but after that I left college to work with advertising for three or four years and then after mixing with friends who were artists, writers and musicians, I started to paint and sculpt. I was about 25 at that stage and that is when I decided to start painting and sculpting. It was a gradual process of coming to terms with the realisation of commercialism as against something that was more committed and where one could expect more sincerity. I became much more serious in my approach to my work about 1975.

I left Zimbabwe when I was about fourteen, finished school in South Africa and went to college in Durban and then I came overseas for a while. This was the 1970s, the period of time when Zimbabwe, or Rhodesia was involved in the liberation struggle. I kept out of the country because otherwise I would have been conscripted to the army. So I lived in South Africa until independence. In 1981 I returned to Zimbabwe and continued to work as a sculptor and painter.

Did you personally go through a stage of art for national mobilisation? Did you think that you should put your art into the service of the newly-born State?
No, as an artist I was more personally involved, expressing how I felt within that society. I was looking at things through my own personal view, but it had a relationship to how other people were seeing and feeling, for example my paintings were strongly influenced by the African geometric patterns used by Ndebele painters when they paint their houses. But my sculpture was not influenced by the Zimbabwean sculpture movement. My work has always been more experimental and I work with mixed media—wood, stone and steel—and I even combine painting and sculpture. I was setting a trend; basically I was trying to influence a new movement.

Did you think you did?
I think I did. I had a very strong influence on the new work that is being produced in Zimbabwe now.

How are you perceived by those who are in and committed to the sculpture movement?
I'm not quite sure how I was perceived by others, because if, for instance, you are talking about the commercial galleries, I have been completely outcast from them. They never dealt with me. Firstly, because I am white and also because the kind of work I was doing does not fit in with their marketing strategy. Their whole marketing strategy of the Zimbabwean stone movement has been to sell it on the idea of myth and African legend and that is why you have this sort of continual repetition of the same sort of forms, the same sort of ideas, and the same titles to the work. I didn't fit in within that movement at all. And so I have always exhibited either at the National Gallery or with Gallery Delta, where one can at least submit work that is different and more international. I was not working on one particular theme. My themes would change as life around me changed.

I think that if there were more publicity and opportunities for contemporary artists to exhibit, it would help a lot. Until the more contemporary movement is respected, this will always be a problem. But things are gradually changing. There is more and more acceptance and I think that a lot of people who have kept on coming back to the country several times, they are overwhelmed by the stone sculpture the first time, but when they come back for the second or third time, they realise that it is not really changing the development or movement. It is because of people who have come back and seen the development and change in my work and in that of other contemporary artists and sculptors that things are gradually changing. It is only just over twenty years since independence so it is a sort of new movement.

Would you be able to say what you want to express by your art?
My art is an expression of my particular reaction to how I see things around me, but I do try to look at it as an expression within the general population and in that respect it is universal. It is not Zimbabwean or Southern African in particular. In a lot of respects, I think it is a universal feeling that people have. It is not only happening in Zimbabwe. We have got problems here with Iraq and America.

Why have you left Zimbabwe now?
Basically because Mugabe has become so oppressive with his regime that he refuses to allow any form of opposition and any form of self-expression and he is making life so difficult for anybody who does not go along with ZANU-PF. Under those circumstances, it is extremely difficult to survive, not only socially, but also economically. It is a very repressive regime. He was threatened and he realised that his power-base was being undermined after the referendum, when the population refused to accept his new Constitution. He has just used a campaign of violence to stay in power.

But if he were suddenly toppled, would you go back?
Yes, sure.

Do you think that you have been treated in any special way—negative or positive—because you are white, as an artist?
When I first went back to the country as a white sculptor, it was very difficult to break through, because of people's preconceived ideas that this was what they were looking for in traditional African culture. Because I was a more modern contemporary sculptor, I was overlooked for some time, but now I have sort of overcome that. There have been odd occasions. There was one occasion where somebody wanted to buy a piece of work and when they found out that I was a white artist, they cancelled the sale. When one realises that this is the sort of situation you are involved in Africa—a lot of expatriate people come with the aim to help develop the African people—it's only natural that people do act like that.

But isn't there a point in de-racialising the concept of African art? I am saying that African art is what it is, the art produced in Africa.
This is the thing. I don't look at my work as being racial in any way, and that's how I would like my work to be appreciated by people, looked at and seen as an expression of Africa. Because I think this is the main sort of influence in my work. I have always lived in Africa and one can see that it is very much influenced by the environment and society that I grew up in.

How would you say that the present crises in Zimbabwe—political, social, and economic—affect the artists?
Well it is affecting them in the expression, that is, in their work. I mean, you can definitely see in quite a lot of the art that they are being very much influenced by the social, political and medical, for example the AIDS problem. It is also having a disastrous effect on the artists. They cannot make a living now, because so many of the artists rely on the tourist industry to sell work to people. And with so few visitors coming to the country, a lot of the artists are really struggling. So, it is having major effects on them. But there hasn't been that much control by the Government as far as the art exhibitions are concerned. They haven't yet got to the point of actually censoring artists and banning their work. But how long that will be, I'm not sure. Although I must add that it is only the contemporary movement that has any political content.

Do you know many other artists like yourself who have left the country?
Yes, there are quite a lot of artists that have left.

For where?
Europe and Australia, I suppose most of them have come to Europe or Australia and it is really to try and make a living.

Do you think that most of them think like you—you have to go away now and maybe come back later?
Yeah, yeah, I think so.

[Interview held on 7 March 2003 in London]
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