08. 02. 2020 – 30. 04. 2020
Negotiating Memory and Place in Mostaff Muchawaya’s work
By Fadzai Muchemwa
Place, memory and healing are key participants of Mostaff Muchawaya’s work. Where I come from/Kwandinobva can be seen in terms of pieces and places that have shaped Mostaff Muchawaya’s life and career which has been one of struggle, patience and trying again.
In his work, Muchawaya constantly references the people who shaped his life. Quite apparent in this current body of work are the influences that other people have had on his practice. The female form holds a particular fascination for him. The faceless women that he so often depicts point to his upbringing on a farm owned by Nicole Sanderson’s father (who facilitated his going to art school) with the numerous women who fended for the children. It was not an easy upbringing. Tobacco farming is hard, back-breaking work for which farmhands are the faceless and unacknowledged facilitators of wealth creation. Tandazani Dhlakama writes, “We see in his work the processes of erasure and struggle merge to create unrecognizable forms.”(2018).
His way of working is typical of painting from the National Gallery School of Visual Arts, in Zimbabwe and has been described “(as an) example of Mukarobgwa’s expressive line and dreamlike depictions of the world finds resonances in the work of many later artists”. The colours, inner energy and deliberate brush strokes make it easy for him to bring his people and their experiences to the fore.
Muchawaya starts off each painting the same way: a generous layering of paint, shaving and scraping off some of the dried paint, followed by the chemical erosion of the canvas with thinners and other household cleaning substances, and then painting again. He might go through the cycle of layering/painting and obliteration several times until he is satisfied. Like it’s an exorcism. Eventually the portrait that he then presents is one that eerily reminds one of a sculptural forms and a haunting—a haunting by places, by people and by what used to be or could be.
The portraits show a people frozen, stuck even, in a time that Muchawaya may feel nostalgic of or traumatised by. These portraits can be seen as thresholds of anxiety which he has described as “a search for peace and mercy” for the troubled souls of his past and his present. All the women are beautiful—some are recognizable, others not. A form that looks like a baby appears and can be seen to represent Muchawaya locating himself in the struggle that characterize(s)(d) the women of his life. These flawed memories and the ritualized way of working can be seen as a form of somatic therapy.
The unravelling of connections to valued memory, person or community is clear in his work. He was introduced to Nicole Sanderson when he was 12 years old and his artistic interests were further encouraged. The brief drawing lessons he got at Gallery Delta from Helen Lieros are manifest in his expressive line. The time he spent with Amos Supuni after he had finished school is apparent in the sculptural way of working as is the abstraction influence that reminds one of Robert Paul who figured prominently in his landscape work for a while. After Supuni’s death in 2008, Muchawaya had to start over again. He struggled to find his voice and was rudderless when the Sanderson’s were kicked off their farm in 2007 which meant finding art materials became a fight. Muchawaya became a security guard for a while, working at night and painting during the day. The deliberate and contemplative way of working reflects the time he spent at Village Unhu, in Harare, Zimbabwe. In 2012, he started working with Misheck Masamvu and Gareth Nyandoro in Athlone. Misheck was instrumental in him getting on to the journey of discovery that saw him finding his voice.
The constant negotiation with places throughout our lives shape the threshold moments that manifest as memory. Muchawaya excavates memory through the very process of how he works. What Antonio Damasio calls “somatic markers”(1994) may very well be an interpretation of what Mostaff Muchawaya’s work provides. This allows for alternative models of socially engaged practice to explore the tools which can control definitions of self and identity. Subjective experiences, absence and invisibility—as forms of somatic violence—are mediated, enabling one to understand and express the pain of Muchawaya’s trauma and vulnerability. It is an intervention that invites everyone to imagine and realise social life otherwise. Muchawaya’s body of work Where I come from reveals how lived, traumatic experiences and their cultural representations are linked—daring to try out many ideas on art, power, society and transformation as tactical strategies to find treatment for the struggles Muchawaya has had to deal with. Whether Muchawaya’s ritualised way of exorcising the past will allow him to either let go of the past or to fix his past into the present is yet to be seen.