27 . 05 . 17 – 01 . 07 . 17
Wallen Mapondera’s Tsananguro/Clarifications is a coalescence of art and matter. Unlike the demands of Hamlet’s Gertrude who asks Polonius that she wishes ‘more matter’ and ‘less art’ Mapondera’s practice is the happy merger of both. It offers an almost forlorn ebullience of narrative, allegory, protest, political engagement, media and form. His two, seemingly distinct, practices of painting and sculptural collage provide insights into both form and socio-political expression.
What perhaps makes Mapondera one of the most interesting artists to come out of the burgeoning group of Zimbabwean art practitioners (that include the likes of Dan Halter, Gerald Machona, Kudzanai Chiurai, Portia Zvavahera, Richard Mudariki and Misheck Masamvu) is his varied influences and practices. The most obvious influence, to those who are familiar with the painting coming out of Zimbabwe, would be Misheck Masamvu and his Village Unhu art studio based in Harare where Mapondera currently resides. Certainly, some of his figuration and application of paint in works such as Orders, with its languid ‘naïve’ line and its evisceration of areas of the canvass, are influenced by this school of painting. However, Mapondera’s work is distinctive from this group not only because of the themes he explores and his palate, but also because his practice involves a much larger range of media and influences.
As Mapondera has said, his sculptural collages were partly prompted by the work of the Australian born Nigerian artist Nnena Okore. But their obsessive craft also reminds one of more organic and visceral versions of his fellow Zimbabwean Dan Halter, whose own practice derives its form from Zimbabwean traditional craft. The use of form and colour, however, in works such as Beautiful Scarification, Or Is It? and Kumba Kwababa Vangu (My Father’s House) evoke the colours and grid like patterns of abstract painters such as Paul Klee and Ernest Mancoba. The key, however, to understanding the link between Mapondera’s two seemingly disparate practices is that the torn and slashed edges of the cardboard prefigure the disturbing eviscerated themes of his figurative paintings. What is more as one can see in paintings such as Circus Boys, Love or Something Like That, Change Room I & II and Just a Dream that the grid patterns and boxes of his cardboard works are the lattice on which the animal and human figures are suspended.
Of course the grid has been the foundation of all painting since the introduction of the theory of perspective during the Renaissance. But as the painter Peter Doig once pointed out, paintings have never been fixed or still within this structure. Much like Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 and the work of the Cubists both Mapondera’s practices convey movement. And certainly one cannot consider his current body of work without considering the role Picasso, Cubism and Dada have played in it and the overarching conceit that paintings represent not only space but (current) time.
Within this idea of the conveyance of current time is of course Mapondera’s exploration of Africa’s relationship with its animals both real and spiritual. Much like J.M. Coetzee in Disgrace he has foregrounded the cruelty that they are afforded. But also like Coetzee there is a degree of non-realist allegorizing at play. As Mapondera says of his work: ‘[it] portrays anthropomorphic imagery as a metaphor for power relations in Zimbabwean society in the context of an increasingly unstable socio-political environment.’ The expression of these troubles can be seen in the allegories and mythologizing contained in works such as Bed of Prophesy and Tsvera I.
Mapondera’s work is the similar merger of art and protest that one encounters in artists like Feni, Siopis, Kentridge and Alexander. His exploration of narrative and allegorical engagement belies the current trends of the one-dimensional expression of identity politics that so pervades South African contemporary art. It is this ‘aboutness’ in his works, this engagement with the socio-political life that seems to stem from lived experience, that in Tsananguro/Clarifications captures the gestalt of the current socio-political atmosphere of southern Africa. That atmosphere where animal, human and political forms are torn, twisted and at times hacked out of shape. Tsananguro/Clarifications is the depiction in current time of the daily tragedies that are the quotidian experience of the clear majority of the peoples of our region.
Text by Matthew Blackman