Charles Kamangwana

Charles Kamangwana. Photo by Mai Palmberg

"I used to have a lot of bright colours"

Charles Kamangwana was born in 1972 in Mutoko, Mashonaland-East. He is a painter and a lecturer at National Gallery Visual Art Studios in Harare and specialises in painting, printmaking and metal sculpting. Kamangwana is also the Chairperson of African Colours Artists Association in Harare and a resource person of the visual artists against aids – Communication for social change programme sponsored by Africare Zimbabwe . He lives in Zimre park, Ruwa.

What made you choose to be an artist, what was there in your background, childhood, and youth?
I could not say. I did not even know exactly what I was up to because art was never being taken as a career in our society in the early days. But I was naturally talented. We used to do drawings at school from a really young age – primary school level. I did my primary and secondary education in Chitungwiza. When we were doing art we used to get some blank papers and our teachers used to take it as a playing time. It was an after-school subject, not really art as subject, not like mathematics, English or Shona.

What kind of things did you draw or paint?
I just used to draw chickens, things, which we saw at home all the time. I was trying to imitate people, maybe playing soccer or playing bowls in the streets. When I look at that art now it was even then a kind of commentary, but a different way of looking at things.

Did you do any other profession before becoming an artist?
Not really. Actually, after completing my high school, I concentrated on drawing all the time. I had heard about BAT school of Art , which was hosted by the National Gallery of Zimbabwe. I joined this school in 1992 and I am teaching here now. In fact, I would have taken this full-time position before but I thought it might interfere with my painting, printmaking and sculpting.

How do you manage?
Now they have changed the syllabus for the school examinations, and require more theory, but generally we are more into practical training. I call myself a teacher who sets a good example. When I teach drawing, I do not draw just to demonstrate but also with exhibitions in mind. So teaching is production time as well. And if I need to do some other experiments on my own then I still have my weekends. During the weekends I use the National Gallery studio, or I can paint at home, so it is fine.

I think many people in Europe are surprised if you say that there is a high quality painting in Zimbabwe . They think that painting is European. How do you react to that?
Well, I do not really think they are right when they say paintings are European. I mean, I think the world is just one thing, everybody is doing everything else, we cannot really seclude that paintings is European or sculpture is African. The reason why painting has been less dominant is only because we have more of the stones. We have mountains of those stones, so automatically you find that we have so much more stone sculptures than other media.

If you look at the Western countries, for example, they have got very dense forests; they tend to have more wood sculptures than stone sculptures. So this is how it went on. Painting was here already, I mean, if you look at the ages of the bushmen paintings, that is painting.

You do not meet that kind of attitude in Zimbabwe itself? Are there any Zimbabweans who are saying, "This is not original African art"?
No. The Zimbabweans whom I meet are really quite appreciative of the painting. Although it is quite a process to educate people to understand that it is a career and profession. They think it is just something for entertainment, just to look at and not something serious.

Unlike in Europe where even at a tender age, children are taught art as a subject, and you have, Art Appreciation where you just have to learn how to appreciate art and how to look at and analyse an artwork. This is what we need also to achieve.

I think sometimes I find that people are having an idealist notion about Europe, as if Europe stood for all dreams not fulfilled. One thing that is perhaps overlooked here is that to be an artist is not considered in Europe to be really a responsible member of society. The artists are sort of defined automatically as being on the margins of society, if they do not happen to be very, very successful.
Actually I think it is true. It is everywhere, and I have discovered that as well, that in Europe they tend to concentrate more on the famous ones and not the other ones who are not taken so seriously until they really make it. But this is also maybe the other thing, which I like about painting — it is challenging. So I need to be on the top.

How has your family related to your artist career?
When I came to the BAT workshop, which is now the National Gallery Visual Studios, there were all sorts of conflicts at home. My parents did not like it because they thought: "What can you do after learning to draw and paint? What is this?" The former people who have been doing this, before my time, they did not give a strong example that you can earn a living out of this. Hence it created all sorts of commotions and I could not continue for some time and had to stop.

How many brothers and sisters are you?
I have got a brother and two sisters, and I am the oldest.

So that is why they were even more hesitant about you.
Exactly, they were so much hesitant about me because being the firstborn I have to be a role model to my young people and you know the extended family issue in our society, the oldest one has to look after the young ones in case the parents are old or they cannot work or something has happened, they have died or something.

I had to get that courage to show them that I can do it. Now I have been appointed a lecturer at this school, and I have done quite a number of exhibitions and they have gone quite well. I am also glad to say that there are some young people who are also following up, taking me as an example. I am their role model; I like it that way.

How do your parents relate to your work now?
Now they are quite glad because I have built the name and my name, if they hear it on radio or read it in the newspapers, it is also their name there, so they are getting pride out of it. So they are quite excited about it, they are so supportive now. They can come to my exhibitions, then comment on my work, they like it. This is nice.

Are you now able to support others in your family?
Yes, I support my brother and my sister. The other sister is married, so now I am supporting one brother and a sister.

Let me ask how you as an artist are affected by the present situation in Zimbabwe. What does the crisis mean from your perspective?
Yes, it is really a big crisis, which we are facing now. Since I was born I have never seen such a critical situation like this, and people really have to struggle. I can imagine if this kind of crisis had come at my time when I was starting school I do not know if I would be what I am now.

But in my point of view people are still quite keen to help each other. But this crisis has come up with all sorts of repercussions. The extended family now is not taken seriously because everybody is just looking to fill his own tummy. That is the most desperate thing. If you look at the number of street children now on the road, number of orphans because of HIV and AIDS, it is really quite bad. But all the same we are hoping for the better future, maybe there will be some kind of change.

Of course I am also affected as an artist — because my work is mainly recording the times of today. So if you look at my exhibition now there are some political statements in the newspapers, which I have included in my collages, and the crisis of transport, for example, people queuing and those kinds of things.

If you compare with the work, which I have done before the colours automatically have changed also. I used to have a lot of bright colours and now I was surprised when I put up my exhibition that there are so many dark colours. I just said to myself "It is the times I think, I do not think I did it purposely". Because I was working in the studio on the paintings one by one, and after I finish one painting I take it away, I do not want to see it, I want to have fresh ideas for the next one. And then at the end of the painting sessions I take everything out, then I see they are oh, a bit dull. There are some with a bit of light, but generally they are quite dense.

Are there many artists who, like you, sort of reflect the society, or say, are there many artists whose works you can look at and see "Ah, this must have been painted during the time of deep crisis"?
Yes, there are some artists who are working like that here. Even Valentine Magutsa's work, but of course mainly his paintings are landscapes but even in those landscapes the use of colour really says more. And Lovemore Kambudzi, he is quite a good young painter. Actually you can really feel where he stays and the crowd he is hanging around with all the time.

But would you say that there also are artists who sort of hide away from society at this time and plunge into something else?
Yes, there are some artists who are doing that, but I think from an artist point of view you are not supposed to do that. I think it is better to stand by your society during hard times or good times, that is the way to get recognised. Because we're working for the people, it is social commentary we are doing so we need to be with the society all the time.

What do you say about those who are leaving the country?
Well, I think I would call it a weakness. My father used to tell me that if you are in your house and something is not going well there, maybe you have a conflict with your brother or whoever, maybe you have a conflict with your wife, running away from the problem is not solving it.

I also got some chances to study abroad, to further my education in art, which would have been quite good, but then it was on the wrong time when my family had some family problems, my younger sister was not well, my father was not at work and for me I found it not a good thing to do that I go away and not know what is happening at home. Some would say "That was very stupid because you should have gone higher". But then what do I get if I have got millions of dollars in my account and my father dies because I did not give him care? So I would rather have coins in my pocket and look after my father.

OK, now we stand in front of one of your paintings, a big painting, and you can see two men, one of them is reading a paper, I think it is glued in there, the Daily News of the 22nd of March 2003. Tell me about this painting.
This painting I call it "Street Corner" because this is like our everyday scenes on the street, where you see the vendors selling, every corner now, almost every corner in Harare has got newspaper vendors and vegetable vendors. Because of education a lot of people can read papers, but not many vegetable vendors would read newspapers. Now the papers have really played a big role in telling people and giving information. You find out that a lot of people in the street now they want to be informed, because there is a crisis in the country, they want to know what is going on and what is on for tomorrow, because if you do not read those newspapers you will find yourself in the bus with not enough money to pay because the price went up yesterday. So actually many people want to read all the time and even an ordinary man you will see him reading the paper. Previously it was only the office people or the high-class reading newspapers.

[Interview in the National Galleries in Harare on on 6 August 2003]

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