Barbara Murray

Barbara Murray. Photo by Mai Palmberg

"Being cut off is not really a bad thing"

Barbara Murray was born in 1949 in Harare. She has worked as a cultural journalist and as the editor of Gallery, the art magazine from Gallery Delta, and was founding secretary of the Zimbabwe Association of Art Critics. She moved to London in October 2000 and continues to work on projects relating to art in Africa.

My first question is: In what different ways does the present crisis in Zimbabwe, political, economic, social, affect the artists?
That is a huge, huge question. It affects them in every way. From the physical realities of the space, where they work, for example, it won't be as easy to come and go, buying the materials that they used will be much more expensive. From the point of view of sales, the people who would buy aren't going to the country.

But also I think psychologically it has a huge effect on them because painting is a very personal and very expressive thing and therefore, depending on their own role within the crisis, some artists will get extra impetus from the crisis situation, and will start producing perhaps slightly different work. Other artists, particularly in the situation where there is intimidation and fear, where they might want to express something but won't feel that they can do so. Yes, it will impact on them in all sorts of ways.

I would think there is also, to a large extent, even in the best of times art in Zimbabwe is seen as a luxury, as something that is not a normal kind of career to have and therefore in a crisis situation where the family may really be struggling a lot of artists will – there will be pressure on them to go out and get other jobs rather than paint. I think it is the same sort of thing that happened during the liberation war that happened in Matabeleland . It happened at various stages in Zimbabwe , as things have been very difficult. And a lot of the young artists will be leaving, because all opportunities to study or things like that, have been restricted.

How do you see it in the kind of longer term, do you see it as a moment of agony and a moment of difficulties which will pass? Or do you think that it delays the development or even maybe stops the development of art anyway?
No, I think it is a moment and I think as with all countries, all human societies, all of them have gone through crises, and in every crisis there are some artists that draw strength from that and who produce, and the whole character of the work can change, but it is certainly not going to stop.

And I think being cut off from the huge commercial world of art is not really a bad thing because the artists will produce their own styles, their own thoughts and so on. I mean it has its positive and its negative side, but I think it is just a moment and I think that human beings are creative, they are expressive, and they will be wherever they are and in whatever situations there are. I think Helen Lieros always said that in fact artists need to have huge obstacles to fight against and once you have to fight you are sure you want to be an artist and you will go and express yourself in a particular way no matter what. So in fact it can be a really strengthening experience to go through.

I think all artists are affected by their context. And it is appalling what is going on but certainly in the literary field, in journalism, I think the crisis has pushed people in a way to actually confront themselves and what they want to say and what they believe in, and it is made some of the artists more clear about the role of art. I think it is very difficult to carry on painting pleasant scenes to hang on a wall in this situation, so perhaps it is radicalised the art.

I think the reality in Zimbabwe is there is huge poverty, there is AIDS, all of that. It has been made much worse by the crisis, but it was there before. I think there is a certain kind of art that is going to come out of Africa for a long time because Africa, the Third World has so many problems.

And not only Africa. Here in London there is a magazine called The Big Issue , which the homeless people sell on the streets, and they have a whole section in the back, which is homeless people writing poetry, short stories, and paintings. And I look at those paintings and actually there is a likeness, there is a similarity I think with people who are poor all over the world. Artists are painting their reality. I think Zimbabwe, yes, it is having a terrible time, but this art will be part of its history, as the art from the colonial times is part of its history as well. I mean eventually people will be able to look at it with a more objective point of view.

In the Delta Gallery I was told that this kind of crisis-conscious art that you have here did not sell well. Maybe, I wonder, that was because most of the buyers are foreigners, either people coming from abroad or diplomats and the rest who are living in Zimbabwe, and to them this was not the kind of Africa that they wanted to have on their wall.
No, they're looking for pretty, beautiful pictures of wildlife and space and happy, smiling black faces.

… or something decorative.
Yes, decorative pattern making, traditional African. I think an awful lot of people are not ready to accept that painting or art in Africa is the same as art anywhere else in the world and it is an expression of contemporary society, it is not a traditional - but of course the traditional exists as it does here, you still get pretty water colours of daffodils and things like that.

We will see what the future holds, but I think certainly it is true that a lot of people look for either traditional or exotic sort of cheerful paintings. But then I think people everywhere do that, people in London, if you go to the gallery next door here there are beach scenes with children playing on the sand and there is trees and I think in every country there is that whole range. I would say that some of the stone sculpture is like Zimbabwe versions of little plastic Big Bens is or Dutch windmills, some of it is that touristy. Then at the other extreme you've got Tapfuma Gutsa who produces totally original sort of statements.

But what about Africa for the artists in Zimbabwe? Many come to study on a grant to Europe, maybe to the United States, how much interchange is there between artists in Zimbabwe and other African countries?
With other African countries, very little. We have had various attempts at trying to set up regional exchanges and so on. So, for example, Stephen Williams in the Bulawayo Gallery, one of his things was to have Botswana and South Africa and cross over the borders, but it didn't really come off.

What happened with that, was it something that died with him?
Well, no, but I think it was more a case of that as the political situations got difficult crossing the borders has got more difficult and taking art backwards and forwards and artists going backwards and forwards need a visa, say to go to Mozambique or South Africa, and it became more difficult.

A last question: Can you say something about how people in Britain have viewed art from Africa or art from Zimbabwe?
Well, these are terrible generalisations but on the whole people in Britain, unless they're from Africa, have no idea about art from Africa. Their view of art from Africa would be carved bowls, painted, perhaps some bright cloth, some jewellery, they know about the jewellery, not much more then that. In London the British Museum has a fantastic collection of African art, but it is only recently been put back on show. It is mostly traditional art and then they've brought in modern examples and added it onto the collection.

But most African art that you see in Britain is the traditional art. There is a little bit of contemporary African art at the October Gallery shows. And that is about it. There are African artists living and working here and on the whole they don't want to be known as African artists as such, they don't want to be labelled, put into boxes, which is totally understandable.

Have you heard people coming to this exhibition express some kind of surprise that this art comes from Africa?
Yes, a man came in off the street, drawn by Lovemore Kambudzi's paintings, fell in love with that canvas and felt he had to have it. And he is never been to Africa and he just loves the painting, which is fantastic. That is great.

I think that would happen more often if there were more shows of contemporary Africa art here, from all over Africa. I think it is really a case of people not knowing what Africa has to offer, or what India has to offer, or Columbia or South America, and people tend to be very insular and they tend to go for what they like and they know rather than opening up to new things.

[Interview in London on 7 March 2003]

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