FNB Art Prize 2021 winner Wycliffe Mundopa’s latest exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, Zva_nyadza, features 15 striking canvases. Drawing on themes that have remained constant throughout his earlier work, Mundopa’s bold stokes highlight vibrant social scenes, celebrating the rapturous and resilient lives of Zimbabwean women. We caught up with the Harare-based artist.
Tell us about your early journey as an artist
I think evolution of a voice is a process. I became interested in art, drawing and things like that in school, but to find and to own yourself through the art that you make takes years beyond studies. I got early recognition for my work with a National Art Merit Award in 2007, but you can say I started to grow my wings when I joined First Floor Gallery Harare in 2009 and felt that I had the space and support to do what I wanted, the way I wanted. But to be honest, I am still a young artist and see a long path for myself to grow and develop.
Where did this interest in documenting women and children come from? Are some of these characters whom you paint a mirror of real people you have encountered?
Real life is the only valuable inspiration one can have. Almost all of my figures are people I have seen, sketched, spent time with and spent time observing and living with. Women, and women as mothers are central to the heart of Zimbabwe and its resilience despite adversity. I’m not painting specific individuals and situations, but the much bigger drama of what happens to humans in times of crisis.
Tell us about your use of colour. One can read bold colours with a sense of optimism, but some of your themes are more serious, like your recent work that has reflected on aspects of the sometimes turbulent political moment?
I want people to recognise the importance of the stories I am telling. I don’t want anyone to be able to just walk past my painting. The colours I use will compel them to look and most importantly to see. They are dramatic because the speak to drama, and drama can be both about beauty and optimism as well as tragedy.
How do you view that statement “The personal is political” in relation to your art?
We live in a country where such separations are not meaningful or possible. If I paint a woman selling fruit in the market, it is both a commentary on the work of women but also an economic crisis; a painting of a beautiful woman but also a painting reflecting my love of painting. There is no need to compromise on this because it is art, which isn’t a one-dimensional thing.
What is the thinking behind the selection of works included in your current exhibition?
Zva_nyadza is a body of work painted during 2021. It was developed as a concept reflecting on life in the country during the lockdown and the way community responded to new conditions and stresses. I was also working to extend some of my visual vocabulary and approaches to painting in the work. Being affected by lockdowns as an artist meant more time in the studio and more time alone to reflect on how I work and what I want to achieve.
How did the early pandemic affect you as an artist?
As many Zimbabweans, I experienced the pandemic as yet another crisis we now have to deal with and overcome. So I think for many of us it was less traumatic than for people in other parts of the world. In fact, as an artist, I was probably less affected than many other people and could take advantage of relative isolation to make more work than would be possible under ordinary conditions.
Can you describe your process to us?
My process is embedded in my entire life. I wake up, I live life, I listen to peoples’ stories, I look at people on the street, I observe situations, I sketch as a daily practice. Before I start actually making any painting, I stretch and prime canvas which is a form of meditation, which prepares you for the work. So by the time I start making any painting I am already full of ideas and images that can emerge, and I am ready to let them happen. Painting is a conversation between the painter and the canvas and the materials and so I am not entirely in charge.
Is there an artwork by another artist (past or present) that moves you? Why does it resonate with you?
From the early days, I was always really inspired by and influenced by the Old Masters, the Dutch painters like Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt, not only because I always wanted to paint in oil — few have achieved as much as them technically — but also because Rubens was able to make large, dramatic compositions full of life and energy and movement. Very few artists have been able to show as much insight, sensitivity and compassion for his subjects from all walks of life as Rembrandt. They made me aspire to give as much honour and life to my Zimbabwean subjects.
How does your city, Harare, inspire your work as an artist?
My work is always a response to life as I see and experience it. It is really important for me to be here. In the late 2000s, things became extremely difficult economically in Zimbabwe and a lot of artists left, especially to SA. I chose to stay because I felt it was my responsibility as an artist to my city and my fellow Zimbabweans to keep witnessing and telling their stories. Whatever happens, we will be going through it together.
Visit the Johannesburg Art Gallery to view Wycliffe Mundopa’s Zva_nyadza, on until March 2022.