Pioneering art collection returns to Zimbabwe after 70 years
HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — For the first time in his life, 65-year-old Gift Livingstone Sango saw a painting by his father of Jesus as a black man.
“My father used to draw Jesus in black because God is for all of us. It’s not a color God,” Sango said.
The painting made by his late father in the 1940s is part of a landmark exhibition, ‘The Stars Shine’, now at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe for the first time since the collection left the country more than 70 years ago year.
A photograph of Sango’s father, Livingstone, as a young boy hangs next to the painting.
“We didn’t know our father was such a great artist, but after 70 years we see these images. We are called,” Sango said. “Some of these photos we had never seen before. I see my father as a boy.
Sango’s father became an accomplished taxidermist working for the Bulawayo National Museum.
The fascinating exhibition at the National Gallery until the end of October is made up of paintings made in the 1940s and 1950s by young black students from Cyrene Mission School, the first to teach art to black students in what was then Rhodesia ruled by a white minority.
Using bold strokes and bright, lush colors filling all of the canvases, the students depicted African life in dancing, household chores and the hunting of wild animals alongside the emerging modern world of railways and power lines. The paintings vividly portray tales of African folklore as well as biblical stories in a striking intersection of African tradition, history and Christianity introduced by Western settlers.
The paintings quickly won admirers, including Britain’s King George VI, who visited the school in 1947. A collection of the works created at the Cyrene School between 1940 and 1947 was sent overseas for display in London , Paris and New York. Many paintings were sold and contributed to the financing of the school.
Later the paintings were stored in the basement of St. Michael’s and All Angels Church in London and over time they were forgotten. The works were rediscovered by a Zimbabwean who recognized Cyrene’s name on the boxes during the desecration of the church, according to a press release from the exhibition organizers in Harare. He brought the paintings to the attention of others who recognized that a treasure lay in the basement.
The ‘Stars Shine’ exhibition sent the paintings back to the country, where many Zimbabweans will see them for the first time. Photographs of many artists as young boys are displayed alongside the paintings.
“It was a very difficult time in the 1940s. It was the height of World War II and the height of colonialism in Zimbabwe,” said Lisa Masterson, curator of the exhibit. She said the school’s founder, Edward Paterson, had the foresight to make art a compulsory subject. “For a white Anglican priest, giving young black students new skills and believing in themselves was completely revolutionary at the time,” she said.
“Paterson sincerely believed that art could bring people together. And that no matter what people saw in a work of art, no matter what color you were, where you came from or what tribe you were from, the art was a unifying factor,” Masterson said.
Many students of the Cyrene school went on to become artists, teachers, and professionals, despite the restrictions of white minority-ruled Rhodesia.
In 2020, “The Stars Are Bright” exhibition featured the works at the Theater Courtyard Gallery in London. Now the works of art have come home to acclaim. Some of the paintings have already been exhibited in the scenic Honde Valley in the eastern province of Manicaland in late 2021 and in the western city of Bulawayo in April this year. Now the full exhibit is on display in Harare.
“Today, after spending 70 years away from their homeland, these amazing works are finally back home to be seen,” Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa said this week after viewing the paintings.
Coming amid growing calls for the repatriation of African art to the continent, some say paintings from Cyrene should return to Zimbabwe permanently.
“It’s very important that this heritage speaks to its own people,” Raphael Chikukwa, executive director of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, told The Associated Press. “The families of these artists can have their children and grandchildren look at this collection, be able to talk about this collection and admire it. Because at the end of the day, if the collection does come back to the UK, they’re unlikely to have any further ties to it.
The organizers say they are negotiating with the Rideau Foundation, owner of the collection, for the final repatriation of the works.
“This art brought home is what we want,” Sango said. “Heritage must be brought home. It will dry our tears.