According to the German dramatist, novelist, poet and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “One ought, everyday at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture and if it were possible speak a few reasonable words in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.” What more apt a place to experience all this in Harare than the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, an art museum committed to collecting, safeguarding and promoting Zimbabwean visual culture, conveniently situated a stone throw away from the Crowne Plaza Monomotapa Hotel, right in the heart of the city.
The gallery, which opened on July 16, 1957 under the name the Rhodes National Gallery, offers a little song in its First Friday events, a good poem in the Page Poetry events held once a month, a fine picture in its exhibitions and photography sessions and a few reasonable words in the Story Telling sessions (Ngano).
As most things are more memorable and fun if you experience them with other people, and gallery trips being no exception, I planned an afternoon date with my significant other to the gallery. Tranquility, a relief from the blazing summer sun and the busy Julius Nyerere Way, welcomed us as we stepped into the foyer.
After being attended to by a friendly and courteous staff at the reception and paying our entrance fee of $1 each, we walked into the ground floor of the gallery, located to our right. On display then was the Pixels of Ubuntu/Unhu – Exploring the Social and Cultural Identities of the 21st Century Exhibition, curated by Raphael Chikukwa. As tempting as it was to take a few photographs for our social media, we were under strict instructions from the staff to not engage in any photography.
We viewed works by artists like Masimba Hwati, whose Urban Totems series examined whether technology’s pixilating of Ubuntu/Unhu had warped or improved humanity, featuring a series of portraits, on denim canvas, of male subjects wearing glasses bearing brand icons like Yahoo, Coca-Cola, KFC, Twitter and WhatsApp on the lenses. Gareth Nyandoro’s works on paper like Zvikwedengu nezvinamira (touts) and installations made of cardboard and traditional art methods like Mushika-shika Wavanhu, Market Objects were also on exhibition, tackling the side-effects of urbanisation with scenes of crowded public places and street life. Chikonzero Chazunguza’s depictions of Everyday People had images taken from archives being overlaid upon modern characters in colourful prints.
On the first floor more art pieces under the Pixels of Ubuntu/Unhu Exhibition covered the wall of balcony from the centre to the far right side of the first floor. We spent time on each piece, getting lost in some of the more intense art pieces and trying to find the meaning behind some cryptic pieces like thos of Chikonzero Chazunguza. After exhausting all the pieces on the right and in the center, we moved to the left side where there were intricate religious art pieces on display. We also viewed part of the gallery’s permanent collection on the far left side of the first floor exhibition space, illuminated by natural light allowed in through the gallery’s special architecture.
The Permanent Collection, we learnt, is made up of approximately 6,000 artworks of an eclectic nature embracing Zimbabwean, African contemporary works as well as European Old Master artworks and traditional pieces. The largest part of the collection is that of contemporary Zimbabwean artists collected during annual exhibitions. The works are categorised as traditional African pieces like baskets, drums, headrests, knives, jewellery, mats, musical instruments, pots, spears and more; traditional international pieces like ceramics, furniture, glass paintings and masks; European old master works like paintings and sculptures and African and Zimbabwean artworks.
We took the staircase down back to the ground floor then stepped back into the foyer where we found a notice board with posters of various activities held at the gallery. The gallery offered adult art classes, an affordable fun way for one to learn the fundamentals of drawing, painting, mixed media and sculpture, photography lessons taught by filmmaker and photographer Nyaradzo Muchena for those who want to gain or improve their technical camera skills for eight weeks at $10 per session and First Fridays, an event of art, music and fashion featuring local artists held every first Friday of the month from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. for a $5 fee. For children, guided tours, Saturday art classes, holiday art camp, story telling sessions (ngano) with Ignatious Mabasa and the Culture Box, a collection of Zimbabwean traditional cultural objects used to educate children about the Zimbabwean culture, were on offer.
From the foyer, we crossed to The Artlife Gallery and Gift Shop and on offer were a wide range of art products like ceramics, paintings, textiles, jewellery, sculptures, artefacts and books ranging from biographies to novels to documentary themed books and magazines.
Opposite the Gift Shop, there was, in an open space, on red flooring, various stone sculpture pieces making up the gallery’s permanent collection. These pieces included B. Nyakunu’s Black Serpentine piece, Thomas Mukarobgwa’s Family Dreaming piece made of serpentine stone and more.
After getting food for the mind and soul from the various art pieces on the exhibition and at the Gift Shop, we needed to rest our feet and get food for the body. So we walked into the Sanctuary Cafe and Wine Bar and we were welcomed by soothing music playing in the background as well as the rich aromas of freshly made treats like cakes, samoosas and brownies, freshly brewed coffee and tea.
We sipped on our red wine, taking in the ambience of the place, looking out at the Sculpture Garden exhibiting a collection of stone sculpture pieces the gallery is famous for like Dominic Benhura’s Teenage Lovers.
Apart from being the best spot for a lunch or dinner date, offering great food and beverages, the Sanctuary Cafe also offers Wi-Fi access. It also hosts different evening events like Page Poetry Alive, where poets and poetry enthusiasts gather once every month and read out their work, fostering the habits of reading and creative writing.
This was one of my many visits to the gallery for me. On this day, we left with a sense of accomplishment and as Thomas Merton once said, the art at the gallery had enabled us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.