Are we all cultural whores? Yes. Thankfully, culture is fluid, and as much as colonialism has altered African culture (and vice versa), it has not completely eroded our traditions and practices. Recently, in celebration of its 60th anniversary, the National Art Gallery held the opening of an exhibition titled ‘Zimbabwe In Design’. Under the overarching theme of the Zimbabwean aesthetic, the exhibition comprises five sub-themes: Hair, Applied design on traditional structure, Fashion, Material culture and Graphic design.

The gallery curatorial team states that the show reveals that “design is not new to Zimbabwe and that iconic designs have their roots in utility, trends, communication and technology to create a strong sense of identity and desirability”.

Are we all cultural whores? Yes. Thankfully, culture is fluid.

Even though Kunta Kinte was beaten raw until he proclaimed himself to be Toby, centuries have passed and we still refer to him as Kunta Kinte. Similarly, African culture lives despite Westernisation and the homogenising effects of globalisation. 

It often takes prominent individuals or institutions such as the National Gallery of Zimbabwe to effectively highlight traditional art forms. Until Picasso began to emulate African images for their powerful mysticism in the age of realism, African depictions were known as “primitive”. Fortunately, this exhibition is ensuring that the Zimbabwean aesthetic comes out of the closet and finds its rightful place on the walls of the gallery. From there, it continues its trajectory through our eyes to its final home in the hearts and minds of an audience that is searching for the authentic Zimbabwean aesthetic.

Until Picasso began to emulate African images for their powerful mysticism in the age of realism, African depictions were known as “primitive”.

Part of the pieces on display. Photo: Shorai Murwira/This is Africa

Hair

From singer India Airie proclaiming that she is not her hair, to Beyonce singing about baby curls and her sister Solange asking people not to touch her hair, we are constantly flooded with ‘hair-raising’ art that deals in some way with the fuzz that adorns our heads. It is therefore no surprise that Zimbabwe in Design features this subject prominently. Hair has become one of the most powerful political statements of our time. Historically, the coif has been tied to culture and to socio-economic standing, and this has not changed to this day. 

Ernest Muvuni, a young graphic designer-cum-filmmaker involved in the exhibition, spoke of the inspiration behind the photographs and the hair documentary that played throughout the event. “We want to know how people rock their natural hair and create 100 stories on this topic.”

“There certainly seems to be a “hair-naissance” of sorts in the African community. Interestingly, nowadays the most innovative thing for an African woman to do with her hair is…wait for it…nothing. Leave the hair the same texture as it grows out of the head, and voilà, you too can be a liberation heroine. Activism is suddenly within reach as it pokes through the unassuming scalps of African women. It gets better and cheaper still with DIY oils and styles.

Read: 2017 Harare International Festival of the Arts roars into life

The bulk of the hair images on display were sourced from the Zimbabwe National Archives. As highlighted by the text accompanying the exhibition, “In the colonial period there was a shift in hair adornment, whereby local women became heavily influenced by British media and fashion.” Enter relaxer, weaves and other hair-styling paraphernalia fostered by independence and the commercialisation of the Western aesthetic in Africa.

During the 1980s and 1990s, African women said hello to Western hair trends and goodbye to the now famous ‘Bantu knot’, a term that is somewhat derogatory in itself, but that’s a topic for another piece. This must have been when someone certifiably crazy, or hateful, decided that what is now known in the blogosphere as ‘4c natural hair’, a.k.a. kinky hair, should be combed!

Applied Design on Traditional Structure

This section of the exhibition delves into “how people decorate their houses and show who they are on the wall, which becomes a canvas”. So says Fadzai Muchemwa, one of the gallery’s curators. The pieces on display include geometrical designs and animals – cows, for example, which are signifiers of wealth – and others such as elephants, which are also totems.

Part of the pieces on display. Photo: Shorai Murwira/This is Africa

The photography in this section was done by André van Rooyen. The play between the artifact as an artwork and its original use is thought-provoking. Across the world, people display quaint African art, little baskets and trinkets, as conversation pieces. The large woven grain storage basket and wooden headrests demonstrate that function and form did not only meet in the traditional Zimbabwean household but in fact had a fruitful marriage until they were forcibly divorced by colonialism.

The artifacts in the household display are from the Gallery’s permanent collection, the Amagugu International Heritage Center in Matobo and the Zenzele Trust in Masvingo. As expressed by the curatorial team, “Buildings are both practical and emotive; at best there can be a deeply satisfying synthesis of design and art.”

Part of the pieces on display. Photo: Shorai Murwira/This is Africa

Fashion

Justin Timberlake must have been referring to African women when he proclaimed that he was bringing sexy back. The photos of bare-breasted, leggy women said it all. Have you seen the pre-colonial traditional garb? If not, do not despair, there was not much to see in the way of clothes – literally. Skimpy and sexy little outfits were the order of the day.

Why on earth, in this generally warm climate, would African women and men dress like Eskimos or the Victorians? Colonialism strikes again. The governing colonial powers encouraged people to adopt Western clothing and the rest is, unfortunately, not history but the cotton shirt I’m wearing today, and whatever you have on as you read this.

Laughable it is when Africans are thought to be wearing ‘traditional clothing’ when they wear long pieces of cloth to cover their legs, and scarves at ceremonies. Fact: That is Queen Victoria’s culture, along with tea sipping. Laughable it is when a woman who does not abide by these standards, or wears pants or short skirts, is proclaimed indecent and seen as adopting the ways of the West.

Material Culture

The ‘Material Culture’ sub-theme focuses on physical objects and their uses. As it is inspired by material goods, the exhibition is itself a marketplace for their consumption. The evolution of material culture is striking and can be seen in the variations between the pieces and photographs shown from different periods.

Rising wood sculpture, part of the pieces on display. Photo: Shorai Murwira/This is Africa

The curatorial team described the phenomenon well: “We all live our lives as part of a network of material things. Some of these things might strike us as remarkable, but many of the things which we use to shape our world and which in turn shape us as humans as part of our everyday lives go unnoticed.” The symbolism embedded in material objects sparks a reaction; a curiosity. On the wall were “hakata”, known as divining rods/divining tablets. These pieces are adorned with animal and pattern imprints. Typically, tablets are used by traditional healers, but for the purposes of the show they were stylised and enlarged as decorative wall hangings.

Lovers, part of the pieces on display. Photo: Shorai Murwira/This is Africa

Graphic Design

Graphic design pervades the Zimbabwean aesthetic and without it there would be no exhibition to speak of. On display is the early marketing material for the National Gallery, especially posters. The juxtaposition of the more modern posters with the traditional chevron pattern and “ndoro” symbols on the art was striking. Accompanying the posters was a flag section to educate people, given that there are many imitation flags that feature incorrect details. I shall not dwell on the issue of flags; suffice to say that the discussion prompted by them can be as politically charged as the subject of hair.

The moral of this well thought out exhibition is ‘Local is lekker’.