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Visual arts help us understand the world.


IF parents could choose careers for their children, the world would be full of doctors, lawyers and engineers. Over the last few years, students worldwide have been encouraged to study STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), rather than the arts and humanities (languages, literature, history, politics, religion).

Nyanga Musasa Season by artist Sheena Chadwick

In the race to achieve a middle income economy by 2030,  Zimbabwe launched its national space agency, and is encouraging students to take ‘A’ levels in mathematics, physics and computer science. While seasoned astronauts, IT specialists , doctors and lawyers can command high salaries, the importance of art should never be underestimated. It’s art that gives meaning to our lives, and helps us understand the world.

The art of music is important in every society, reflecting and influencing human emotion throughout history.  Without encouragement from the music of Thomas Mapfumo, Comrade Chinx, Zex Manatsa and the Bhundu Boys, the struggle for freedom fighters in the 60s and 70s would have seemed impossible.

A little known musical instrument, the chipendani, or single stringed musical bow, is played at many family gatherings significant in Shona society. Not just an instrument played by herd boys, or by grown men socialising over beer, the chipendani I  often features at Bira ceremonies when the ancestors are called upon for guidance.

Thomas Mukarobgwa, an artist and sculptor who started working with Frank McEwen at the newly opened National Art Gallery in 1957, played the chipendani as a young boy, while herding the family cattle in the wilds of Nyanga, in the Eastern Highlands. Thomas Mu, as he was known affectionately, was a major influence in the development of contemporary Zimbabwean visual art.

Mukarobgwa’s love of the landscape, evident in many works of art, will have developed during his early years  as a herd boy, surrounded by the montane forests, grasslands and perennial rivers of Nyanga. Where I Used To Go With My Cattle, an oil painting from  1962, is an abstract depiction of a wild Nyanga landscape, created from bold brush strokes and many layers of vivid colours.

Epworth Balancing Rocks, by artist Sheena Chadwick

The strong relationship between humans and the natural world is often expressed by a number of Zimbabwean artists through   landscape painting.  Less well known than Mukarobgwa, but growing exponentially in popularity, is landscape artist Sheena Chadwick.

In 1963, aged 19, she left her home town of Kirkwall in the windswept islands of Orkney to visit family in Zimbabwe (then known as Rhodesia). Here she met and fell in love with her future husband. Entranced, also, by Zimbabwe’s powerful landscape, varied in all its forms, she became inspired to express her emotions through the visual arts.

Joining an active arts group at UZ, Sheena learned the basic techniques of painting. Later she enrolled for classes with renowned artist Ann Lindsell-Stewart, where she learned how to use oil paints, and developed skills in still life, portrait and landscape painting. ‘Ann taught me to see’, said Sheena. Three years later, Lindsell-Stewart immigrated to South Africa, and Sheena took over her classes, passing on her painterly skills to others.

An accomplished artist in her own right, Sheen Chadwick has travelled around the countryside, holding workshops for artists in Karoi, Mutare, Hippo Valley and the Lowveld. On trips to the wilderness of the Zambezi Valley and the dry savannas of the Lowveld, Sheena has been inspired to paint the mystical baobab tree, which she describes as ‘a potent icon in this country’.

Overall, the steep valleys, grasslands and dwarf msasa trees clinging in the mist to the rocky slopes of Nyanga, are the landscapes Sheena loves best, coming to life  in paintings such as Nyanga Musasa Season, and Juliasdale View.

For visitors to Zimbabwe, or homesick Diasporans, there can be no better memento of the beauties of Zimbabwe than an original landscape painting by a talented local artist, or a handmade musical instrument to remind you of our unique culture.

The growing trend to incorporate the visual arts and writing and design skills, when solving problems in industries and STEM occupations, emphasises the importance of art in life. So if your ambition is to be an astronaut or to work as a control engineer for the National Grid, include at least one ‘A’ level subject from the arts or the humanities, and bring creativity, satisfaction and happiness into your life.  By Diana Rodrigues