Kudzanai-Violet Hwami’s first show in London is a glorious exploration of her Zimbabwean roots and ideals. Her exhibition at Gasworks, titled ‘(15,952km) via Trans-Sahara Hwy N1’, is the first institutional solo exhibition by the young artist, born in 1993 in Zimbabwe. Hwami left Zimbabwe aged nine because of the country’s significant political upheavals and is now based in London.
The brightness of the colours used in the artist’s portraits of everyday Zimbabwean life is striking. Working with oil on canvas, she has created for this series a collection of scenes ranging from a medicine man picking the plants he needs to treat patients, to children playing in a courtyard, parents holding their baby, people in mourning and elegantly dressed women getting ready for a meeting among others. In half of her work exhibited here Hwami has used maps as background patterns, locating different geographical landmarks within the works.
The large-scale canvases are built up through a process resembling collage though they are made of oil. In the second room, smaller canvases are exhibited, representing animals and totems, wooden masks and statues, as well as children and family scenes. These use more collage techniques, red backgrounds and photographic patterns.
Visibly inspired by her own childhood memories and troubling images from her youth, as well as found images, Hwami has managed to make them her own. Each painting is thought of as an overlap of narratives, stories and representations of black bodies in many forms. In so doing, Hwami is addressing her ideas and ideals of her own family and her roots, as well as the legacies of colonialism.
The artist explains that she is working from her personal experiences of “geographical dislocation and displacement”, a theme that is indeed deeply present in all these paintings. Displaying a few portraits of peaceful elderly figures, she also exhibits some still lives which highlight an explosion of intense colours: bright yellows, vibrant greens, warm browns, purple flowers and blue backgrounds. “Her intensely pigmented paintings combine visual fragments from a myriad of sources such as online images and family photographs, which collapse past and present into bold afro-futuristic visions,” notes the gallery’s text. The energy and mobility of her paintings are striking, and her research and forms question ideas around power politics and dis/placement.
Hwami has sought a way reconnect with present-day Zimbabwe, and spent four weeks working at Dzimbanhete, an artist-run space close to Harare. She described the experience, however, as an estrangement, feeling “removed and othered” through this contemporary experience in her country of birth.
The paintings exhibited at Gasworks are a result of this confrontation between the artist’s idealistic notions of belonging or rootedness and her actual experience travelling back to Zimbabwe in times of change. The exhibition is a unique, refreshing and powerful insight into the artist’s personal geo-political journey.