Zimbabwe: Art scene still lively

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Imagine the scene: A leafy garden on a Sunday morning in one of the more prosperous districts of this capital city. Denizens inspect an impressive array of paintings for sale while a dixieland jazz band goes through its paces on a shady verandah. Cold lemonade, sandwiches and chocolate brownies keep the kids busy.

It could be one of the English home counties on a summer’s day. Or an Australian suburban scene.
In fact the Verandah Gallery has sponsored the annual event in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, since 1992. This year, 50 artists displayed their work with 25 percent of proceeds going to charities including the Emerald Hill School for the Deaf and the Emerald Hill Children's Home.

Daryl Nero, who has also shown his work in Johannesburg and London, includes among his oeuvre Zimbabwean landscapes, wildlife scenes and portraits of Zanzibar island with dhows fishing on an azure blue sea. His captivating paintings of Mozambique’s rich colonial architectural legacy explain why his work is snapped up by collectors. Nero describes the Verandah Gallery as “an essential platform for artists from around the country to be known.”

Its curator, Anna Fleming, also markets postcards and calendars featuring designs by Zimbabwean artists.

She can count on good weather for the July event. It hardly ever rains in Zimbabwe’s southern-hemisphere winter where temperatures hover in the 70s and the cloudless skies provide a perfect outdoor setting. Among the exhibits is a selection of local Shona stone sculptures, the product of younger black craftsmen.

“This is an ideal outlet for us,” said Freddy Tafara who makes the long journey from his township home to the Verandah Gallery. “We need the chance to showcase our work.” He jumps at any opportunity to exhibit his crafts which include metal butterflies and geckoes.

Fleming’s colonial home, which hosts the gallery, is set in wooded grounds. Tables and chairs laid out on the lawns provide visitors with space to sit and relax. In addition to home-made fruit juice and sandwiches there are a range of wines available for the more discerning customers. Tafara and his friends settle for a beer. They feel very much at home at a function of this sort where there is a warmth not always evident elsewhere.

Fleming says close to a thousand people came through the gate at the gallery’s most recent show last month.

“It was a great atmosphere,” she said. “Many came for the social side.”

Certainly it was an opportunity to meet old friends and chat. Despite President Robert Mugabe’s private war against Zimbabwe’s battered white community, events like this continue to attract a sizable following. Some are farmers who, having been evicted from their land, have turned their hand to carpentry and arts and crafts. Wives and kids demonstrate a versatility their friends would have considered improbable just a few years ago. The old adage, “Farmer make a plan,” is very much evident on a day like this.

There are other reminders of the country’s predicament under Mugabe’s punishing rule. Power cuts are a regular occurrence in even the wealthiest suburbs. But they are no deterrent to the festive atmosphere. When the power went off at the gallery’s most recent exhibition nobody considered it unusual. People carried on enjoying themselves.

And, of course, the band played on.