Sokunge, 2019. Mixed media, installation view. Photo: © Masimba Hwati, Courtesy SMAC Gallery, Johannesburg

Fragile and Beautiful Complexity: A Conversation with Masimba Hwati

Masimba Hwati, who was born and raised in Zimbabwe, constructs intriguing assemblages of objects that comment on the country’s contemporary landscape with a mixture of traditional, colonial, postcolonial, and imported pop culture imagery. Political undertones appear in many of his works, which also explore issues related to hybridity and in-between spaces. Hwati sometimes arranges performances with his objects, blending sculpture, sound, and the body. Over the years, he has exhibited in Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, South Africa, the U.K. and U.S., Zambia, and Zimbabwe. He lives and works between Zimbabwe, Detroit, and Vienna.

Antenna I, 2017. Mixed media, 240 x 23 x 40 cm. Photo: © Masimba Hwati, Courtesy SMAC Gallery

Robert Preece: Your works have a political undertone, rooted in your experience of a changing Zimbabwe. During the Trump administration, some commentators drew parallels between him and former Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe. Do you see any connection, particularly in terns of how people react to certain kinds of leaders and power? To what extent are these concerns expressed in your work?
Masimba Hwati: Political undertones do appear in my work. I think it’s a reflection of how nothing is untainted by politics in Zimbabwe and in most other African nations. I agree there are parallels between Trump and Mugabe. I try not to make an analogous relationship of it, but both had a ”strongman” approach and surrounded themselves with sycophants who helped them create a personality cult and mythology. In Zimbabwean society, confrontation and open difference are the same as dissent; it doesn’t take much for one to carry the dissident label. So, over the years, people have suppressed their political angst. This, of course, differs from how people reacted to the Trump administration with open defiance.

Rinamanyanga Hariputirwe (2016) takes its title from a Shona proverb that loosely translates to “that which has horns cannot be easily wrapped/concealed.” This installation captured an important moment in Zimbabwean political history. For the first time since 1980, the masses broke the jinx of fear and openly demonstrated against Mugabe’s government during the week of July 6, 2016, and the weeks that followed. I used the obvious symbolism of punching bags metamorphosed through the growth of sharp and dangerous objects as defense/offense mechanisms.

Tanzania with Julius Nyerere versus Kenya with Jomo Kenyatta is a classic African postcolonial conundrum. A good response would be Ayi Kwei Armah’s proposal to have long-term cultural workers in power instead of politicians, redefining the political model from an inherited colonial one to a homegrown one. I’m not saying this is the solution, but Armah diagnosed the problem as lying within the inherited colonial system of political administration. Another problem with these models is that they come from a monolithic approach to the African continent as a country and not as a complex, diverse, and ever-shifting space.

RP: What was it like growing up in Harare in the 1990s? What course of study did you follow at Harare Polytechnic?
MH: In the early 1990s, life in Zimbabwe was simple. I grew up in Highfields, a crowded suburb with a small river as the border between my community and another. There was a toy-making company on our side of the river, a T-shirt printing business, and a wire-making firm. All of these companies dumped their rejects and substandard products by the river. As kids, we spent time after school dumpster diving and searching for these exotic treasures. My first lessons in assemblage came from this. I would join the torso of a green Incredible Hulk with the head of a red Spiderman and tie them up with some soft copper wire. You can see the same aesthetic in Antenna I (2017) with Shrek and a small dragon. 

The Harare Polytechnic syllabus took more of a Bauhaus-based approach, but it was also very open and experimental depending on the availability of materials. From these experiences, I learned to improvise and make do, to stay with doubt until it’s no longer intimidating.

“Rinamanyanga Hariputirwe” series, 2016. Mixed media, installation view. Photo: © Masimba Hwati, Courtesy SMAC Gallery, Johannesburg

RP: Who do you consider to be artist influences, and what else inspires you? 
MH: I’m influenced by Tapfuma Gutsa and the late Keston Beaton from Zimbabwe, the late Terry Adkins from the U.S., and Raven Chacon, a composer/artist from a Navajo reservation, living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I also admire Isamu Noguchi’s approach to sculpture. I’m inspired by the way that traditional cultures can shift when they come into contact with other cultures. Strong People Evolve (1) (2015) is a great example—the winged military boot of Hermes meets a dart with a guinea fowl-feathered tail. 

As a child, I watched a lot of European and American television programs. The national broadcaster received donations of free documentaries from the BBC about, for instance, the Australian outback or New Zealand prairies—all the colonial manifest destiny stuff. These fired my imagination, and I constructed visions of an in-between imaginary space based on these places.

RP: In the catalogue for “Sokunge / As if” (2019), your exhibition at SMAC in Johannesburg, you mention the intersection of “sculpture, sound, and the body.” How do you go about this?
MH: About three years ago, I began activating sculpture through performance. The performance Mbende / Jerusarema Tehkno (2018) is an example of this exploration in which choreography and sculpture meet to create an experience; the title comes from a traditional Zimbabwean dance of fertility. The initial idea was inspired by how sculpture, performance, and the body always seem to share space in Zimbabwean traditional settings through ritual, celebration, or daily actions. I find this intersection fascinating. Another example was the solo performance at the opening of my SMAC exhibition, where I used one of the sculptures in the show in a performance.

Sokunge 4, 2019. Steel pipe, brass, and found objects, 257 x 106 x 85 cm. Photo: © Masimba Hwati, Courtesy SMAC Gallery, Johannesburg

RP: To what extent are the spear assemblages abstract portraits or self-portraits? 
MH: The sculptures with spears are more about antennas for the reception and transmission of imaginary information—though they carry collections of some of my favorite objects, many that I’ve used personally. Maybe in this regard, they could be portraits. Sokunge 4 (2019) is made up of calabashes, a shekere [percussion instrument], and drum cymbals that I’ve used for some time. Sokunge 7 (2019) consists of a bow and arrows that I used for practice for a while. Even some of my worn-out shoes find their way into the works.

RP: You’ve used punching bags, spears, and musical instruments. Are there other favorite objects that recur in your assemblages? Where do you find them? Have you tried objects that didn’t work for you? 
MH: I have a fascination with skateboard wheels, especially red ones. I used several pairs in “Sokunge / As if.” A red pair also makes up Strong People Evolve (1), and several appear on enamel teapots in Putugadzike (2016) [Shona word for “tea”]. I’ve experimented with plastic materials, and I think they are the least successful. I try to avoid them unless they come in the form of toys or skateboard wheels.

I’m attracted not only to the symbolism of these objects but also to how they reference such broad stories and places. For instance, the enamel teapots in Putugadzike open up the narrative of how the British brought tea to Zimbabwe, as well as the larger history of tea from Chinese traders to Portuguese missionaries.

Putugadzike (Tea), 2016. Mixed media, 43 x 305 x 83 cm. Photo: © Masimba Hwati, Courtesy SMAC Gallery, Johannesburg

RP: Do you work with sketches? What is your process like?
MH: I sketch a lot, with details such as measurements, plans, and possible methods. My process is not linear; I follow impulses and hunches, then embark on research following those leads, and sometimes the making happens after—or during—the research. The background of Deep Struggle (2020), for instance, is a detailed sketch placed behind yellow Plexiglas of the previous sculpture that I made, which was Ngoromera [old Shona word for “fight”] (2020).

I sketch not only as an exploration of form, but also as a kind of meditative practice. I often feel like I’m thinking below the surface when sketching. It builds my faith in the project. There is so much satisfaction in the sketching process, sometimes even more joy than in the making.

RP: Could you explain a bit about the symbolism of Stranger bid them Godspeed upon that sunlit road (2017)?
MH: I make use of several kinds of symbolism, from traditional symbolism to the symbolism of specific histories and objects. In Stranger bid them Godspeed upon that sunlit road, I used a modified pair of my old Chuck Taylors—a basic symbol registering a personal journey. The copper wings on the shoes are from a plaque that I liberated from an old colonial building in Harare with the words “Stranger bid them Godspeed upon that sunlit road.” I cut this blessing into two pairs of wings to symbolize the aerodynamic potential of a good blessing upon one’s life.

The ice-skating blades were a very fascinating find. I purchased them at Milnerton market in Cape Town. The excitement of finding an object that was not exactly indigenous to Cape Town and yet belonged there was so cool. It’s the idea of a fragile and beautiful complexity, of an almost antithetical relationship of things that are not connected, but also connected.

Stranger bid them Godspeed upon that sunlit road, 2017. Mixed media, 33 x 29 x 30 cm. Photo: © Masimba Hwati, Courtesy SMAC Gallery, Johannesburg

RP: To what extent do issues and discussions related to postcolonial contexts influence your work?MH: Postcolonial themes occur regularly in my work, particularly “hybridity.” Mbende / Jerusarema Tehkno features a hybrid choreography between a traditional Zimbabwean dance and a modern street dance from Detroit. It highlights resistance and negotiation, rewriting history, nationhood, and valorizing cultural identity. All of my works play with these themes while also putting them in crisis. For instance, at my Art Brussels presentation in 2017, Antenna I featured an upright traditional spear anchored in a Rhodesian bowling bag, adorned and embellished by a Chinese fan, featuring a smiling Shrek and a small dragon alongside a traditional cooking stick. I think this is the picture of contemporary “African identity”—constantly being influenced and influencing, ever in flux, never authentic, never pure.

RP: What are your Sokunge works about? I know that the word means “as if,” and “something that presents itself as other than its true nature,” and that this results in an “in-between space.”
MH: The title Sokunge can be looked at in two ways, the first being a hybrid state created by colonial encounters that create this in-between space of always “becoming.” The second meaning is more direct, in that it is a dissimulation or a survival technique where a person or a subject chooses opacity and refuses to be deduced, and instead supplies a veneer or a façade identity, creating an “in-between space.” The act of moving between the veneer and the real identity is quite fascinating; it’s like a moving target, a kind of refusal to be boxed in.

RP: Could you tell me more about your performances? Are they only with works that double as musical instruments? Are you tapping into the “in-between space”?
MH: I make my own instruments, for instance a dzikamunhenga, which is a one-stringed spear instrument. It is activated by a contact microphone and can be dragged on the floor, creating friction. I performed with this piece at SMAC Gallery in 2019. I think that I tap into the space between the sculpture as an object and its possibility to become an instrument and a tool. I think of sound in the performances as evidence of a sonic in-between space between the inanimate sculpture and the living body.

Cornucopia, 2017. Mixed media, 210 x 70 x 25 cm. Photo: © Masimba Hwati, Courtesy SMAC Gallery, Johannesburg

RP: You have mentioned that an artwork has 35 variations. Could you walk us through this with Cornucopia (2017)? 
MH: This is a hypothetical standard that we used at Harare Polytechnic to push ourselves further in exploring the potential of objects. I doubt that I ever got to 20 variations with one object. With Cornucopia, there’s a cornucopia, a quiver of arrows, a skateboard of sorts, a trumpet. I think variations have to do with the state of always being in flux, a constant state of refusal whereby an object never keeps still, but is always suggesting that there is more than what you see. I always seem to return to the idea of Sokunge, where an object/subject is always more than what it appears to be.

RP: When do you know that a work is finished?
MH: Without being too esoteric, there is a sense of calm and peace that comes with a feeling of relief—when you hit that feeling then you know. This doesn’t happen every time, though; sometimes I’m stuck and hanging in that weird place where you want to sneeze badly but you never sneeze. For instance, with Mbende / Jerusarema Tehkno in 2018, it felt like it was very close to being finished but then I came to the limit of my resources and time. When this happens, I keep building the same ideas in the next project, as in most of the solo performance in Johannesburg in 2019 that followed Mbende / Jerusarema Tehkno.

Deep Struggle, 2020. Mixed media, installation view. Photo: © Serge Dorsainvil, Courtesy SMAC Gallery, Johannesburg

RP: You were in Miami for a bit. Did anything there particularly influence your work? 
MH: I was in Miami for three months. I was inspired by the light and the color of the city. Deep Struggle, which I made during my stay, came out bright and yellow. I was also inspired to learn about the not-so-well-known histories of Black people in Miami. For instance, there’s the story of Deep City records, the first Black-owned record label in Miami, also known as the Motown of Miami. Deep Struggle is a nod to this little-known but important piece of history.

RP: Given what still appears a potentially unstable political situation in the U.S., do you have any lessons to share? 
MH: I feel a little unqualified to respond, but I would say that some of the most interesting young artists from Zimbabwean practice, struggling from the ground up in the most difficult years, were tackling difficult themes. Artists in the U.S. have a bigger advantage, with structures that support art in an economy that is better than most.