For Zimbabwean artist Wycliffe Mundopa art is inextricably linked to activism. His work responds to the hardships and illogicalities of everyday life for Harare’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens. Wycliffe’s paintings feature chaotic tableaus of figures that depict the plight of women and children particularly. With bold, brash colours and loose brushstrokes, he interweaves Shona urban mythology and personal iconography to recount these tales of suffering. Wycliffe will be showing his first solo show of large canvases in South Africa at Commune. 1 in Cape Town this month. The show opens this evening.
Please can you tell us a little about yourself and your background as an artist?
I realised that I wanted to become an artist at 15. On a school trip to the studio of Peter Birch. I saw the paints and the paintings and I knew that this was to be my life. I began taking classes straightaway and trying to earn money to pay for lessons. Then I enrolled at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe Visual Art Studio. I was an unpopular student – I was known for disagreeing with my lecturers about everything.
I am the eldest of many brothers and sisters in a very complicated family. Growing up in high-density areas of Harare, life has always been turbulent and intense. You grow up very fast and you see a lot. I am 27 but in many ways I feel middle aged. This very much is what my work is all about – telling the stories of the lives of the people around me – showing their pain, their courage and their love in the most unlikely situations. I am particularly focused on the lives of women and children, the most vulnerable in our society.
Has your technique of painting changed over time? What are some of the things that have influenced your style?
I grew up as an artist, adoring master painters – Rubens and Rembrandt – their expressive ability, their skill with the line and attention to the female form. I tried to reflect this kind of an approach in my own context. My early works are quite naturalistic, very figurative. I drew obsessively, focusing on scenes from street life – women washing clothes, women at the market, seamstresses, women gossiping, children playing. Over time however my approach has changed. Interestingly, one of the reasons for some of my breakthroughs has been shortage of materials. About 5 years ago I could not find paints at all, so I started experimenting with collage and stencil. This forced me to simplify my line work, focusing on what is important and the communicative value of colour and additional source material. At another juncture faced with shortage of artist paints I tried using spray paint and again it was a revelation. It pushed me to be more forcefully expressive in my work.
Intellectually one of the key things that has motivated the development of my style is losing the fear of making my audience unhappy. I stopped trying to imagine what a potential buyer would want to see and focused instead on what I wanted to say. Sometimes what I want to express scares me, but I do it anyway. Over time my storytelling is becoming more metaphorical. Literal representation does not permit nuanced interpretation and does not really intrigue the audience the way I am intrigued by people. This is why over time people have been transformed into various animals – in my paintings – in a kind of allegory.
What appeals to you about the medium of painting?
I love everything about painting. Painting is the hardest thing you can do as an artist I think – it is unforgiving, demanding, punishing and challenging. Facing a blank canvas is the scariest and the most exciting thing at the same time. It takes a lot of courage. I work very quickly because I cannot wait to see the work. At the same time I am not precious about work that I think has failed – I will paint over old work frequently. I always feel that my next work is the best one.
What subject matter and themes feature in your work?
As I said, I am the son of my city. Harare and its people are the lifeblood and inspiration for my work. It is not easy being an artist here and now but this hardship is what drives and inspires me to paint, to tell these stories, to protest the iniquities, to defend the weak. Painting is my way of being an activist.
As I mentioned earlier, I speak a lot about the lives of women and children. In particular the lives of the “fallen women” – women who have to sell themselves to support their children because there is no other way. Society judges them without compassion. In my work they are courageous, beautiful, passionate, breaking social taboos and hypocrisies that need to be broken. I also work frequently telling the stories of children – children who become de facto parents to their younger siblings, children who have to make a childhood, with toys that are broken and reflect a reality that is not their own, children who live lives we don’t want children to live.
Please tell us about the iconography and motifs that are part of your visual language.
Over time the very figurative approach as I mentioned has evolved to become more expressive and less literal. Over the past year or so, I began integrating metaphorical images into my work – women with head of a fish, frogs, chimerical assemblages which let me express aspects of Shona vernacular slang in visual terms but also create a kind of an urban mythology.
How does colour function in your painting?
Colour is the raw emotion in my work. Line is the control. This dynamic tension is what drives the work.
Is narrative an important part of your work?
My work, especially the larger paintings, is definitely narrative driven. They are complex compositions, with a lot of things going on. At the same time, I don’t force any particular interpretation. Especially now, with the metaphorical representations, I accept that every viewer will come away with their own idea of what could be happening, depending on their background and personal context. There is a strong emotional narrative to the work however, which will create a prevailing emotional impact of the work and that is sufficient for me.
Tell us about the importance of social commentary in your work.
All of my work is social commentary. I talk about the life that I see. I am driven to speak about it. Painting is my way of speaking out.
Please tell us about the works that you’ll be showing at your upcoming exhibition at Commune. 1.
Commune 1 will be showing my first major canvas body of work called Myths of Harare. I have been dreaming of doing a series of large canvases for the longest time. The work emerges from the allegorical narratives I have been developing in smaller works for the past year or so. Myths of Harare shows a dark underbelly of a life that is colourful and dynamic but hides a lot of pain. There is decadence and decay at the same time. It is a kind of a masquerade in a time of disaster, a dystopic world and our reality at the same time.
Have you exhibited in South Africa before? What are you looking forward to from this experience?
I have taken part in a group show with Ebony Gallery in Cape Town last year and in fact the companion show of large works on paper for Myths of Harare is currently on show with Ebony in Loop Street.
I am really thrilled to be presenting works at Commune 1, it is a beautiful space and this is the first time I will be showing major canvases in South Africa and I am interested in seeing the response from South African audiences. I also hope that it will inspire me to develop even bigger and more challenging works.
See Wycliffe’s Myths of Harare at Commune. 1 from 19 February – 26 March 2015