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Featured: Portia Zvavahera Dreams of Exotic Blossoms of Love

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Dreams, love, flowers, pattern and fabric all have a profound influence on the work of Zimbabwean artist, Portia Zvavahera. However, her flamboyant style of painting and mark-making in oil-based printing inks transforms these tropes into a deeply personal and evocative visual language that is richly emotive. Last year Portia was awarded the FNB Art Prize, and the year before that the 10th Tollman Award for the Visual Arts. In her new body of work, I Can Feel It in My Eyes, currently on at Stevenson in Cape Town, Portia has dreamed into being an exotic pleasure garden – a tribute to love – in which couples, gripped in the throws of passion, are enveloped by the sensual folds of huge flowers and leafy plants. 



How does your own history and experience influence your work?


I’m inspired by my life experience, and that’s where my subject matter comes from –my experiences and also from my dreams. I sleep with my sketchbook under my pillow so that whenever I have a dream I can sketch it down in the book, and then later on I will try to develop it, including trying to also put my experiences into the same vision I have seen in my dreams. So it’s like the dream and my experiences – together I make a sketch out of it.


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All the artworks in this show have the same title. Does this mean that they all relate to the same dream? 


Yes. It was a dream, which I had a very long-long time ago when I was not yet married. I had a dream with me and my husband, we were hugging each other and there were people around us, like celebrating our wedding or marriage or something. So that’s where this whole body of work is coming from.



Can you tell us about the title of your show, I can feel it in my eyes?


The ‘it’ in the title is love that I am really speaking about. Like whenever we go to our church ‘it’ is in the Harare Gardens. You get to see a lot of couples in it, seated, eating, you know, embracing each other, and so when you look at them, you get inspired by love and that’s how it started. That’s where the thing is coming from.


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In this body of work, as in previous ones, floral motifs feature prominently. Can you tell us a little about this?


I think the idea of flowers in my work came when I received flowers from my then husband to be Gideon. I had never really thought that somebody could receive flowers and be happy about it, but when I first received flowers from him I was so happy, and I didn’t know what to do with them, and so the only thing I could do was to put them on a table and start sketching them.


And then I discovered that I had to put them, with the passion of love, into a wedding gown, and then later I decided maybe I should join this with a wedding gown and images of weddings. Plus my interest in fashion – I wanted to join everything together, and that’s how it started. Also, when I go to see people in Harare Gardens, they are always behind flowers or in front of flowers, they always sit where there are flowers, they always look for a place where it’s nice to sit. So now I’m just taking that big flower motif and putting it in the painting to make it a background.


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Can you tell us a little about how you paint your flamboyant canvases as well as choice of materials?


I work in a container so I bought big boards, like 3-metre wide boards, which is where I put the canvasses when I am painting on them. Using cardboard blocks I then press the prints onto the canvas and take a spoon and rub on the board to transfer the print to the canvas. I went on a workshop in Zimbabwe through an organisation called Arts Interruptions. They invited an artist from Namibia who specialises in print, Papa Shikongeni is his name, and he specialises in card print, and so it was on that workshop that I learnt how to do cardboard printing.



Please tell us more about your interest in pattern and fabric, which is almost like its own subject in your paintings.


Coming from Africa there is colour and designs everywhere and these designs inspire me a lot. Also fashion in my country inspires me a lot because people are now wearing mostly floral dresses. I try and put fashion into my work, to take everything that I see in the streets – what people are wearing and try and put it all together into my work, into my paintings.


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How does colour figure in your work?


I think it depends on my mood, as I might feel like I should just use white. I don’t see colour sometimes, but other times if I see too much of the same colour I want to put it in my painting.



Who or what are some of the influences that have informed your painting?


I like the work of Egon Schiele and I love Edvard Munch. I love his works…


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How has winning the 10th Tollman Award for the Visual Arts in 2013 and the 2014 FNB Art Prize helped you grow as an artist? 


It’s inspiring, you get more energy to do more of what you want to do, and you are more settled. It’s a feeling that you know that somehow you are going somewhere in your career, that’s how I felt. And I was happy to be supported so that I can develop my career in building my studio, like what we did. We bought a container when we got the prize and so I have a studio now.



What’s next for you?


At the moment I really don’t know what to do next, because of what I have experienced in my life, because my work is basically about myself and how I live, and so it depends on what comes and what is happening in my life.


I Can Feel It in My Eyes is on at Stevenson Cape Town until 29th August.


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