Historical paintings return to Zimbabwe after 70 years; one shows Jesus as a black man

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From Associated Press


HARARE: For the first time in his life, Gift Livingstone Sango, 65, saw a painting by his father depicting Jesus as a black man.

“My father always drew Jesus in black because God is there for all of us. He’s not a colored god,” Sango said.

His late father’s 1940s painting is part of a historic exhibition called ‘The Stars are Bright’, which is now being shown at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe for the first time since the collection left the country more than 70 years ago .

Next to the painting hangs a photo of Sango’s father, Livingstone, as a young boy.

“We didn’t know that our father was such a great artist, but after 70 years we see these pictures. We’re being summoned,” Sango said. “Some of these images we had never seen before. I see my father as a boy.”

Sango’s father later became an accomplished taxidermist working for the National Museum in Bulawayo.

The riveting exhibition at the National Gallery, running until the end of October, features paintings made in the 1940s and 1950s by young black students at the Cyrene Mission School, the first school to teach art to black students in then-white minority Rhodesia.

With bold strokes and bright, lush colors filling the entire canvas, the students depicted African life in dance, housework and hunting wildlife alongside the emerging modern world of railways and power lines. The paintings vividly depict tales of African folklore as well as biblical stories in a compelling intersection of African tradition, history and the Christianity introduced by western settlers.

The ‘The Stars are Bright’ exhibition has brought the paintings back to the country where many Zimbabweans will see them for the first time. Alongside the paintings, photographs by many artists as little boys are on display.

“It was a very difficult time in the 1940s. It was the height of World War II and colonialism in Zimbabwe,” said Lisa Masterson, curator of the exhibition. She said the school’s founder, Edward Paterson, was farsighted about making art a compulsory subject. “For a white Anglican priest to empower young black students with new skills and belief in themselves was totally revolutionary at the time,” she said.

“Paterson firmly believed that art could unite people. And that it doesn’t matter what people see in an artwork, no matter the color of your skin or where you’re from or what tribe you’re from, art was a unifying factor,” Masterson said.

Many students of the Cyrene school became artists, teachers, and professionals, despite the restrictions of white minority-ruled Rhodesia.

In 2020, The Stars Are Bright exhibition featured the works at the Theater Courtyard Gallery in London. Now the artworks have come back home to acclaim. Some of the paintings have already been exhibited in the scenic Honde Valley in the eastern province of Manicaland in late 2021 and in the western city of Bulawayo in April this year. Now the entire exhibition can be seen in Harare.

“Today, after being 70 years away from their homeland, these amazing works are finally back home to be viewed,” Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa said this week after viewing the paintings.

Amid growing calls for African art to be returned to the continent, some say the Cyrene paintings should be returned to Zimbabwe permanently.

“It is very important that this heritage speaks to its own people,” Raphael Chikukwa, executive director of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, told The Associated Press. “The families of these artists can let their children and grandchildren look at this collection, talk to this collection and admire it. Because at the end of the day, when the collection goes back to the UK, they probably have no further connection with it.”

Organizers say they are negotiating with the Curtain Foundation, owner of the collection, about the permanent return of the works.

“That art that’s brought home is what we want,” Sango said. “The legacy must be brought home. That will dry our tears.”

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