The Daily News on Sunday Assistant Editor interviewed Chikukwa on his role and his vision for the gallery and below are some excerpts:-
Q: Your recent appointment as Executive Director of National Art Gallery of Zimbabwe, how challenging is it especially coming in the midst of Covid-19 pandemic?
A: Thank you for this opportunity to express the direction the Gallery will take. The outbreak of Covid-19 has changed the cultural landscape throughout the world and our institution is not immune to this pandemic. Being appointed the Executive Director of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe at this moment has its challenges for sure. Allow me to state that life without challenges is not creative and it remains my hope that the challenges caused by Covid-19 will allow us to think outside the box and act outside the box. This time has allowed me and my team to rethink, refocus and redesign our operations for Covid-19 is real and it will be with us forever I my own observations.
Q: How do you plan to collaborate/work with other galleries i.e. Bulawayo and Mutare? Any planned synergies?
A: It must be understood that the galleries in both Bulawayo and Mutare are under the National Gallery of Zimbabwe here in Harare as the head office. There are exhibitions that sometimes tour our regional galleries and Aftershock: Re-imagining Life after Cyclone Idai exhibition will travel to both Bulawayo and Mutare soon.
Q: What are some of your immediate assignments?
A: Building a new strong team, the gallery needs a new curatorial team. A curator for Contemporary Art and a Curator of Education and that’s what I have on my table right now and it is my hope that the work will start after building this team and also see how they can join the rest of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe family. Their contribution will make a difference to my dreams and to our dreams.
Q: How is the gallery going to work with schools, be they high schools or colleges?
A: We would like to continue with our schools programs that include the annual schools exhibition Tavatose. Our both Saturday and Holiday Art Camp will follow the new WHO Covid-19 restrictions and guidelines. We also have a pilot Art Adventures programme on our YouTube channel that is instructional and provides entertainment for our younger audience.
Q: Do you have any plans to work with disadvantaged communities; ie the disabled, the deaf etc?
A: The gallery has always worked with disadvantaged communities; disabled and the deaf. Our school enrols students from all communities that include the communities you are talking about and I am happy that as an institution we are inclusive. There are many young artists who have passed through our hands and we want to do more.
Q: What kind of partnerships are looking forward with embassies, donors and how has been the relationship so far?
A: I look forward to partner with both international and local partners to be able to make the gallery visible and support the work artists do. I would like to acknowledge the support we got from the Norwegian Embassy years ago for supporting the new roof that we now have.
We also have the recent funding of the repairs from the Australian Embassy and Swiss Embassy for the repairs of our National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Bulawayo. And also the support we got for the Cyclone Idai Exhibition from partners and Sponsors like Oxfam, CAFOD, United Nations, Welt Hunger Hilfe, Rescue international and Save the Children. Over the years Culture Fund and British Council have been big partners and so has been the European Union. The gallery hopes that these partnerships will continue under this new path.
The new reality of Covid-19 is a reality with us; as a state aided institution there is need to look beyond and face a cultural landscape that is new.
Q: Which art disciplines does the Gallery work with?
A: We work with all art forms and the gallery is a cultural hub that is there for all of us.
Q: How big is your budget? Is it enough?
A: Our budget as a state aided institution is not enough but we continue to survive.
Q: You have travelled around the world on arts related business; how do you compare local Curatorship and that of their countries?
A: Curating is curating; remember I was educated in the West and I see no difference in the exhibition making processes. The difference is that most Museums in the West work with huge budgets of almost US$6 to US$10 million. Here we work on shoestring budgets, but it is what you can make out of the shoestring budgets that have made a difference in the global art world.
Q: What is it that you learnt from the past Executive Director Doreen Sibanda?
A: This was our second time working together and it was easy to map out our direction of course with Tapfuma Gutsa who was then the Deputy Director of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe. Tapfuma remains a pillar in so many ways and I would be naïve not to thank him for bringing us back together myself and Ms Sibanda. We did a lot, and that is why we achieved what we achieved over the past 10 years I worked with her. We managed to build on our strengths and weakness and I am proud of the partnership we had and I am now looking forward to have a similar partnership with the team I want to build.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your history working in the arts world.
A: Well my life working in the arts started at Harare Art Centre under the watchful eye of Norman Chovhuchovhu and Charles Fernando. Later I went to South Africa and did a Post Graduate Certificate in Arts and Culture Management at the University of Witwatersrand in 1997. In that same year I was part of the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale team and there I worked under one of the great curators Okwui Enwezor who passed on last year.
It there at the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale that I was introduced to the global art world and met a team from Pro Helvetia who later gave me a Curatorial Residency at the Centre Pas Quart in Switzerland in 2001. It was in that same year that I also went to the Venice Biennale and the dream to have a Zimbabwe Pavilion started in 2001. When I returned to Zimbabwe in the late 90s I worked with Ms Sibanda on the UNDP project Artists Against Poverty.
Later I became the HIFA Curator for a number of exhibitions. I also curated an exhibition for the commonwealth games in Manchester and later curated Visions of Zimbabwe with James Walmsley. It was that same exhibition that myself, James and Andrea Rose (who was the head of Visual arts at the British Council) together with Michele Robecchi that we wanted to take that exhibition to Venice. But the time was not right.
During the Commonwealth Games in Manchester 2002 I visited the Imperial War Museum to view an exhibition on the contribution of the commonwealth and I was shocked that the African story was missing. I asked to meet the curator and the then curator of Education Rupert came and I questioned him about why the African story was missing.
I told Rupert about my father who fought in Burma and in return he was given 10 Pounds. Few years later they gave me a grant to do a research on those men who fought for the empire and the exhibition was African Heroes and it opened its doors to the public in 2007 at the Imperial War Museum North.
It was also the same year I started my MA Curating Contemporary Design at Kingston University under the Chevening Scholarship and Completed in 2008. While in the UK I was one of the founding members of the PUMA Creative Africa Network with Christine Eyene and others.
I returned to Zimbabwe in late 2008 and Kingston University then offered me another Scholarship to do a PhD and I studied for a year and half and opted out because my family could not join me because of VISA complications.
I am glad I returned to Zimbabwe and I remember when my wife Matilda was denied a VISA, I said to her I am coming back home and she said let’s keep trying. I do not regret coming back to Zimbabwe at that time, and Mambo Remmy Ongala song, “Good or bad, It’s still Home,” pushed me to come back to Zimbabwe.
It was not easy to settle without a job and later I joined the gallery in 2010 and the rest is history. However I would like to thank the Zimbabwean artists for being part of this journey, Gutsa in particular. Internationally, the likes of James Walmsley, Andrea Rose, Michele Robecchi, Christine Eyene, Simon Njami, the late Bisi Silva, Mzee Jimmy Ogonga and Kerryn Greenburg of the Tate Modern.
The collaborations that have happened during the past 10 years as the Curator of the gallery are a result of the trust and hardworking of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe team and Zimbabwean artists too. I am a believer of hard working and the exhibitions and projects we have realised are because of artists and their artworks.
It would be naïve not to thank my wife, Matilda for her continued support and my late mother and father who send me to Harare Art Centre when people never believed that art can be a career. Baba na Mai Chingwa as you are known by many in Chiweshe you remain my heroes.
Q: The Zimbabwe Pavilion (Venice) is associated with you; tell us its history and success so far.
A: When I arrived at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in 2010, Pavilion of Zimbabwe at la Biennale di Venezia was one project I initiated with the Harare Conversations. Coming from a huge network it was easy and I was invited to take part in Curating Africa forum at the Tate Modern and I remember talking about Zimbabwe’s proposed participating at the 2011 Venice Biennale and everybody looked at me.
There was one lady who asked me why Pavilion of Zimbabwe and not starving people in Zimbabwe and I said to her, ‘I do not work for world Food Program and my job is curating exhibitions.’ I had already set up meetings with British Council head of Visual Arts Andrea Rose, Museum of Monaco Director who had send Francois to meet me. While in London all was set for me to travel back to go look at different venues.
I returned to Zimbabwe and later travelled back to London and travelled to Venice, Monaco and all was set and our first participation was made possible by all these partners; Culture France, Museum of Monaco, British Council and our Ministry of Youth Sport Arts and Recreation.
Entitled “Seeing Ourselves: Questioning the Geographical Landscape and the Space we occupy Yesterday today and Tomorrow”, it was represented by artists that included Masamvu Misheck, Calvin Dondo, Tapfuma Gutsa and Berry Bickle. Let me say Zimbabwe’s continued visibility at the Venice Biennale is important because it’s part of soft power in promoting Zimbabwe.
It also promotes Zimbabwean artists because Venice Biennale is one of the most important art platforms in the world. The Zimbabwe Government’s continued support for the Pavilion of Zimbabwe project must be commended and our artists need this platform and Zimbabwe needs this platform too as a tool to promote the country.
Q: Who inspires you with the arts world?
A: The resilience of the African people no matter what, the people of this continent keep inspiring me every day and that’s why they say, “There is no place like Africa”.
Q: During your spare time; what do you love doing?
A: Reading and gardening is what I love most.
Q: How big is your family?
A: Married to Matilda Chikukwa with two girls and two boys .
Q: Anything you might want to add?
A: Well I am honoured to head one of the most important contemporary art museum in Africa and I would like to add value to it in its history. Allow me to thank the National Gallery of Zimbabwe for this and also the Zimbabwean artists and artists and curators across the world that I have worked with in this journey. It’s not over yet and the new path is here now and together as one we can make a difference for the African Art to continue its visibility globally.
To the National Gallery of Zimbabwe I would like to say, our success depend on all of you and all of us and the African Artists and Zimbabwean artists needs you and me.