- Interview by
- Riason Naidoo
In a relatively short period of time, Portia Zvavahera has reached the peak of international stardom in the art world. Born in Harare, Zimbabwe in 1985, where she schooled, trained, and lives—with her husband and three children—the talented and humble artist creates powerful, evocative, and exquisitely layered paintings. These canvases are enriched by decorative hand-drawn patterns, inspired by local street fashion, and printed to resemble textile designs or the textures of animal skins.
Woman and child figures dominate the large picture plane—a reflection perhaps of the early phases of motherhood. Each composition though is unique in its formal qualities with exaggerated limbs, daubed in reds, purples, greens, and ochres and more recently brighter oranges and yellows. Rich, textured areas contrast with surfaces that are completely untouched by the paintbrush, exposing the white acrylic primer—a testament to the artist’s growing confidence in recent years. These unelaborated areas allow the paintings to breathe and focus our attention on the large dreamy and ghostly figures and shapes, described by flat painted expressions of color and delicately drawn lines.
Zvavahera has another gift; she remembers her dreams and translates these onto canvas. These dreams are most often struggles of good over bad, of foretelling, of demonic horned creatures, and more comforting elements from nature. Each painting is a prayer, a meditation, and a battle.
Riason Naidoo spoke with Portia Zvavahera on the occasion of the artist’s solo exhibition Pane Rima Rakakomba (There’s too much Darkness) at Stevenson in Cape Town earlier this year.
There seems to be a strong link in your life between art and spirituality. Going back a bit to primary school you had a subject that you used to enjoy, where you were told Bible stories and then had to come up with a picture or a drawing about that story. Was this your first experience of this connection of art and religion or spirituality?
I’m not sure about that because then in primary school I was just a young child in class doing what she likes doing. I didn’t know that you could make a living out of this. It was only in that subject that we were supposed to draw something. They wanted to exhibit something on the board on parents’ day. It was just that! Thinking back, those moments were amazing. After some time, when I went to college and thereafter, I started to have a better relationship with God. My grandmother would ask us what we were dreaming and that’s how it started … how I started to paint something spiritual. Now I have a connection with God and I know what I am doing.
Later in Form 1 (Grade 8) you got into art quite by chance, since the other courses such as computers and home economics were full; so art was your third choice. Looking back do you see this as a kind of divine intervention?
Definitely! We all wanted to cook in home economics because afterwards you got to eat what you cooked! This was very practical and those classes were always full. It was not possible to join. Since Form 1—art class was now serious—you had to draw and you were judged on your drawing. It was real!
In your professional practice as an artist your paintings are—to borrow the phrase from last year’s Venice Biennale—the “milk of your dreams.” There is this pattern from primary school to the present where your art and spirituality are inseparable from each other.
When I was younger I was not conscious but now looking back we can join the dots and see the relationships of what was happening earlier in my life and now in my career as an artist.
In speaking about your art training at the B. A. T. Visual Arts Studio under the National Gallery of Zimbabwe and afterwards at Harare Polytechnic College, you refer to one of your lecturers who was quite influential in your work and strict about the standards he demanded from the students.
Yes, that was Chikonzero Chazunguza. At art school we were doing everything: ceramics, sculpture, printmaking, painting … everything. One day he told us we needed to combine two techniques in one artwork. As I enjoyed painting and printmaking I combined these two. He is a very special lecturer in my career due to me combining these two media. If there was a drop of paint on your print he would say, “This is a reject!” and ask you to do it again. If you made a good artwork he wanted to see if you could do it again. Sometimes in art you do something good by mistake and you can’t repeat it. He would ask you to do it again. He also wanted us to be ourselves. As artists, there are always other artists who inspire us. He did not encourage us to do that. He wanted us to find our own way. In art school we started to find our own signature …
Who were the artists that you admired, that influenced you?
Thomas Kamungwana, Richard Witikani and Charles Kamangwana, the latter who was more into spiritual paintings. When I started printmaking and painting I loved flowers a lot. I was using it decoratively. My boyfriend (now husband) used to buy me flowers and I kept them in my studio. I used to sketch them (thinking about weddings!) and combining the flowers into my printmaking and painting. When my work was shown to the world, people were comparing my work to this artist Klimt—which is also cool you know because Klimt was no doubt a powerful, powerful, strong artist. It was only then that I started looking at Klimt’s work. I did not see the resemblance at all. He was on his path and I am on mine!
Speaking of which, there was a special pairing of your artworks and those of Gustav Klimt in a dedicated exhibition at De 11 Lijnen in Oudenburg, Belgium in 2019. This must have been quite special and an extraordinary conversation between both your works. Could you share more about that and your thoughts on seeing your art in this context?
It was a great opportunity and honor to have my work in the same space with those of Klimt.
I was looking at your work and that of Virginia Chihota in the 2013 Zimbabwe Pavilion [Venice] Biennale catalog, which were remarkably similar in style back then, although today markedly different. You are now both accomplished artists and recognized internationally, which is an incredible achievement in a short space of time. It’s a good credit to the art schools that you went to, the teachers that you had, and your own exceptional individual talent. Were you two quite close?
We studied together and there was a point where we shared a studio. Then we got married and went our separate ways.
I’m thinking about the ritual of sharing and interpreting of dreams amongst the women in your family. In your paintings too, the woman figure is consistent and central in your work.
We are Christians so we believe in future telling, in prophecy. When I’m talking about dreams I’m talking about my experience and the people around me. I am talking about myself. That is why there is always a woman figure in my paintings. My grandmother told us that the dreams are guiding us! If it is a bad dream, you pray that it doesn’t happen. If it is a good dream, you pray that it happens. It’s a communication between God and people. In Christianity, there are also many false prophets, but your dreams never lie to you. You follow your dreams. You are in direct contact with God. That way you are stronger!
That’s a gift, is it not? Do the other women in your family also have this talent for remembering their dreams?
I’m learning from them [the elders]. They always remember their dreams. You want to wake up with something. If I wake up and I don’t remember my dream, it is so painful! I am miserable. Dreams are like an adventure.
I’m very envious of you. I never remember my dreams. There are only a handful of times in my life that I remembered my dreams. I’m jealous not to have this other life.
You mention that what you are trying to depict in your art is a feeling. So there are the dreams…the paintings…and the feelings…
I work with emotions. When I’m painting I take myself back to that dream and the feeling in that dream. Whether a happy or sad feeling, I want to represent it on canvas. When we talk about love, we talk about feelings. When someone says, “I love you” that is a feeling! That is how I work.
Speaking of feelings, you were selected for the Zimbabwe pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2013. What was that like?
I was scared. I was very scared. I remember running away from people who wanted to talk to me. I didn’t have the confidence to talk about what I was doing in my work. Being in that space was awful!
How old were you?
I was 28 years old.
Last year in 2022 you were selected for The Milk of Dreams—curated by Cecilia Alemani—the main exhibition at the Venice Biennale. What was your experience like returning to Venice nine years later?
A dream come true! In 2013 I was asking myself how does one get selected to be in the main exhibition. It was a great, great honor to be shown with other great artists. It builds confidence. People are recognising your work out there. Despite the fact that you are scared, people want to understand better. I learnt that I needed to be true to myself, to be me … to say what I feel about my work, to inspire people. I needed to throw myself out there!
I am quite curious about your experience in India …
I was at an artist residency in Bangalore [No.1 Shanti Road Studio Gallery] for two months. Worshiping animals is not something you see in Zimbabwe. In India the beliefs are not hidden. It is out there. It’s something you see normally. Worshiping cows in Shona culture is something we hear about of the past, about history. It was like seeing our Zimbabwean culture in India. When I dream about a cow it is not a good sign. It is a spirit that is not good. In India people worship cows! Cows are gods! It raised a lot of questions for me. Who am I and what do I believe in?
I discovered that whatever we are doing under the sun, it’s the same at the end of the day. I went to the Ganges River. There, people are praying and doing all sorts of rituals in the river. Someone is bathing in the holy water. Prophets are using water to clean the people. I came back home to Zimbabwe and whatever was being done in India was being done at home too … but in a different place, in a different time, and with different people. So after India, it made me realize that we are all the same. We are coming from one place. People are choosing a religion or God that is best for them. People are doing yoga and meditating in India. It is another kind of worship and prayer. When you are worshiping God you need your heart, your mind, your strength to be connected to Him. That was my conclusion in India.
You mention that you were quite fascinated by the use of flowers there…
Seeing how people use flowers in India was amazing! Wherever people use flowers it becomes softer, it is given importance. Flowers are magical. They bring joy and happiness. It makes things easy and welcoming. When you attend a funeral you use flowers. Earlier I used flowers in my paintings of wedding gowns. When I use flowers I recognize the presence of God.
Flowers are recurring motifs in your life and work. You were drawing flowers in your studio, making drawings and prints of flowers in your paintings. Prayer, spirituality, religion, dreams…and flowers too, seem to be important themes in your life.
In India people are bringing flowers to their gods. I cannot explain the feeling but one day I will go back to India to learn more and go deeper.
What are your plans for the future?
I am doing an exhibition at the Vatican Library next year and I have a museum show coming up at Kettle’s Yard—the University of Cambridge’s modern and contemporary art gallery.