By Farai Mutsaka
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 used to draw Jesus as Black because God is for all of us. He is not a God of color,” said Sango.
The painting done by his late father in the 1940s is part of a historic exhibit, “The Stars are Bright,” now at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe for the first time since the collection left the country more than 70 years ago.
A photograph of Sango’s father, Livingstone, as a young boy hangs next to the painting.
“We never knew our father was such a great artist but after 70 years we are seeing these pictures. We are being called,” said Sango. “Some of these pictures we had never seen before. I am seeing my father as a boy.”
Sango’s father went on to become an accomplished taxidermist working for the National Museum in Bulawayo.
The compelling exhibit at the National Gallery until the end of October is of paintings done in the 1940s and 1950s by young Black students at Cyrene Mission School, the first to teach art to Black students in what was then white minority-ruled Rhodesia.
Using bold strokes and bright, lush colors filling the entire canvases, the students depicted African life in dance, household chores and hunting wildlife alongside the emerging modern world of railroads and electricity lines. The paintings vividly depict tales of African folklore as well as Bible stories in an arresting intersection of African tradition, history and the Christianity introduced by western settlers.
The paintings quickly won admirers, including Britain’s King George VI, who visited the school in 1947. A collection of the work created at Cyrene school between 1940 and 1947 was sent overseas to be shown in London, Paris and New York. Many paintings were sold and helped to fund the school.
Later the paintings were stored in the basement of St. Michael’s and All Angels Church in London and over time they were forgotten. The artworks were rediscovered by a Zimbabwean who recognized the name Cyrene on the boxes when the church was being deconsecrated, according to a press release by organizers of the exhibition in Harare. He brought the paintings to the attention of others who recognized that a treasure trove lay in the basement.
“The Stars are Bright” exhibition has returned the paintings to the country, where many Zimbabweans will see them for the first time. Photographs of many of the artists as young boys are displayed alongside the paintings.
“It was a very difficult time in the 1940s. It was the height of World War II and it was the height of colonialism in Zimbabwe,” Lisa Masterson, curator of the exhibition, said. She said the school’s founder Edward Paterson was far-sighted to make art a compulsory subject. “For a white Anglican priest to empower young black students with new skills and belief in themselves was completely revolutionary in those days,” she said.
“Paterson was a true believer that art could unite people. And that no matter what people saw in an artwork, it didn’t matter what color you were, or where you came from or what tribe you were from, art was a unifying factor,” said Masterson.
Many students from Cyrene school went on to become artists, teachers and professionals, despite the restrictions of white-minority-ruled Rhodesia.
In 2020, “The Stars Are Bright” exhibit showcased the works at the Theatre 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 Manicaland province in late 2021 and in the western city of Bulawayo in April this year. Now the full exhibit is on show in Harare.
“Today, after having spent 70 years away from their homeland, these astonishing works are finally back home to be viewed,” Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa said after viewing the paintings.
Coming amid growing calls for the repatriation of African art to the continent, some say the Cyrene paintings should return to Zimbabwe permanently.
“It is very important for this heritage to speak to its own people,” Raphael Chikukwa, the executive director of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, told The Associated Press. “The families of these artists can have their children and grandchildren look at this collection, to be able to speak to this collection and to admire it. Because at the end of the day if the collection returns to the U.K., they are unlikely to have any further connection with it.”
The organizers say they are negotiating with the Curtain Foundation, owners of the collection, for the permanent repatriation of the works.
“This art being brought back home is what we want,” said Sango. “The heritage must be brought back home. This will dry our tears.”