1.8 / Review

Young Africans from Southern Rhodesia in “The Anniversary Show”

By Randall Miller February 9, 2010

In 1957, Dr. Grace McCann Morley, director of the San Francisco Museum of Art (now the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), exhibited paintings by a group of artists from Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) who were studying at the Chirodzo Native Art School in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia. The exhibition included upwards of 900 works—mostly watercolors—done by artists ages 10 to 16 years old. Many of the paintings sold while on display at the museum, and the proceeds were used to purchase books and supplies for the school. Twenty-four of those original paintings, representing fifteen of the artists, are now on view as part of SFMOMA's 75th anniversary exhibition, "The Anniversary Show."

The anniversary exhibition is a welcome shake-up of the museum's permanent collection that thankfully avoids the standard textbook-style narration of the history of Modern art. The watercolors by the Southern Rhodesians are a particularly surprising inclusion among the pillars of high Modernism. Many of their pieces are visually dazzling, full of novel color choices and graphic ingenuity. Their inclusion also exemplifies the curatorial daring of what was once a nascent institution; one that was willing to cast a wide net at a time when the projection of Modern art may not have been as exclusionary in California as it was in New York, or as rigidly codified as it is today.

This work, as a historical locus of interest, is partially contextualized by the works with which it shares a gallery; these include paintings by Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky and a sculpture by Alexander Calder. Reconciling the influence of so-called "Primitive" art on Modern practitioners, or engaging traditional non-Western art practices without sliding into ethnocentrism, has been a treacherous pursuit for Western—especially Modern—art institutions (for examples see The Museum of Modern Art's (MoMA) controversial 1984 exhibition, "Primitivism in 20th Century Art," or review the history of the Paris Biennial). San Francisco Museum of Art was no exception to this tendency, having hosted an exhibition of "African Negro art" during the 1930s, which was on loan from MoMA.

It seems unlikely that these paintings from Southern Rhodesia would have originally been exhibited were it not for their formal similarities to work by Western artists who had actively mined non-European aesthetic traditions. While masks, sculptures, and tapestries from Africa, India, and China still served as curious exotica for Western cultural audiences in 1957, the exhibition of these paintings did not rest on those same theoretical foundations. Dr. Morley was attracted to this work because of its vibrancy and because it fit within her institutional program, which was to enrich the museum-going experience and expand the appreciation of fine art by serving up a diverse diet of fresh and unfamiliar aesthetic experiences. [1]

Still, these paintings were not acquired by the museum as works of art per se, according to Sarah Roberts, a curatorial associate in SFMOMA's collections department; rather they were originally presented as the work of children. Unfortunately, there is no real attempt within the current

Chiota S. Untitled, 1957; watercolor on paper; 10 x 10 inches. Photo: Randall Miller.

Andrea. Untitled, 1957; watercolor on paper; 10 x 10 inches. Photo: Randall Miller.

exhibition literature to dispel this qualifier. Neither are individual pieces authoritatively ascribed to specific artists as was done with the assortment of images featuring Bay Area landscapes at the front of "The Anniversary Show."

Dr. Morley's humanitarian partnership with the Chirodzo school was also a factor in acquiring this work. Ironically, the informal nature of this relationship may be another reason why these paintings and the artists who created them have never been fully accredited by the institution. These artists are still recognized only by the names written on the backs of the paintings (their full names were never recorded). The rose-tinted wall text next to the paintings is also decidedly short on detail, leaving many questions unanswered.

The work, however, speaks for itself. Some of these paintings are impressive works of art that certainly go beyond any remaining qualifiers. With their jewel-like color, graphic exploration, and complex spatial arrangements, the formal sophistication of many of these paintings cannot be denied. In my opinion, the aesthetic dialogue generated between this work and that in the rest of the gallery leaves two early Pollocks looking a little ham-fisted.

All of the watercolors depict some element of nature. Most are landscapes that describe fantastic botanical worlds full of inventive color. A painting on the left side of the grid, signed “Chiota S.,” shows a cluster of hand-like trees set against a salmon background. Branches rendered as slender digits curve up toward blue-green circles filled with amorphous red shapes. Within the ambiguity of these clusters, description begins to give way to irregular patterning. Small houses line the bottom of the composition and are grounded by discrete graphic marks that read as both scrubby grass and abstract texture.

A piece by Nayabako is filled with tertiary violets, pinks, and yellow-orange. Strong diagonals direct the viewer’s eye from the base of a giant tree at the bottom left corner to a village of houses in the upper right. The houses float in space but are umbilically connected by an undulating purple pathway to the burnt orange hills below. The village could be read as the child of nature or a conjured thought bubble. An array of diagonal and curved lines, and round and geometric shapes exist within a skillfully arranged composition.

Andrea, another of the artists, shares a similar talent for compositional arrangement. One of his paintings is organized into large flat areas of burnt orange, blue-green, and yellow. A wavy tree breaks the pathway separating the hues. Blacks and whites are used like colors to distinguish the interconnected houses from one another. In another of Andrea's paintings, swirling forms create a vibrant all-over composition full of warm high-saturated hues and neutral tones. The forms could describe a garden thicket, a tangle of snakes, or an abstract maze of nonrepresentational shapes.

The paintings by the Southern Rhodesian artists describe imaginative worlds where form and color vacillate between the descriptive and the abstract. These decisions are formal, but also conceptual. Nature exists as both a known and unknown quantity, familiar and mysterious. The decision to include this work in SFMOMA’s 75th anniversary show was a wonderful choice, and the artists presented deserve as much credit as they can possibly be afforded.

 

“The Anniversary Show” is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through January 16, 2011.

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NOTES:

[1] Information regarding the original exhibition of the Chirodzo pieces was provided by Sarah Roberts, Curatorial Associate, and Janet Bishop, Curator of Painting and Sculpture at SFMOMA, in conversations with the author on February 1 and February 2, 2010.


 

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