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Just Add Humans
A Review of Khumbulani Mpofu's Art by Isabella Morris
It was with great interest and a measure of relief that I recently met up with 30-year-old Khumbulani Mpofu, an accomplished Zimbabwean landscape artist on a recent visit to South Africa. In 2006 I spent many afternoons staring at five of the many works that he exhibited at ARTernatives Gallery in Rosebank, South Africa – each one executed in a single sitting at the Gallery. The highly expressive paintings were of windswept landscapes that seemed to be visual representations of the political climate of Zimbabwe at the time. They are no less politically important now.

Across the range of his large multi-media paintings that I was fortunate enough to gaze at, Mpofu presents a straightforward image of a huddle of diminutive structures in the fore- and mid-grounds of a vast landscape – a setting that is always a dramatic combination of land and sky, swirling hues of ochre and kingfisher blue bleeding into each other.

In Squatter Camp and Farmland Mpofu situates four shacks in the landscape, seven appear in Before the Storm and in Lonely Place there are only two structures.

It is the consistency of representation of the humble domestic structures against a dramatic colour-saturated landscape that encourages the viewer to consider Mpofu's rigid loyalty to the genre of landscape and its unvarying contents.

Does Mpofu's fidelity to form and content speak of a purely aesthetic venture in which Mpofu is taking advantage of his paintings' commercial appeal to local and foreign buyers? Or, given Zimbabwe's recent tragic political and social history, is the artist using art as an instrument of critical analysis? Is Mpofu using the recurrent dwelling motif to suggest that on the wind-torn canvas of Zimbabwe, people are still living there? If the viewer believes the latter to be true, and if art is – as many artists and writers posit – the criticism of society and life, then the viewer is challenged to identify exactly what Khumbulani Mpofu is criticising about contemporary society and life in his homeland, Zimbabwe.

The gallery didn’t keep all of Mpofu’s titles, choosing to give more expressive titles than the simple Farm landscape 1, Farm landscape 2, Going Home and My Red Beetle that Mpofu had given them. The gallery assigned Before the Storm, The Lonely Place, My Home Time, Farmland and Squatter Camp. The titles that appear to have the most meaningful connection to the content of the paintings are Before the Storm and The Lonely Place. It is variations on the themes of these two titles that probably best describe the vivid African landscapes by Mpofu, who has had permanent exhibitions in the National Art Galleries in Harare and Bulawayo since 1996.

In Squatter Camp roofs droop over the one-eyed dwellings like tsotsi hats. The open doorways are black eyes in bone-white wall faces. The lethargic warm air currents lift the dust into half-hearted sandstorms between the rib-thin walls of the houses. In the suffocating powder of dust, a faded red carapace of a car lies in front of one of the shacks like a crab shell that has been picked clean.

The only signs of life in Mpofu's unpeopled landscapes are the crooked clotheslines, their warped support poles compliant with the will of a relentless wind. Flapping from the snap-snap clothesline are an ink smudge of blue jeans, a wind-twisted scarlet cloth and a pair of brutal-red trousers. This singular hint at life, present in all of Mpofu's paintings, is usually situated in the foreground. It is this recurrent theme that solicits viewers to take note of what is happening in Zimbabwe, in the same way that the old woman quoted by writer Alexandra Fuller in Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight appeals to our sense of humanity, "You people should pay attention to what is happening in Zimbabwe, not because half of us will die in the next few months, but because half of us will live."

Mpofu is an adept colourist and his confident technique with the bold colours on paper, instead of canvas, is masterful. It is when he uses the portrait format on which to render his paintings that his colour-soaked landscapes are transformed into the dominant and spectacular skyscapes that speak of an immense silence. Mpofu makes no colonial attempt to tame the wild African landscape, instead, he allows the spirit of the continent to infuse the pictures he paints of her bold landscapes. Mpofu understands Africa's bruised moods and he uses her own brilliant colours to paint her. Black-breast velvet and newborn gum-pink, brick-dust and dried blood browns, summer-echo blue and lightning scream white. “I love that rich red of the soil of the landscape,” he says.

Critics may ascribe Mpofu's persistence with the sparsely inhabited landscapes to artistic stagnation, but it is more likely that Mpofu is using his innate sense of colour and scale to force the viewer to confront not only the intense beauty of his country, but also the great silence that surrounds her humanitarian crisis.

If Mpofu is painting his homeland, then so too must he be painting the great empty silence of it. In her novel The Stone Virgins, the late Zimbabwean writer, Yvonne Vera, describes the landscape of her homeland as 'towering boulders of rock, then hills and an undulating silence … dust rises higher than the trees and boulders.'
In Brothers Under the Skin: Travels in Tyranny, Christopher Hope writes 'What struck me as I travelled across the burning land was the great silence. …you had the feeling that this was a country in hiding.' Throughout his narrative Hope conjures up images that concur uncannily with the strong imagery in Mpofu's paintings, real and implied: 'the warm air currents … the occasional wrecked car … the high blue sky … the eerie silence … a palpable adulteration of the light … a mute and mutinous, edgy, hateful silence of fear … there is the wind … this strange humped waiting emptiness …hushed immensity ….' This is what there is to see in Mpofu's paintings; it is what is not visible that is more disturbing. There are no trees, no flowers, no birds, no wild animals. There are no crops, no livestock, no smoke rising from a communal fire. There is no laughter, there are no screams, there is no sound. There are no people. It is this nothingness, this empty silence, that is the true drama of Mpofu's art.

It is for the viewer to decide whether Mpofu's art is an expression of place or an expression of despair. What is important in Mpofu's art though, is important of all art: that even during times of extreme crisis art persists to create a record of history.
Khumbulani's art

Khumbulani Mpofu   Khumbulani Mpofu
was born in 1977 in Bulawayo. He studied fine art at the Mzilikazi Art and Craft centre. He has private collections in the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Netherlands, UK and South Africa.

He had his first solo Exhibition in the National Art Gallery of Bulawayo in 2003. He has participated in a number of group exhibitions since 1996 including two in London in 2002. His latest exhibition in October 2008 was a joint exhibition with sculptor Owen Maseko at the Bulawayo National Gallery.

He has been commissioned to do works and murals by various companies in Zimbabwe and attended workshops in Mozambique and Zimbabwe. He is married with two children and lives and works in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

Squatters Camp  
Isabella Morris
Morris has a MA in Writing from the University of the Witwatersrand. She has written a novel on Moroccan migrants. She is a finalist in the 2009 PEN/Studzinsi Awards (for Bluette) and is the 2007 POWA Women’s Writing, short story winner. Her winning entry appears in Breaking the Silence. Her publishing credits include wordsetc, The Times, and Baobab. She blogs at
  Isabella Morris  
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