2nd Quarter, 2006
Art Scholarship Winner
Josiah is working on his MA in Fine Arts at Canterbury Christ Church University College, Kent, UK.
A Portion of Josiah’s Winning Essay:
I am tired of chasing the winds. Currently, I am a research officer for media rights NGO, the Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe, after previously working in different professions and organizations. Now I realize my future lies in the visual arts and have decided to make a restart, taking everything back to where it should have begun.
Why visual arts? I have always been drawing, sculpting and molding since childhood, but I went through an education system in Zimbabwe which treated (and still does) art as a hobby, and very few schools teach it as an examinable subject. Art education is sparse, and in 1993 I was lucky to attend my “A” level studies at a school where art was being taught thanks to American United Methodist Church missionaries. I deliberately chose that school for that purpose at great risk. If I had failed to score the requisite GCE points for that school I risked studying at a worse school than where I was before because schools considered those who put them on first choice. “A” level schools or private colleges were very few then.
Mrs. Jimmye Whitfield, an American teacher who seemed to possess an endless diary of art events locally, nationally and internationally, guided me through. During that time, I won several awards locally and regionally during my two years in high school, and when I sat for my Cambridge GCE “A” level art exams in 1994, I earned an A-grade distinction. I even managed to sell some works at exhibitions, and I remember I was the first student to buy a trendy boot called “Bad Boys” in 1993!
Those few sales and prize monies encouraged me a great deal ,and I thought I would be able to follow my passion and make money out of it–a rare gift of life. I passed my A-levels and proceeded to the sole university in the country then: the University of Zimbabwe that I knew offered no art at all. It still doesn’t offer Fine Arts though they have introduced Art Education meant for people who are already teachers, which I am not.
Though I was offered a place at the Harare Polytechnic College, the only institution of higher learning in the country that offered Graphic Design and Fine Arts I never attended the school for several reasons. First, biology was against my dreams. My real father and mother had divorced while I was too young to know ,and I grew up in the custody of my mother and stepfather in a typical patriarchal Shona (my tribe). They believed life was all about getting a university degree and “a good office job” in the private or public sector. They were rural teachers themselves. They made it clear I should go straight to university and harbor no other plans if I was to continue to be a member of the family. I knew the seriousness of the order because my stepfather could simply get me out of his house, and my mother had no power whatsoever and could not face the prospect of yet another divorce on my account.
Secondly, I grew up in a traditional, superstitious rural society totally unaccustomed to art for art’s sake. The closest things to art in that life were crafted utensils, spiritual symbols or walking sticks — “useful” artifacts. I vividly remember that people who played traditional musical instruments like chipendani, mbira, or even a box guitar were considered social misfits. Yes, outcasts! My parents and other relatives came from this school. In fact, I do not recall how many times I was beaten up by my parents for drawing instead of “studying”, for wasting crayons meant for the whole school term or for drawing images on my T-shirt. These were among an endless list of “art crimes.”
I think the colonial legacy in the country that put ceilings to which jobs Blacks or Whites could get influenced people’s perceptions. My urban-based relatives kept feeding me with frightening stories of discrimination within advertising agencies which were predominantly white-owned then and that could have partly shaped my parents’ opinions. They probably thought, “Oh, graphic design, that’s for Whites.” The situation was made worse by the fact that no one we knew in the whole clan actually pursued art studies so we could compare notes.
So I headed for university where I earned a BSc Honors Politics & Administration in 1995 and then enrolled for a graduate diploma in Media & Communication Studies in 1999 whose course outline appeared to have some element of art. It was slightly useful in the sense that it introduced me to Apple Mac, which I believe is any artist’s best friend. We also produced a University publication, The Varsity Times, where I learned desktop publishing, layout and news writing general skills during the course. But I went a step further; introducing illustrations, cartoons and vivid in-house ads that were never in the newspaper hitherto. We also learned how to shoot and edit videos.
Taking advantage of the Mac computers, I taught myself how to design logos, promos, music sleeves and all. I remember the systems administrator saying I was the first person he had ever met who could do paintings in Adobe Photoshop and he, like my colleagues, thought I was in the wrong field altogether. They could have been right. However, I could not do much because, in terms of the course, those computers were mostly there for typing assignments, Internet research and publishing of the paper. The computer room was not exactly a graphic design studio though it had the best equipment for the job!
I have exhibited in local galleries, there aren’t many anyway, and I started to think about the resourceful Mrs. Whitfield, but she had abruptly left the country without leaving any contact. I am sure that is why organized artists engage managers and promoters. There is a big difference between being a good artist and being a good marketer. I was discouraged by the slow sales, and in 2004 due to under-performance I managed to save some money (inflation rate is 600%) and bought a used Mac iBook computer that I have been using since then to teach myself design applications. I have managed to design packaging and logos for a young healthcare products company. I have done several business cards, letterheads and all sorts of small jobs. I also managed to make T-Shirt designs under my label Sun Afro-Designs with that old machine. The designs were popular but the venture is seriously undermined by high inflation and the shrinking of disposable income in the market. It needs fair capitalization to kick off in a country where a thousand dollars today are worth absolutely nothing the next day. I scarcely control the production process, as I have to out-source the T-shirts, typesetting colour separation and filming.
In 2003 I illustrated The Dream Of Stones, a children’s book that won the 2004 National Arts Merit Award (NAMA) for Most Outstanding Children’s Book, receiving critical media acclaim in local newspapers. We plan to do an animated DVD rendition, but the author and I lack funding and expertise. So I desperately need some basic training on technologically assisted illustration and animation.
Preparations for my first one-man online exhibition at www.kubatana.net reached an advanced stage. It will be focusing on the issue of state sponsored human rights abuses, poverty and propaganda–something dangerous in the country today. I am encouraged by the initial media interest but am aware of a possible drastic response from our Government that tolerates no free expression. I have started these self initiatives having realized that every time I apply for a job in advertising, arts administration, teaching, or any other related creative work I get a reject because they require a basic art certificate, which I don’t have.
As a journalist, I have published several features on arts in Zimbabwe as well as reviews and profiles of artists. My favourite is “David Chinyama: A Battle for Self” a profile of a now successful local artist who was actually chased away from his home by his father, for continuously drawing instead of “studying”, and could have crumbled on the tough streets of Harare had it not been for a white art lover who housed him. I couldn’t write my own story, but he was an emblem of what artists of my generation had to go through in their craft.
I have discovered that I lack certain theoretical aspects necessary for critiquing art. I feel that more palpably when I read magazines like Art Scribe, Art News, Art Review or Modern Painters. I hope to hone my writing skills to that level, but that requires knowing art history, critical theory or visual culture: all things that can be acquired with the help of formal teaching. I want to be more than a craftsman. I want to be an academic; critical and authoritative as well. My greatest wish is to pursue my studies either in North America or The United Kingdom because of their technological advancement in the media and creative industries. The frontiers of academic research in art, media or material culture are more advanced in those countries than anywhere in the world. Besides, English was my language of instruction throughout my educational and professional journey.
It is 2006 but nothing has changed for the better in Zimbabwe as far as art education is concerned. In fact the harsh economic and political climate prevailing in the country worsened the situation. It is another wall I have to break now. There’s de-industrialization. Large corporations that need the creative industry are pulling out of the country. Students who wish to pursue a visual arts degree still flock to South Africa, America, Europe or Australia if they have the hard cash, which I don’t have.
My perseverance has paid off. I was unconditionally accepted by Canterbury Christ Church University College, Kent, UK, to study MA Fine Art which to me is evidence of the strength of my portfolio. The course commences on 2nd October 2006. Art education is of crucial importance to me because it will reinforce my flair, give me the theoretical and practical grounding to broaden my horizons and give me certification that would enable me to seek employment within the creative industry if my own projects fail. Art, to me, ought to be useful. It seems only logical to pursue visual communication in this information age. I believe one never knows his/her full capabilities unless tested, especially in a classroom. I do not know yet what I would become after graduating from art school – a graphic designer, fashion designer, web designer or painter , but one thing is certain: going through art training will shape the final decision. It is the first step. Still the other degrees I studied might come in handy later, after all, and dovetail with my art studies. It is a journey.
I have great hope things will change for the better in this country, and I want to be in the creative department of that change. Generally, there is a boom in Southern Africa and opportunities abound in advertising, web design, online journalism, e-learning, e-business, teaching and all, and Zimbabweans are in high demand. There is one more thing that I would do if I succeed in my endeavors. I would like to teach, train and give career guidance to anyone with a passion for art. It is only proper. I have walked that road, and I don’t want anyone to start it all over again!
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