Kudzanai-Violet Hwami / Interview Ludovic Delalande

“I think from the beginning – starting with the size of the paintings I was screaming “see me!” That’s what some of most black bodies feel I think, “see me, see me!” the individual. And this isn’t just saying this to non blacks but asking other black people too. It’s simple.”

A rising star on the Zimbabwean art scene, Kudzanai-Violet Hwami was born in 1993 in Gutu, Zimbabwe and has been based in London since 2016. Her pictorial work lies at the crossroads of cultures, eras and techniques. Applying a defined process, the artist takes photos from family albums or of anonymous figures from the internet and reinterprets them digitally combining them with text or other features. Her digital collages are then transposed onto canvas before final processing, using a variety of supports and media, such as silk screen printing, pastels and charcoal. Her work, with its expressive brushstroke, lines and bold colours, portrays a range of characters – adult or child, alone, in couples or in groups – in large format compositions with an emphasis on the articulation of the body. Sensual or imposing, lying, sitting, standing, face-on or from behind, the black body is proudly exposed, affirming itself in all its nudity and male, female, androgynous or queer diversity. Through portraits and self-portraits, the artist explores gender and sexuality, childhood and nostalgia, spirituality and identity, displacement and the diaspora. Classical references and popular inspirations combine, informed by personal experience and collective memory. Kudzanai Violet-Hwami’s works anticipate a resolutely optimistic vision of her native Zimbabwe that she left when young to live in South Africa before moving to England to study.

© Kudzanai Violet-Hwami / courtesy of the artist & Tyburn Gallery

Who are the characters in your paintings?
Working 70% from found images doesn’t give me much control of how the characters come out. A photograph of my father sitting on the trunk of a car isn’t going to change much when translated to paint. The only thing I can do is flip the story over its head and send it into a fictional past-future narrative.

Standing, sitting down or lying down, from the front, rear or side, low-angle or high-angle perspective, generally alone, sometimes in pairs or groups, you rework the genres of portrait and self-portrait with great freedom to create new forms. How does this work and why the plurality of perspectives?
It just so happens that when planning paintings or a series of works plurality shows up during the collage process. There’s never a plan to show a group or an individual. I select photographs taken by me or found in an old album and work from there… unless specified most collages do sometimes come on a whim. Portraiture has been a way to assert representation of black bodies, that’s why I stick to it. I’d love to paint flowers in vases but I have feeling that might not cut it for someone like me.

From one work to another, some characters reappear, notably a female figure with a beard and bananas horns on her head. Who is this androgynous faun and why is she so present?
During the late teens as I figured out sexuality I was fond of the male figure to the point where I wanted to be one. The reappearance of the male figure, the androgynous faun is a love story between fantasy and reality.

Your compositions seem to be articulated around the representation of the body contained within tight framing. This leaves little space for the background which is sometimes reduced to a simple flat coloured space. Male or female, adult or child, these often naked black bodies invade the space of the canvas and dominate it with their imposing presence. Why this focus on the body and of what is it the symbol?
I think from the beginning – starting with the size of the paintings I was screaming “see me!” That’s what some of most black bodies feel I think, “see me, see me!” the individual. And this isn’t just saying this to non blacks but asking other black people too. It’s simple.

© Kudzanai Violet-Hwami / courtesy of the artist & Tyburn Gallery

This issue of Something We Africans Got’ is dedicated to feminism. Are you interested in the topic and does it find an echo in your artworks?
When I began painting, images were images. The female body, the male body, a black body was just that. Just that. And so to answer your question I’d say the topic of feminism in my work, if it shows up, is not intentional. It just is. I’m painting black bodies because I’m surrounded by black people, sometimes, predominantly female. And I suppose this shows up in the work. I’m not sure I think of these characters in the paintings as statements but as figures that just are. Stripping away the topics of blackness and femaleness all that’s left are human beings.

Are you looking to express any position or message through your art? If so, what might they be and who would be their recipient?
Depending on the painting or series, sometimes there are attempts to deliver a message and this message is selfishly destined for me and people like me. I can’t say which people because I’m not sure who the people are. I’m working through something that I can’t explain yet. Therefore, I can’t direct anything towards any one group of people.

What are the main themes of your works?
Lately there’s been a lot of confusion about my work. From psychedelic reading to the search for identity and attempts to avoid identity. Jungian theories to Fanon… The themes vary depending on what I’m reading or listening to. I think what leads the work isn’t a specific issue but questions on how to be/live.

What are your references and sources of inspiration?
Podcasts and reading. I am a big fan of Alain de Botton, Terrence McKenna, Carl Jung, Camille Paglia, Alan Watts, amongst others. Only because I went looking out for them myself and they weren’t handed down to me. They write and teach about topics I have always been curious about ever since a young age. Other sources of inspiration are music and cinema.

© Kudzanai Violet-Hwami / courtesy of the artist & Tyburn Gallery

Your paintings bear similarity to photography and cinema, what is your relationship to the image?
In my late teens I spent a lot of time watching films. My relationship to images is strong; it is what I most rely on to perceive the world. And since I have never been a literary type, images have been my main language. Cinema opened up my imagination and new worlds and ideas were introduced. I remember watching films like the Tree of Life and The Fountain and even if I now feel slightly indifferent to them now, I obsessed over them in my late teens. These are just two of the the many films that brought wonder to my life.

Why painting? Have you or do you intend to explore other media?
I’d like to explore film and sculpture. Painting was one of the first mediums I was exposed to and I exploring ideas faster than I would with film and sculpture. And I think I like the freedom of working alone, making decisions alone. Film requires a lot of collaboration. And sculpture requires a lot of time.

Your paintings could be described as expressionist. They are a combination of forms, techniques, textures, colours and effects. What is the process you use?
I draw from everything and my resistance to a single technique, a single theme, makes me work this way. I look at a lot of masterpieces, study the techniques and I apply it to my paintings. Rauschenberg’s use of silk screens has been a huge influence, Jenny Saville’ paintings of the flesh were an early influence while I studied in college and then later Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings of black people in these beautiful dramatic scenic environments made me start to think about individuating the black body.

– To which history of painting do you feel you belong?
I’m stuck between neo-expressionism, early pop art and modern art. I can’t decide which one speaks to me best.

– How does your work stand in relation to the Zimbabwean art scene? A clean break or continuity?
I paint nudes and my belief systems are rather more world-based. On the other hand, I’m very much into Shona sculpture and its connection to spirituality. And I have the freedom to work this way because I am part of the Zimbabwean diaspora.

– To what extent does Zimbabwe consciously or unconsciously affect your imagination?
I focus on the future and try to avoid the present and, mostly, the past. Building and imagining a future Zimbabwe is my super power. I can escape into that power and dream up whatever fictional scenario Zimbabwe might find itself in in the future.

After growing up in Zimbabwe and South Africa, you went to study in the UK where you still live today. Why don’t you live in the country at the heart of your work? Have you found the  »right distance » for your artistic gaze? What do your works say about Zimbabwe?
I’m one of a million Africans who was a victim of circumstance. Moving to South Africa and then to the UK wasn’t my choice; life happened. And at the beginning my work was about a search for identity between the three places that define my own sense of identity. There is no specific attachment to Zimbabwe other than my family and the fact of being born there.