Visual artist gives back to city community

One of Zimbabwe’s leading visual artists, Charles Bhebhe, is currently embarking on a project to train and mentor upcoming artists.

Sitting next to an unfinished painting in his Bulawayo studio recently, Bhebhe passionately spoke to NewsDay about his life journey in art and his burning desire to give back to his community.

Strewn on the floor of the studio were a range of acrylic paints that he was using to put final touches on a painting depicting a man and a woman holding hands walking over an X emblazoned in red.

“I normally do social commentary. There’re certain things that I reflect on which are based on people’s day-to-day experiences. I am more into people. I look at everyday simple people, those who are in the struggle for survival. For example, I look at vendors or recipients of food aid and try to bring them in the picture,” said the artist whose piece “Nightmare” won the Radio Dialogue art competition last year.

“With art there are no rules. It’s about what the artists wants to say at the moment. My art is just an expression, more like storytelling — a kind of surrealism, half-dream, half-reality. I play around with themes and ideas,” he said.

He added that the main challenge for young artists in Zimbabwe today was about striking a balance between producing good art while at the same time keeping body and soul together by earning an income.

“There is a fine line between making a living and producing good art. I am not going to teach the young people how to paint like me, but what I’ll do is to guide them using my experience so that they can discover the artist in themselves as well as how to manage themselves professionally,” said Bhebhe.

He said that part of him was a social activist keen to use his talent to help the cause of the underprivileged and marginalised within society.

“I seek to give a voice to the voiceless. They’re normally the ones who count the most. But I’m fiercely independent and want to maintain that in my work. I want people to look at my pictures and make them think and feel something; my paintings have to speak to people. They should evoke questions. People must ask: why is it like this?” he said, waving his hands.

Bhebhe, whose art career spans two decades, said that he will identify promising artists and mentor them for approximately six months in partnership with the City of Kings business initiative.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) will also chip in with funding for the project as a way of promoting the professionalisation of the informal economy.

He added that part of the training programme will involve teaching young people about the philosophy and business of art in order to enhance their lives and livelihoods. In Bulawayo, as in many parts of the country, young people have turned to the arts in their hordes in order to cope with economic pressures.

ILO estimates that 93% of jobs currently available to young people in developing countries are in the informal sector: earnings are low, working conditions are unsafe and there is little or no access to occupational protection.

In recent years, the number of young Zimbabwe without access to formal employment has risen exponentially. According to Bhebhe, the talent of such young people needs to be harnessed and honed so that it can reach its full potential.

“When you study art at school, you’re never prepared enough for the business of art and this is where most of our young artists have problems. So when the young people that I’ll be working with at my studio see what I’m doing and how I do it, they’ll get an experiential experience. I want to see more artists emerging than what we have today,” said Bhebhe.

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