Venice Biennale \\ Zimbabwe’s Dana Whabira Reflections

Dana Whabira is one of the four artists from Zimbabwe showcasing at the Zimbabwe pavilion in Venice. At the 57th Venice Biennale opened on May 10, 2017.

Born in London, Dana Whabira is a child of the universe, her heritage wings spread to Argentina, Poland and South Africa. Whabira is an incredible artist with a background in Architecture having studied art and design at Central Saint Martin’s College in London. At the Biennale, Whabira showcases three masterpieces; Circles of uncertainty, Black Sunlight Suspended Animation

Circles of Uncertainty is an ongoing series of works on paper that outline memory and migration. In these drawings, the artist explores the concept of flight in its ambiguous sense that is flying on an aeroplane or fleeing to exile. Circle of uncertainty is a voyager’s phrase that explains a situation when the pilot is unsure of the aeroplane’s co-ordinates and radius around the estimated position.

Immigration and going to exile are mostly considered synonymous to Africa; according to Whabira, many Zimbabweans migrate to UK for the search of greener pastures. To some people who make it abroad, it is just a stopover before they could return to their native country. Depending on the reasons as to why one flees their homeland, their drudgeries in the foreign country and on return are the same. Dambudzo Marechera, a Zimbabwean writer captures the trepidation of one leaving home in his book

The House of Hunger Whabira on the other hand, reveals the confusion and the despair of immigrants in this installation which, puts immigrant in circles and continuous search that is never ending.

Dambudzo captured his image in nostalgia of what he had left home, while on the other hand, Whabira captures the trepidation of immigrants. In Whabira’s Circles of Uncertainty, one could see flight into exile and return home which is as convoluted as when in exile. The culture shock, trying to find one’s footing, identity, bearings all are in the exiles makeup bag, while the loss of dignity, history, culture, and country define the exiles trepidation. Whether in exile or back, an immigrant will forever feel lost. Whabira’s father went into exile escaping the colonial Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) later returned to a post-colonial Zimbabwe. Therefore, using her own experience, Whabira captures the tortured and tormented soul of returnees. Famed Ugandan author John Ruganda in Shreds of Tenderness tries to capture this pain through the sibling rivalry played between Odie and Wak- where Wak; an exile returns home to a cold reception.

The intricate design of the circles, the cartographic convolution, the dense entangling lines and boundaries open up a discussion on self-identity and subjectivity. The artist, as if addressing the myriads of problems associated with uprooting one’s life, crossing international boundary lines and returning to the point of departure. She also addresses the spiritual and the restlessness of a tormented soul.<

Kneeling on the floor as she draws, the lines of flight, shows the connection the soul has with the ground (Photo: Raphael Chikukwa, courtesy the National Gallery of Zimbabwe.)

Black Sunlight the artist draws wisdom from Dambudzo Marechera’s book with the same title. The art installation is composed of neon lights, sound and animation that explore the formation of the local language and identity through the colonial encounter between Britain and Zimbabwe. The artist explores language not as a medium of communication but as a tool of control and manipulation. The neon light illuminates the letters from the first alphabet of the Shona language developed by a missionary and linguist Clement Martin Doke. Although some of the letters, derived from Latin, are obsolete, Whabira tries to recreate them to pass a message of how a new language was developed by the colonialists to create a rift in national identity of Zimbabwe today. In Eric Blair’s (known by the pseudonym George Orwell) book 1984, the author shows how the manipulation of language helps distort human identity and belief hence making them subjects to higher authorities.

Neon reads, “It’s not the end of the world.” part of an installation, ‘Black Sunlight’ by Dana Whabira exhibited in the Zimbabwe Pavilion, at the 57th Venice Biennale 2017, entitled “Deconstructing Boundaries: Exploring Ideas of Belonging” Curated by Raphael Chikukwa, Photo: Dana Whabira, courtesy the National Gallery of Zimbabwe<

The sound element in the installation is a play on the transliteration of words that ultimately distort the intended meaning. In this case, Whabira cleverly speaks of the loss of hunhu/Ubuntu an African way of being which defines person-hood in relation to others. Filled with vinyl scratches, the sound is reminiscent of the colonial scars that have remained in the souls of African who are struggling with the motto; ‘Accept and move on.’

The animation, which is the final part of the installation, “examines critical points in the lesson utilizing archival materials such as various Standard Shona dictionaries and literature by Zimbabwean writers. The piece offers a current translation and insight into the history of Rhodesia and now Zimbabwe,” states the artist statement. The artist, in Black Sunlight, seems to put Ndambudzo Marechera at the center of the struggle for identity in the post-colonial Zimbabwe. Marechera was a well-known poet, Novelist who penned the critically acclaimed book House of Hunger

The last installation Suspended Animation composed of the remains of 42 dress forms the shift from the manufacturing process to the import-fed current economy of the Zimbabwe due to the current financial crisis in the country. It is not just the import that disturbs the artist as much as the immigration of Zimbabweans to the UK. The artist mourns that many of her country folk in diaspora suffer from myriads of problems right from underemployment to working in secondary sector where labor exploitation is high. The creative ingenuity put into coming up with this installation shows the intense thought that drove the artist into portending that, with the current economic structures in the world, humanity has been reduced into machines where work has no meaning but to ensure that survival is achieved. The artist here becomes an omnipotent seer of the decadence of humanity, the surrender to suffering and the redefinition of human rights which like in the ‘Animal Farm’ the oppressed continue to get the crumbs of the rights they ought to enjoy.

Like many other artists, Whabira’s work is subject to numerous interpretations. Using her own ingenuity, she builds a serious discourse around migration and the search for a restless soul. Whabira is the founder of Njelele art exhibition in Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwe pavilion at the Biennale is curated by Raphael Chikukwa.

This year’s exhibition, which closes on November 26, brings on board several African artists from Nigeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mali, Tunisia, Morocco and Kenya.