Hugh Mbayiwa

Hugh Mbayiwa



During the short hours of darkness in the late spring and the early summer the immense activity of resurgent life was everywhere. Between spring and the scorching suns of summer was little enough time, and so, wherever you turned, you were aware of the brightness of wing and the song of insect and beetle and cricket myriad and prismatic as the flowers that also suddenly came after the rains as if wrung dripping out of the heart of the African earth and the barren frosts of the Karoo winters.

In this remarkable passage John Howland Beaumont has captured the austere yet iridescent life cycle of the Karoo, a place of ‘great heat, great frosts, great floods and great droughts’. A realm of extremes, the Karoo has nevertheless possessed an irresistible magic when, in the narrow bridge between late spring and early summer all of life, ‘myriad and prismatic’, flourishes. It is then that we see the desert ephemerals, the mud-flat annuals, all of the Karoo’s succulent xerophylic life – from the Greek xero/dry – emerge ‘as if wrung dripping out of the heart of Africa’.  It is as if Howland Beaumont had found in Karoo life a metaphor for painting, for it is the iridescence of a world wrung dripping which also conjures the landscape paintings of the Zimbabwean Hugh Hatitye Mbayiwa.

Drawn always to magical moments, moments wrapped in splendour, Mbayiwa has found in the Karoo the perfect metaphor for his artistic and moral vision. As Mbayiwa puts it, he chooses to ‘interpret Africa on her smiling day’. This view tellingly reveals the artist’s focus, one which he shares with the Nigerian novelist and poet, Ben Okri. ‘Our time here is magic’, says Okri. ‘It’s the only space you have to realise whatever it is that is beautiful, whatever is true, whatever is great, whatever is potential, whatever is rare, whatever is unique. It’s the only space’. For Okri and Mbayiwa the magic happens in the here and now, and our responsibility lies in becoming one with that magic in whichever way best inspires us. In Mbayiwa’s case it is acrylic and oil on board and canvas that is his ‘space’ in which to embrace all that enthrals and transports him, be it the undulation and fold of a mountain, the drunken poise of a revitalised succulent, the dazzling glare of flora and fauna, a sky, benign, as mesmerised as the artist by the glittering treasures all about.

To interpret Africa ‘on her smiling day’ one must know its hungers and hardships too. For Mbayiwa however this knowing must always return him to Africa’s state of grace. As the artist declares, ‘The greatest fortune is to be exposed to our capabilities so that we can explore the real and endless possibilities within us’. It is this infinite possibility and promise which defines the elan or spirit of the artist’s being, for Mbayiwa is a man honed by a wonder in-and-through which the living world – a world of stone and sun, root and floral crown — comes to embody or to body forth all of life’s yearning.

In the 13th Biko Memorial Lecture in 2012, Okri was to immemorially capture this grace and wonder, because for him Africa was not that which ‘we see every day’, it was not that which was most obsessively and compulsively discussed – Africa as a place of dread and horror, of hunger and famine. Rather, for Okri what mattered most was what he called ‘the real magical Africa we don’t see unfolding through all the difficulties of our time, like a quiet miracle’. It is this ‘quiet miracle’ which John Howland Beaumont has exquisitely recorded in his book, The Great Karoo, and which Mbayiwa too has conjured in his paintings. All three are mesmerised by the quickening yet momentary splendour of life’s natural forces. In the Karoo Mbayiwa has found that narrow window of splendour, that miraculous all too brief moment when beauty draws from a barren and punitive earth the succour to wondrously flower. For Mbayiwa the canvas is the space upon which to drip these rare moments where brevity is made eternal, where the gasp of amazement is enshrined, and where beauty – the beauty of a harsh dramatic landscape – is forever kindled. His ‘time’, his ‘country’ is immortal. And yet that immortal rendering of time and country must always be understood as a gift of moments as vividly alive as if wrung dripping.