A conversation with Tapfuma Gutsa

What is your creative process like?
I am restless and intuitive. There was a time I was interested in social issues but of late, I am more concerned with form within its pure sense. My involvement with basketry has had an influence because of its rudimentary vocabulary that lends itself to abstraction. I love new material associations that come from nature.

How has your style changed over the years?
I would rather not be remembered for style but for thought process. My work is fluid and responds to my immediate surroundings and sometimes to specific events. The thought process in fabrication defines the final configuration of a given work.

What has been your greatest artistic success?
Art touches people. I have seen people cry while viewing my work and some claiming they were healed by it. Perhaps one aspect I am humbled by is my mentor-ship of other artists.

Do you experience creative blocks?
Everyone does experience blocks. When I do, I take a break and do things like fishing or visit my favourite people like Thakor or Paul.

What do you wish you knew about sculpture before you got started?
I am lucky in that I have always been making things since childhood. I was mildly surprised when my work was pronounced ‘art’! As herd boy, I used to read forms in the trees and granite boulders of Murehwa.

What is the most challenging part about working with natural materials?
I think the most difficult part is truthfulness to the material instead of acting clever. One strives to turn the mundane into the out of the ordinary.

It has been said that your use of materials ‘both advances and subverts the tradition of stone sculpture that dominated Zimbabwean art through the 1960s and 1970s’. Can you tell us more about this?
I have a natural flair for materials and a formidable vocabulary in terms of form and imagination. Perhaps therein lie the advances. I was taught wood carving by the legendary Cornelius Manguma who instilled line into my practice. That trait was further nurtured by Mukomberanwa. One thing I am glad for is that I escaped McEwen because he defined the art of an era to which I would have rebelled. In fact, he was of the opinion that I polluted a pure art form! I think the most lasting mark Sango, Masaya and myself left is that we secularised art. The reason was that we came into art at the end of revolution and wanted to look at the world with new eyes unhampered by the shackled mindset of the colonial regime. I guess because we were somewhat educated, we were aware of art in much more universal way as opposed to the provincial which was encouraged before independence. This led to mixed media. I am also luck to have studied in the UK and participated in numerous Triangle workshops that opened up new avenues of thought.

Do you do anything in particular to seal your paintwork?
I am still experimenting with things like DM6 and wax. Any suggestions? Talking of painting, it has been a refreshing challenge.

Why the title ‘Mutations and Permutations: A Situationist Proposal’?
I am looking at some philosophical issues especially the relation of numbers, growth and how organisms and ideas propagate. Since I came back to Zimbabwe, I have had to adjust my practice to suit the time. Working with Daniel and Rony also presented specific challenges on how to keep the studio open in a time when work is not selling. We have managed so much ex nihil and over time have been developing a theoretical definition of our practice through which we discovered that in the mid 20th century, just after the war, there was a group of artists and activists who called themselves Situationists who were more proactive than the existentialists. We believe that with art, we can cause positive change to society.

How does this exhibition define your career?
I bearing my soul here and am prepared to make a fool of myself. That the gallery has given me so much space and leeway is a great honour and responsibility, the thing is to rise to the occasion.

Where do you see your work going after this exhibition?
Art is the only thing I know so I am going to create more challenges. Of late, I have been thinking of cutting stone again. I think I can still contribute towards the movement. It would also be nice to set a school situation whereby I can impart some skills. At 59, one thinks matters of legacy.

Tapfuma Gutsa’s exhibition Mutations and Permutations: A Situationist Proposal officially opened on the 8th of October 2015 at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Harare.

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