An intimate portrayal: Exploring the theme of migration, Zimbabwean artist Ronald Muchatuta puts together mosaics and his sculpted heads while drawing tags on the foreheads. Picture: SUPPLIED
An intimate portrayal: Exploring the theme of migration, Zimbabwean artist Ronald Muchatuta puts together mosaics and his sculpted heads while drawing tags on the foreheads. Picture: SUPPLIED

Zimbabwe-born contemporary artist Ronald Muchatuta, who specialises in drawing, painting and mosaic, relocated to SA in 2007 to pursue a new future and now lives in Cape Town.

He began his career at the age of 16 as a pottery decorator at Ros Byrne Pottery in Harare, Zimbabwe. After being mentored at Gallery Delta in Harare, he finished his fine art exams through the National Gallery of Zimbabwe.

Muchatuta’s first solo exhibition in Cape Town was held in 2014 at Greatmore Studios in Woodstock, his artistic home in the past three years. During the weekends, or late at night, Nina Simone was blasted from the speakers in his tiny clustered studio, competing with the sounds of hip hop in the yard where Khaya Witbooi works. If Greatmore had an award for the most hard-working resident artist, the two would have to share the trophy.

In January, Muchatuta had to clear his studio and move out as his lease had expired. Greatmore’s rent is an exceptional deal in a town of gentrified real estate prices. Other studios cost up to five times more to rent, so Muchatuta moved his studio into his home, a bachelor flat on Kloof Street.

That’s where the BBC came to film an interview with him. Global interest in his art was triggered by his previous series of works, Children of the Necklace, depicting humans whose skins carry a Chinese bag pattern — a powerful commentary on xenophobia. The interview was aired in May.

"People expect great things to come out of that exposure," Muchatuta says.

After taking part in about 50 exhibitions in SA, Zimbabwe, France, England, the US and Italy; being selected for residencies and winning awards and big corporate commissions, he knows better than to buy into the promises that come with exposure.

"The big galleries ignore me. I have no expectations to be approached. There is freedom that comes with being an independent artist, you can choose what you make and to who you sell it. Cape Town has platforms for artists to express themselves and find their way through the cracks regardless of the racial tensions and economic hardships."

The racial tensions and hardships are on display in one of the many coffee shops near his flat-turned-studio. Fellow Zimbabweans are assigned the roles of waiters, as part of the compartmentalised South African economy.

"Everything here is segregated. Somalis work in spaza shops, Zimbabweans are waiters, Congolese are doormen. You don’t see Nigerians working in restaurants. You don’t see groups overlapping," Muchatuta says. "I want to explore who controls this narrative. White capitalists are using cheap labour from the African continent to navigate the conflict with local black people."

He will dedicate his next solo show to the economics of migration. He booked the August-September slot in the main exhibition hall of Association of Visual Arts gallery. The local art world has great expectations of the migration of income spilling over from the opening of Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa last September.

Part of the body of work is putting in personal elements of me. Each and every head that is painted black has something negative written on it

As his exhibition approaches, negotiations for a new studio space rise and fall. Muchatuta heard through the grapevine of Greatmore alumni about a temporary studio in Bo-Kaap and moved there. He walks up a steep narrow road to reach it and says the daily climb is good for his health.

The space will be re-developed by its new owners soon and Muchatuta will have to move again. Loud music is not allowed, so Nina Simone stays at home. "An artist friend declared one of my new drawings to look like jazz — moody with character," he says.

Not being able to escape the theme of migration, Muchatuta delves deeper. His work has become more personal. Taking shape in his temporary shelter of creation are multiple Ronalds — as he skilfully sculpts his own face again and again. He mosaics around the heads and draws tags on their foreheads — "darkie", "kwerekwere", "underdog" and "cheater". It’s more emotional than a mere reflection on geopolitics.

"Part of the body of work is putting in personal elements of me. Each and every head that is painted black has something negative written on it," he says.

"Since I am talking about migration, I’m trying to figure out how to put in my personal story — where does Ronald fit in this body of work? I don’t want to talk about local politics, but it is in my work. There is a lot of pain. It’s an honest work with a lot of emotions.

"My previous work was looking from a distance. Here I dive into my nature and see things from an intimate position. The dense and potent narrative is balanced by the medium — a playful mix of mosaic and drawing. I am pushing the mosaic form and exploring the 3D element."

Unlike many of his contemporary fellow artists, Muchatuta invests in skills development. He does not take shortcuts and he believes in perfecting the craft, in building up towards artistic greatness.

He buys stacks of art history books to read about the masters. "I am concerned with the question of what makes a great artist. Today my answer is a work that is produced with honesty, bravery and introspection," he says.

His latest exhibition is titled The Great Exodus to mark his 10th year in SA. With more than 60 new works, Muchatuta is celebrating art making in a place where he still is labelled an outsider.

"There are artists who do great work, but the Department of Arts and Culture doesn’t assist these people, because they are seen as foreign nationals," Muchatuta says.

• The Great Exodus will be on show from August 17 to September 20 at AVA Gallery.

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