AN OLD SHOREDITCH church is the unlikely site of an extraordinary discovery: African art that has lain unseen for almost 30 years.
In the basement of the deconsecrated St Michael and All Angels, workers emptying the building decades ago uncovered a pile of cardboard boxes stuffed with forgotten artworks from what was then the British colony of Southern Rhodesia.
Now a selection of the surprisingly well-preserved oils and watercolours is on show in a Shoreditch gallery close to where they were found. Later this year they will be returned to their homeland, today’s Zimbabwe.
The exhibition, The Stars are Bright, is named after a painting by Musa Nyahwa, one of more than 40 artists to emerge when they were studying at the Cyrene Mission, an agricultural school for young men. An English clergyman, Canon Edward Paterson, gave daily Arts and Crafts-influenced art lessons as part of a rounded educational programme on the campus, near what is now Bulawayo, encouraging the agriculture students to express themselves creatively.
And express they did, leading to an explosion of “imagination and creativity”, according to exhibition co-curator Jessica Ihejetoh. Rich with colour, detail and a sense of place, the works are said to be unlike either contemporary Western or Zimbabwean art.
Paterson, himself an accomplished painter, saw their worth and shipped a consignment of oils, watercolours and sculptures to Europe for a series of exhibitions, where they won praise from critics. Many were sold to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, USA, and private collectors.
Others, for reasons still unknown, were never sent back from London, instead languishing in the Shoreditch church. The exhibition is the first they have had for more than 70 years.
Ihejetoh said the show was prompted by the desire to “tell the story of black artists”, particularly those “we might not have heard of in London”.
It was also significant, she pointed out, that the school did not try to impose European styles on the students: the artists created distinctly Zimbabwean paintings even when they used non-indigenous stories. Many, for example, depicting Jesus, mother Mary, St John the Baptist and the Good Shepherd as black, a welcome difference from the European tradition of misleadingly light-skinned biblical figures.
The artworks will return to Zimbabwe later this year, before – pandemic allowing – they tour Southern Africa.
Clara Murray 020820
* The Stars are Bright — Zimbabwe through the eyes of its young painters (1940-1947) — is on at the Theatre Courtyard Green Rooms, 36 Bateman’s Row, Shoreditch EC2A 3HH30, until Sat 31 October 2020, Tue-Sun, 11am-3pm. Free admission but pre-booking essential via the website.
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