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Vahombe: Calvin Dondo Spins Colonial Photography On Its Head in Zimbabwe

By A.A.V. Amasi

Have you ever driven down a street and had an epiphany that you could be on the right track to witness something spectacular? Its not that you have a particular intuition, but the Phil Collins track “In the air tonight” comes on the radio, making the synchronicity clear.

Calvin Dondo Spins Colonial Photography On Its Head
Calvin Dondo Spins Colonial Photography On Its Head

On Kaguvi Street, doing my “I’m late” even by African time standard village shuffle, on the very spot where the White Pioneers first established a colony, I felt apprehensive. Kaguvi Street formerly known as Pioneer Street was the first designated road in what is now downtown Harare.

Hard to imagine, that this now pot-holed strewn street was once the hottest spot in this city, vibrant and colourful bedrock of hotels, bars and beautiful girls lining the street corners for rough talking, gold prospecting dreamers.

In post-independent Zimbabwe, the street has lost most of its colonial glitter and become a mainstay for greasy mechanics, thieves, touts and vagabonds. This week, I found myself on this historic street and no, I was not in search of a working girl’s ghost or to buy stolen ball bearings or perhaps to do some sinister dealing with the shadowy, shoddy characters that line it these days, but rather to visit Harare’s latest contemporary art gallery.

Njelele Gallery was opened in May in a commercial space that was once a car mechanics office and yard. The space has transformed into what one street urchin calls “good for the ghetto” and another dreadlocked Mechanic’s big up sign in the “big tings agwan” Jamaican sensibility gives it an authentic urban vibe.

Amongst Its contrasting, but equally appreciative patrons are township youth appreciating art for the very first time, sprinkled with a fairly sizeable number of what Americans would call “Yuppies” who probably view the gallery as a place where Suburban art lovers meet art from the gut and soul of the Ghetto.

In the midst of the youth are probably some potential artist hoping to one-day exhibit at the gallery and the “Yuppies” collectors of art to adorn Harare’s mansions for future profit or perhaps as a status symbol in contemporary Zimbabwe.

Njelele aptly named after a Zimbabwean sacred shrine, is positioning itself as a cultural platform for contemporary visual art forms such as photography, film, sound, installation and animation.

According to Artistic Director Dana Whabira the gallery is “an urban laboratory for creative experimentation, erudition and encounters with everyday life”.

Africa’s new curatorial confidence of indigenous modern art themes brings greater focus on “non-western art”, giving local artist a Fubu (for us, by us) attitude in their creativity. Njelele is the latest Zimbabwean cultural voice for an African contemporary art generation.

With its first ever exhibition “Vahombe: Vanobuda Mumvura Vachikwira Kumakore” (The elders who come out of the water and climb the clouds) showcasing the work of award winning Photographer Calvin Dondo.

“The exhibition is a tribute to the fallen heroes such as Nehanda, Kaguvi, Mukwati among others” said Dondo “ It’s a combination of historical images with skyscapes, which I photographed. I have merged them to bring the liberation heroes to life in contemporary times.”

“The exhibition is a tribute to the fallen heroes such as Nehanda, Kaguvi, Mukwati among others” said Dondo
“The exhibition is a tribute to the fallen heroes such as Nehanda, Kaguvi, Mukwati among others” said Dondo

Dondo uses digital image processing to fuse together two composite visuals to create a masterful single final image. Colonial Photographers shot the original images, unaware of their future relevance as iconic pieces of art.

I wonder, what would they make of Dondo’s Vahombe? When I posed this question to one of Njelele’s patrons, the answer shook me “ He would either be shot or hanged”. I can almost picture his epithet “ died for his art”.

I guess 19th century Photographers would not understand, why photography is now viewed as art form in the contemporary world. Vahombe is a series of historical photographs that explore African spiritualism, colonialism and liberty.

Photographs of clouds in different states are merged with historical images of captured Zimbabwean heroes of the first Chimurenga war, who later became the ancestral inspiration for Zimbabwe’s 1970’s liberation struggle.

What Dondo does, is successfully stitch together images of the past with that of the present to create an eerie panorama.

The early study of photography linked it to soul replication and when these portraits were taken, the Photographers, without realisation replicated the eternal spirit of Zimbabwe. It’s impressive, how Dondo hijacks images and manages to project them into today’s cultural trajectory.

Vahombe remakes the image of the African’s subjection into a powerful statement, thereby giving the fallen heroes eternal relevance. Dondo’s perception of the past seems to imply that it is spiritually linked to the present through ancestors who watch over us from the sky.

To Western thought it must sound mumbo jumbo, a bit like Daniken’s “Chariots of the Gods”, but in African thought it’s a reality. Standing in the middle of the gallery, I felt an ethereal presence as if the revolutionary spirits summoned by Dondo through these photographs were in the room.

Dondo approaches photography as an Artist and is able to invoke imagery from his imagination, without much effort. With this latest work, Dondo has moved into the esoteric art arena because Vahombe is infused with alchemic thought and symbols of dead revolutionaries’ spirits in the clouds.

The photographs hauntingly embed themselves into the consciousness of the viewer, even as I write, I feel like that kid in the Sixth Sense “I see dead people”. They seem so alive and stare as if, they are observing me back, in the same way Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa’s eyes follow you across the room.

Dondo has illuminated the invisible matrix of ancestral spirits into Zimbabwe’s contemporary society.

Paradoxically, one-audience member first viewed Vahombe as a memorial to the liberation martyrs, who died resisting colonization and then later after a few glasses of wine, saw the photographs as creative electoral exploitation.

However, according to Calvin Dondo the historic figures are an echo from the past and a reminder of Zimbabwe’s forgotten heroes and lost traditions. The urban elements in the photographs emphasize the juxtaposition between traditional cultures in contemporary times.

I found it quiet ironic, that on the street where a new indigenous cultural platform has been established was the very place that ushered foreign cultural ideals. In conclusion, Vahombe is connected to the mystical ideal that our present is determined by our past or our present determines the future.

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