Portia Zvavahera, Cleansing, 2019, oil-based printing ink and oil bar on canvas, 79 1⁄8 × 68 1⁄2".

Portia Zvavahera, Cleansing, 2019, oil-based printing ink and oil bar on canvas, 79 1⁄8 × 68 1⁄2".

Portia Zvavahera

Entry into any discursive space comes at a price, especially when that which enters does so through translation. Herein lies the rub for artists such as the Zimbabwean painter Portia Zvavahera, who takes her dreams and turns them into art. However, her paintings are hardly a direct translation of her dreams. As even she herself has said, “I change it somehow.” Be that as it may, translation remains a grounding feature of her work, and it takes precedence, not only in the construction of her subject matter, but also in its aesthetics. Although Zvavahera draws a lot from her spiritual and religious practice, her work does not grandstand like what she calls the “false prophets who come to you and say all these crazy things and want money.” Instead, it lingers in the everyday and in the domestic space, invoking issues of troubled and troubling intimacies.

Zvavahera’s recent exhibition “Talitha Cumi” (Little Girl, Arise) exemplified exactly the double bind in which dreaming isn’t simply a literal act but is also a desire—even a hope—for a kind of emergence. This came out quite strongly in her eight recent paintings, each centered on a single feminine figure who is beyond despair or marginality—and is therefore coming into being. The show’s title was derived from a biblical account of Christ bringing a young girl back from the dead. Drawing from this religious source, these paintings—rendered in bold and seemingly carefree poetic gestures—transformed troubling occurrences into epic painterly compositions. Zvavahera’s recurrent use of motifs that resemble well-known Zimbabwean batik cloth patterns might instantiate this fixation with the domestic. The same can be said about the embellished and elaborate costumes in her imagery. However, these patterns were used here neither in their usual decorativeness nor to stage an indigenism like that of the imaginary African aesthetic that feeds the tourism industry. Instead, they seemed to suggest a kind of aggrieved feminine interiority.

Zvavahera’s paintings develop out of what appears to be a relentless process of layering of patterns in a haunted washout palette. The resulting palimpsests are as intriguing as they are beautiful. In Seated with Agony (all works 2019), a figure draped in a festooned whitish shawl sits in the dark as she faces the viewer with a worried expression. Contorted limbs, rhythmically in tune with the shawl’s flowery ornamental patterns, encircle her body. Similarly, in Kubuda Mudumbu Rinerima (Rebirth from the Dark Womb) a figure emerges, upside down, out of a nocturnal enclosure that resembles a screaming mouth. Around her circles a vortex of lines, as if ready to spit her out. This frightful imagery, also seen in works such as Cleansing and Arising from the Unknown, depicts (as the titles suggest) operations of transitioning, overcoming, and purification. Emergence is the sine qua non of these works.

We find depictions of deathly solitude again and again in Zvavahera’s oeuvre, but not so insistently that familiarity with it breeds indifference to the plight it registers. Her work, neither fatalistic nor uncritically hopeful, seems to thrive on darkness. Paintings such as Arise Spirit Within and Flight of Flames show figures appearing (or disappearing) in quasi-Victorian costumes: Are they becoming manifest, or are they being swallowed up?