Tendai Mupita, SaNdawatya, 2020, ink, acrylic, and gold leaf on paper, 68 1⁄2 × 60 1⁄2". 

Tendai Mupita, SaNdawatya, 2020, ink, acrylic, and gold leaf on paper, 68 1⁄2 × 60 1⁄2".

Tendai Mupita

I can obsess over obsessive artists. And in Tendai Mupita’s exhibition “Kuedza Mudzimu nesengere” (whose title means something like “those who are willing to take dangerous risks”), I let myself wander among the labyrinthine lines of his large-scale drawings, inspecting his curvilinear ink webs as closely as I would Agnes Martin’s geometric pencil marks—though the work of the two artists could hardly be more different.

Mupita, born in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 1990, studied fine art some seventy miles away from his hometown at Chinhoyi University of Technology, where he did research on fractals, examining their relationship to patterns in traditional African designs, from basket weaving to architecture and town planning. He inherited from his father and his grandfather a profound respect for the spirituality, archetypes, and rituals of his native Shona culture, which he translates into works flowing with bubbling vital energy. Testing the waters (all works 2020) is a barefoot African version of Richard Long’s promenades, with a different tempo. The apparently unassuming actions Mupita registers—drawing circles on the red soil, piling up rocks and ceramic fragments from a nearby cave on a dusty country road—stem from ancestor worship, a pillar of the Shona people’s cultural and spiritual values. In what Mupita calls his sacred spaces in nature—nondescript sites such as the edge of a mountain, even a bus stop—he captures precious, fleeting moments of presence, honoring his family constellation.

In large works on paper, Mupita mixes various mediums—colored inks, acrylic paint, gold leaf—to obtain layered, vibrant, and tactile surfaces. His meticulous attention to detail manifests the intensity and quality of a meditation; his craftsmanship translates a creative act into a mystical experience. Intricate patterns made up of tiny circles or ovals, which seem to endlessly self-generate in psychedelic proliferation, reflect his interest in the harmonious chaos of fractal forms.

Mupita does not set his narrative scenes in recognizable locations, nor is he interested in verisimilitude. Instead, he creates a reality suspended between myth and dream. His characters, scintillating figures made up of points of light and pearls, stars, and corollas of flowers, live in enchanted spaces. Shaman women, inhabitants of the sky or of the deep waters, have the hieratic fixity of archaic divinities, as do their spiritual companions: totemic sacred animals such as pythons, monkeys, and salamanders—or a luminous dog, custodian of secret wisdom in SaNdawatya (the work’s title translates to “Mr. Ndawatya,” after his father’s family name). In the glorious Musha Mukadzi (II) (A Home Is Because of a Woman [II]), a female figure, her skin decorated with Mupita’s signature circles like astral tattoos, may incarnate Mother Earth, her loving embrace providing a healing, protective environment—a luscious, Edenic landscape in which humans and beasts can live in harmony. In the work’s dense, compact, yet absolutely fluid spaces, everything is contiguous: the flower, the crocodile, the river, and hybrid human and animal creatures.

Mupita’s approach suggests that all living beings have the same importance and are connected by a molecular and germinative energy that flows among them. From the minuscule dimension of the seed to stellar vastness, everything blends and coexists: Signs and forms simultaneously evoke earth and water, suns and galaxies, while the human presence manifests itself in both the physical and the ethereal realm, connecting above and below. A young artist confident in his expressive tools and conscious of his cultural identity, Mupita confronts the risks and dangers of time travel, from ancient African traditions to contemporaneity. His work seduces us with its hypnotic charm, and with a language at once spontaneous and sophisticated.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.