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Art review: The Stars Are Bright (Theatre Courtyard Green Rooms, Shoreditch)

by
28 August 2020

Jonathan Evens views vibrant paintings not exhibited since 1953

Photo Debbie Sears

Timothy Dhlodhlo’s The Draught of Fishes. See gallery for more images

Timothy Dhlodhlo’s The Draught of Fishes. See gallery for more images

A REVIEW in London Calling in 1949 asked how it was that unknown artists, schoolboys from the Cyrene Mission, had drawn so much attention to themselves: their exhibition at the galleries of the Royal Society of Painters in Water-Colours were crowded throughout the fortnight that it was open to the public.

“The Stars are Bright” shows us what it was that attracted such interest in 1949. Two hundred large paintings, 1200 small paintings, plus wood-carvings and stone sculptures, had been brought by the founder of the Cyrene Mission, Canon Edward (“Ned”) Paterson, at the instigation of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. The exhibition then toured England for three years before going to Paris and New York, followed by a second exhibition in London in 1953.

The unsold works from these tours were boxed up and stored in an annexe of St Michael and All Angels, Shoreditch. There they stayed, forgotten, until 1978, when the church was deconsecrated with the site and its contents were put up for auction. Bought initially by the London Architectural Salvage and Supply Company, the collection is now under the care of The Belvedere Trust, and is being exhibited for the first time in almost 70 years.

What is it about these works that generated so much interest? Vibrant vivid colour, delicacy of line, plus, in the words of Paterson, sheets “crammed to the sky with every imaginable sort of detail: rocks, trees, animals, villages and people”. Painted flat, without the use of perspective, these are paintings in which pattern and colour predominate such that representational images are pushed close to the point of abstraction.

Encouraged by Paterson to allow their imaginations to take inspiration from the varied surrounding landscape and rich practices of religion and folklore, the likes of Samuel Songo, Kingsley Sambo, Timothy Dhlodhlo, and others went on to become the precursors to Zimbabwean modern art. As students, they and their colleagues captured Zimbabwe’s diverse terrain, wildlife, rituals, fables, celebrations, clothing and creativity. Dhlodhlo and Songo are among those whose work includes biblical scenes, giving us, respectively, The Draught of Fishes and The Death of Ananias and Sapphira.

Paterson, who trained at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, influenced the development of modern art in both South Africa and Zimbabwe. Before founding the Cyrene Mission, he spent a year at Grace Dieu, an Anglican high school near Pietersburg, where he introduced the school’s workshop students to bas-relief carving. Continued after Paterson’s departure by a nun, Sister Pauline, bas-relief carving became the school’s trademark style. Ernest Mancoba and Job Kekana, two of South Africa’s first professional black artists, emerged from this workshop.

Photo debbie searsMusa Nyahwa’s The Stars Are Bright (1945)

Last year in St Mary’s Cathedral, Johannesburg. I saw heraldic emblems by Paterson and carvings by Kekana and spoke, in a sermon for the cathedral’s 90th anniversary, about the impact of mission art schools, such as those at Grace Dieu and Rorke’s Drift. Like the Cyrene and Serima Missions in Zimbabwe, these provided training for some of the earliest modern artists in South Africa and supported the use of pre-colonial styles and media.

Nevertheless, there were limitations to the styles utilised because of the preconceptions of teachers and the preferences of primarily white markets — all within the Victorian liberal values unconsciously inculcated by missionary training. The colonial aspects of the mission schools have made engaging with these artists and their training complex for those who have followed them and will have contributed to a mix of reasons that these works sat disregarded in a church annexe for two decades. Paterson’s own influence was also challenged, and then superseded, by another innovative advocate of Zimbabwean artists, Frank McEwan, who founded the National Gallery of Zimbabwe.

Paterson’s vision, influenced by John Ruskin and William Morris, was for the emergence of an indigenous style from the Cyrene Mission. He spoke of his approach as being “the encouragement of art” through “the absence of teaching”. A former student, Lazarus Khumalo, recalled: “Paterson did not tell us what to do. He wanted us to do what we felt. . . He let the imagination run.” He combined this laissez-faire approach with the absence of any external examples of art, particularly Western. A distinct Cyrene style can be noted in many of the works displayed here. There is debate about the extent to which this style emerged from his students or reflected the influence of Paterson’s personal preferences.

It is when his students push this shared style in the direction of more abstract uses of colour and line that the work here becomes most original and pre-empts the emergence of modern art in Zimbabwe. Examples include Tree Flowers by Barnabus Chiponza and The Stars are Bright by Musa Nyahwa.

Photo debbie searsBarnabus Chiponza’s Tree Flowers (1945)

Opening just ten days after the lockdown on galleries was lifted, the staging of “The Stars are Bright” at the Theatre Green Rooms, Shoreditch, mirrors the story of these paintings, which were themselves locked down for 20 years. Black Lives Matter protests since George Floyd’s death have inspired international awareness of institutional racism during lockdown. “The Stars are Bright”, therefore, comes at a critical time to show the work of Black artists, past and present, including the story of these African artists and their work.

“The Stars are Bright” sheds much-deserved light on these young artists and this vital but contested chapter of Africa’s art history. The recovery and display of this collection also poses questions about whether inculturation can be free of influence from the transmitting culture, and whether art and artists coming from a colonial mission base can ever be free from taint.

 

“The Stars are Bright” is at theTheatre Courtyard Green Rooms, 36 Bateman’s Row, London EC2, until 30 September. Phone 020 3222 0674. Pre-booking is required: see www.thestarsarebright.com

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