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Peace of Art From Zimbabwe

Restful images, from a place of historic unrest, include fabric paintings by village women and Shona sculptures depicting folklore.


Apart from its inherent visual splendor, a spirit of cultural renewal and jubilant pride pervades the display of indigenous art from Zimbabwe, now in the CSUN gallery. With examples of contemporary Shona sculpture and fabric art by women in the village of Weya, the work here is wrested from village life and from the heart of a culture only recently freed.

Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia until liberated in 1980, serves as a global symbol of freedom, situated in a region of the world where colonial tyrannies and political unrest are commonplace. Still, the political undertones in this show are just that--real-life circumstances deliberately left out of the picture.

Shona sculptors celebrate the mythology of Bantu, the primary language and heritage of Zimbabwe. In this work, emotional and social values are reduced to simple, fluid forms. Thematically, the work explores characteristics and folklore through animal and human imagery, as well as more purely abstract forms.

"Humbleness," by Albert Nathan Mamvura, is a stocky yet sinuous abstract piece, punctured--or ventilated--by a hole and embodying the spirit of humility. In contrast, Robert Kwechete's "Trumpeting Elephant With Family" is fashioned from ornate, intertwining lines, and intends to symbolize the spirit of endurance.

Traditional African art has had such an influence on the development of the 20th century art world that the work here looks less exotic than might be expected. It's not so surprising, for instance, to find an almost Cubist structure in Richard Mteki's "Shy Woman," the soft, coiling lines of which suggest an introspective female figure. "Powerful Woman," a stylized piece by Felix Tirivanhu, goes in another direction, projecting femininity as a bold, outgoing force.

Women artists from the village of Weya, just outside the city of Harare, are responsible for paintings on fabric, an emerging art form. Pragmatism and idealism converge here--the art contributes to cultural self-awareness while also contributing to family incomes in an economically depressed area.

To create their images, the Weya artists use a batik-like technique to dye the fabric with a foodstuff called "sadza," an aspect of the artistic process that helps to align the medium with daily life. And daily village life is the main subject, as well, in images that depict celebrations, working, food gathering, going to market and other activities.

These are festive, life-affirming images, presented in repetitive, decorative patterns that evoke the cyclical rhythms of life. A conspicuous absence of conflict or discontent marks this art, despite ample external cause for unrest. Economic privations and threats of upheaval fail to dampen the Shona spirit illustrated in this work, which adds to its appeal to stress-fueled Westerners like us.


Another Front: In stark contrast, the conceptual work of African-American artists Lavialle Campbell and Lava Thomas, also in the gallery, deals with a more complex matrix of issues, including racial tension, breast cancer and body awareness. The artistic means, too, are more indirect than the Zimbabwe art. In short, this is contemporary Western art, struggling with the development of a new and personalized expressive language.

In her installation work, Campbell deploys a recurring motif of nipple-like objects, references uncomfortably wedged between nurturing, sex and cancerous decay. In "Surfeit" and "Nigrescence," multiple nipples suggest cellular mitosis.

Elsewhere, Campbell's art concerns nebulous genealogy, with fading and uncertain images of family. "Endure" consists of a long line of pudgy white figurines, led by a pair of black and gold figures. Here, racial minority is seen as a sign of distinction rather than cause for racist scorn.

Thomas' work deals more openly with the destructive force of cancer, as well as the sense of mystery and potential dread with which we view our bodies. She fills one room of the gallery with representations, in two and three dimensions, of ambiguous organs--they could be either lungs or breasts, or both.

Her art, with titles such as "Voiceless Utterances," emphasizes that through the unwanted metamorphosis of cancer our very features can become distorted and unrecognizable. With some amount of leavening humor concerning a sobering issue, Thomas' art seems to point out that our organs have an insidious power over our fate. The best we can do is treat them kindly and consider their meaning, which is what the artist does here, with imagination in check.


* WHAT: "2 Contemporary Art Forms From Zimbabwe" and "Intersecting Parallels: Lavialle Campbell and Lava Thomas."

* WHERE: The CSUN Art Gallery, 18111 Nordhoff St. in Northridge.

* WHEN: Gallery hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Thursday and Friday, noon-4 p.m. Saturday; through Saturday.

* CALL: (818) 677-2226.

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