On a recent winter afternoon, we (myself and Joanne Peters) gathered around a pot of hot lemon tea to interview Rashid Jogee. Rashid had made the tea himself and picked the fresh lemons from his garden. As soon as he put the tea down, he was busy with another task: making a “rollie”.
By Alex Gwaze (Curator)
Considered one of the godfathers of Contemporary Art in Zimbabwe, Rashid is one of the few practising Abstract artists. In his 30-year career he has taught at the Mzilikazi Arts and Craft Centre and he headed the Art Department at Founders High School in Bulawayo. As an artist Rashid has had over 48 exhibitions in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique, Italy, United States, Denmark, Germany, England, and Sweden. In the 90s, former President Robert Mugabe honoured him with the Presidential Award for his contributions and his dedication to the development of the Visual Arts in Zimbabwe. However, Rashid doesn’t rest on his laurels, stating, “In any artistic endeavour you always reach a horizon. You pop your head out the water and it looks lekker. Then you dunk your head down again and swim. Then you arrive at a new horizon. And if you are doing well, in time you will pop your head out again and arrive at a new realm of understanding”.
Rashid is a painter, sculptor, poet, guitarist, teacher, and a handyman who describes himself as “the champion of African people” – amongst other things. Over the course of the next 2 hours, it is only when I bring up his achievements that he digs into a dusty box and pulls out his papers – awards, certificates and honours, for us to see. The man rarely talked about what he has done. Instead he gushes about other artists who shaped his career such as, Marshall Baron, Stephen Williams, Voti Thebe, Doreen Sibanda, Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, Paul Goodwin, Derek Sherwood, Derek Huggins, Helen Lieros, and Raphael Chikukwa. There is a comforting honesty in his humility but his work quickly reminds you that he is in a league of his own. Jogee has never been considered restrained, he is an eccentric with the politest of manners.
His lifestyle is a walking advertisement for working with your hands and when he travels, he gets around on a bicycle. The walls of his home are littered with artworks, most of them his, but some from his peers. The first thing you see when he opens the door is a painting called ‘Not Yet Uhuru’. According to Rashid, his home has always been a cultural point since his childhood; “political discussions with his peers would take place under the watchful eye of his parents and sisters”. His sisters are still heavily involved in his art, often providing financial and emotional support. “I’m all for women’s emancipation, equal pay, equal opportunities. Without my very capable sisters I wouldn’t be able to survive”, he adds. Many who know Rashid personally will tell you there is nothing economical about his choice of words. Rashid can talk. We had come to see him to do a quick interview but ended up talking for hours. In fact, we had been talking for almost 35 minutes before I asked my first question: how did you get into Art? To this Rashid replied, “At an early age in primary school, other kids in my class would come to me to draw anything artistic, from diagrams to maps for rubbers, fountain pens, pens, pencils, you know”. Ironically, his journey to Abstract Art started because, as Rashid stated, “First of all, I couldn’t draw very well, although later I found that drawing is very important. You can’t paint if you can’t draw”.
When I asked him how he paints since he “can’t draw so well”, his revelation of his process was just as informal as our surroundings. His main influences in all his artistic works come from Eastern cultures – especially Sufism and the writings of Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, Indian percussionist music, popular music, Poetry, and African music. Somewhere between telling us which artists he listens to the most, Rashid breaks off into a Shona resistance song; which unfortunately I was not familiar with. “I love Shona music, Andy Brown – I taught him at Founders – and I knew Chiwoniso personally”, he said. An avid music fan, Rashid cannot create without the eclectic mix of Bob Dylan, Beyoncé, Cliff Richards, The Beatles, Rihanna, Michael Jackson, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, and Abdullah Ibrahim. “Musicians”, he adds “are the most respected artists in all African cultures”.
Rashid’s methodology is steeped in the rich history of Art. “To be a good artist you must have a good sense of composition. Where to put things. Tone. Texture. These are the composite elements of abstraction,” he informed us. Despite his aesthetically pleasing compositions, Jogee makes the kind of Art that can only be constituted for a purpose, rather than the pursuit of profit. “Art must be reflective of your environment. Whether it is a positive or negative vibe, you must try as hard as you can to get your message across in your Art. A decorative picture does not mean anything. It has got no truth in it. You can’t travel with it, it has no baggage. You just sit and enjoy it with your eyes. It’s on the surface. Real Art must be relevant to you and your environment”, he asserted.
There is a certain romanticism in Rashid’s outlook on Art and what it is supposed to do to the viewer. His ‘approach to creating Art seems natural, ‘loose’, and ‘heroic’, but it is derived not only from observation and practice, but also active participation in the subject matter; “Getting your hands dirty,” as he called it. No stranger to danger, Rashid was conscripted as a medic in the Rhodesian Défense Force (RDF), and recalls one scene when he had to pick up a human torso rived by a landmine and put it in a bag. This incident was explored in his work called, ‘Landmine’. “In Art there is always the retrospective elements. Sometimes after you have produced something, you can identify its sources”, he said. Rashid’s work is Abstract but it is deeply rooted in current affairs and the political situation in Zimbabwe.As he gave me a tour of his home – which also functions as a free open gallery – I couldn’t help but notice the titles of his works are inspired by major political figures or events in Zimbabwe – in fact he even has a picture of President Emmerson Mnangagwa opposite a painting dedicated to the First Lady called, ‘Auxilia’, on his living room wall.
When I asked him about all his political references, he told me that, “Politics is Art, Art equals Politics. Artists are the documenters of the political events”. Rashid’s work is full of authentic ideas about everyday life, passionate love, politics, family, traditions, and musical undertones. He is a visionary, and I suppose that is why his work seems abstract. He is a man trying to paint the future with meagre tools from the comfort of his home. Rather than blaming his tools or “the situation” he soldiers on, trying to heal all those who gaze upon his work with his bright – muted colours and vivid non-objective scenes.
When I asked him, what motivates him to continue to paint, especially in this uncertain unstable economy, he replied, “For me it’s necessity. Personally, to express myself and my feelings. Painting allows me to be vocal and give people ideas. It allows me to represent how others are feeling”. Rashid also counts local radio presenters as people that “really keep you going, especially in these troubling times when it’s hard to even find bread and paints”. This might sound strange due to the nature of his kind of Art (Abstract) – but Rashid is a storyteller. As abstract as his works might seem, what he does best is bring it all down to Earth. “Water always finds its own river. So, when you get the response or reply from others, saying that person is like me, that’s my great reward”, he said. Painting, according to Rashid, is a way of finding someone who is similar to you – someone you can relate to and share experiences. “Sharing and bartering will always be a necessity for our people. You always paint with others in mind because you learn from each other and strengthen each other’s commitment. And increase your knowledge. When you are being oppressed by anything, you have to fall on learning and educative processes to liberate yourself. Because they can take your home or your car but they cannot take away your knowledge”, Rashid said.
There is a Delphian quality to Rashid and his artworks. When we left, I felt as if I had come down the mount’s slopes with a clearer vision of the future of Zimbabwean Art. For example, when I asked him how he felt about “the Zimbabwean Situation”, he began by giving me a history lesson about his existential interactions with the different Zimbabwean governments over the decades, from the Rhodesian Front to ZANU PF to MDC. For years he says he has encountered the question, “How are they going to give the people power? That’s the problem in Zimbabwe. Africans grew up with a forced inferiority complex. Africans were categorised as inferior, so in everything they do they start from the position of they can’t. This is what I am totally against”. To drive his point home, in true abstractionist form, he borrowed the words of famed Sufi writer Jalāl-ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī to illustrate his outlook on life: “Rumi says, if there is a flea in the blanket, don’t burn the blanket, remove the flea. In other words, don’t be extreme in your actions. You’ve got to be a man of the world and a man for all seasons”.
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Rashid’s artworks can be viewed at the National Galllery of Zimbabwe in Harare and Bulawayo, and Gallery Delta.