Wallen Mapondera, Pahasha, 2019. Courtesy of the artist + SMAC Gallery
Although Zimbabwe still produces painters and stone sculptors, an emerging generation of young artists mainly experiments with found materials and stretches the boundaries of established art conventions. Found materials have become a popular medium in response to the acute shortage of conventional art materials in a country that imports products mainly from Asia and South Africa. Mapondera’s material of choice is mostly cardboard, as he is interested in the politics of food packaging, which he weaves cardboard into conceptual abstract wall tapestries.
For this work’s title, the artist employs Shona street slang, which is not easy to translate. Pahasha denotes the busy and highly congested parts of the city or town where business is brisk. The informal sector dominates such spaces in a country like Zimbabwe faced with persistent economic challenges. It is a competitive environment in which the vendor must be aggressive like a rottweiler to survive. This work, featured in Chirema Chine Mazano Chinotamba Chakazendama Madziro, Mapondera’s solo exhibition, captures everyday business transactions among Zimbabweans living in the nation’s urban zones.
The work adopts cartographic aesthetics and reads like an aerial photograph or architectural map. The space covered with wax paper represents residential zones. The wax paper is glued on to a worn-out tent, a metaphor for Zimbabwe’s fraying social fabric, a direct result of the seemingly endless socio-political problems. The congested convergence zone is denoted by the central navy-blue rectangle weaved in gold and red, with gold signifying making money and red for the spilling of blood. Here, in central parts of Zimbabwe’s cities, are busy trading zones where law enforcement agencies clash with vendors marketing their wares in undesignated zones. The law enforcement agencies regularly destroy or confiscate goods sold on the street pavements and from car boots. They unleash teargas and fire rubber bullets in the ritual of dispersing informal traders and their clients from the busy spaces. This scenario is well articulated in Bread and Roses, a song by Comrade Fatso. The Zimbabwean musician-cum-satirist and social critic sings, “He smashes tomatoes, uses baton sticks for avocados. All he knows is how to break because he breaks for the law’s sake. It is a never-ending process of cleaning, cleansing like a frenzy.”
With over 90% of the population depending on informal sector business deals, a result of the implementation of the Bretton Woods-prescribed Structural Adjustment Programmes and the maladministration in government, Pahasha comments on the informal economic state of Zimbabwe’s cities and reflects on more than three decades of enduring economic hardships. From the nation’s political elites to the affluent and poor, all converge on the streets where people trade in vegetables and clothing. Such spaces are notorious for black market foreign currency dealings as well. Therefore, the work is the artist’s critique of people’s livelihoods across class boundaries in a nation where the gap between the rich and the poor is ever-widening. Despite the glaring socio-economic stratifications, the peoples’ livelihoods – rich and poor alike – are interwoven in a kind of ‘fatal intimacy,' as literary critic and academic Njabulo Ndebele might call it.