The Covid 19 storm has hit society in many different ways. Some communities have experienced greater tidal waves than others. Fadzai Mwakutuya, a Zimbabwean artist living in the Scottish Highlands in the UK, gives her perspective of the Covid tempest. Despite the pandemic, she found ways to reach out to new audiences, invigorating her resolve to use her art to educate.
The conversation begins with Fadzai’s reflection on her work on nature and the environment and it’s ability to bring a sense of peace to disparate communities.
Glad you find my work interesting and calming, though most of it speaks to quite profound meanings, generally my response to events unfolding around me.
I use nature in my art process, for example pressed flowers, natural pigments. The environment is a recurring theme in my recent artwork. I’ve also done collaborations on Climate Change. I’m hosting a website exploring the subject; My Climate Change Creative project, is part of my artist in residence work with Repository of the Undercommons (RotU), an art collective in Scotland with a sharp focus on degrowth & decolonisation.
You describe the Scottish Highlands as your adoptive home. Tell us about the environment and the community in which you live.
Moving to the Scottish Highlands, a semi rural environment was a relief from the busy, city life of Edinburgh. I now live on a peninsula in the Scottish Highlands. I’m learning about using off-grid sustainable energy. The scenery is stunning and the environment very rural, similar to my home village in Zimbabwe, Chimanimani. I have had to slow down and learn the ways of living in the Highlands. The peaceful solitude gives me time to focus on my career as an artist.
Zimbabwe is well known for its artistic tradition in music, theatre and the visual arts. Growing up in the country did you always know you wanted to be an artist?
Yes, from a young age. I was always complimented on my drawings at school. Later I developed my talent studying Fine Art. I was always the quirky dresser of the family, preferring to have a creative eclectic wardrobe.
What elements of Zimbabwean culture do you bring to your art?
Politics, landscape, social justice, intersectional issues, colour, texture, spirituality, humour laughter, layers of delicate recycled materials, collage, light humour with banter, conversation and jokes which highlight a solid foundation.
One of your themes is to use art to tackle mental health and well being. What projects have you undertaken to achieve this?
I’ve been involved, over the years with the annual Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, (SMHAFF). I’ve shown work with an exhibition called ‘Out of Sight Out of Mind’ (OOSOOM). Now in its eighth year, I really enjoyed learning and training with CAPS, the independent advocacy organisation focusing on mental health in East Lothian and Midlothian in Scotland and the organiser of the OOSOOM exhibitions. During the period, I tapped into loads of networking opportunities. I was able to identify and run workshops with various partner organisations. I delivered bespoke workshops such as a drawing activity for women from the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities to highlight the stigma of mental health.
As Executive member of a Scottish creative union, I’ve learnt and supported others during the pandemic by joining the Covid subgroup. We connected with members and mapped and signposted routes to funding opportunities and relevant campaigns while providing solidarity to professional artists living in Scotland.
I’m currently exploring how art can support training on equality and diversity issues. The main ethos of my work is underpinned by the issue of mental health and well being. This year’s advocacy focused on a collaboration called ‘Serenitude’, a short film on ‘breathing’ in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. It was also a response to my heightened fear of Covid as a keyworker in other jobs.
Other themes I’ve explored in relation to the mental health festival include research into Zimbabwean psychiatry, especially looking at traditional, natural medicines vs or (in tandem) with Western pharmaceutical drugs. I sketched an idea for this project in a piece called Afrocea’s Complex Quest.
The project led to a conversation with Dr Dixon Chibanda, one of the few psychiatrists in Zimbabwe, to work on a collaborative piece to highlight his Friendship Bench Project to support mental wellbeing in Zimbabwe.
You also advocate for marginalised communities. Which groups have you worked with? In what ways have you drawn them into the mainstream?
Exclusion drew me into the arts. I discovered that the missing groups in the UK Arts scene, were immigrant, Black artists working professionally. Especially older women like me. Frustrated and determined at the same time, I followed my strengths and began networking in the exclusively, white art groups. I wanted to validate and legitimise my professionalism so I launched and registered the arts business and consultancy, Afro Art Lab. The most exciting experience in community engagement was making art during the Edinburgh Festival for a project campaigning against austerity!
With Afro Art Lab, I aim to promote collaborations and assist in cross cultural creative work, mainly between Zimbabwe and Scotland. The objective is to connect, curate and showcase a travelling exhibition between the two countries and tackle the stigma of mental health, whether at home or in diaspora communities.
In this vein, my creative process involves research on art projects encouraging the discussions and collaborations on the practice of mental health therapy. My installation, ‘Ode to Grenfell’ was shown at the OOSOOM, Mental Health exhibition in Scotland.
Subsequently, I was invited to a Black History Event at the House of Commons in 2018 and met the Uncle of Kadija Sayes, a young, promising artist who perished in the Grenfell fire. I told him about my artwork dedicated to his niece. One day, I’d love to install this piece at the House of Commons, for it to speak to the parliamentarians.
Recently I’ve managed to meet and talk about my work globally, using the online platforms we’ve all had to adopt in 2020. I work with varied groups with intersectional barriers, encouraging accessibility of content. For example, the question of language barriers, data poverty in Africa and digital exclusion here in the UK are currently on my radar.
This year, I immersed myself in collective activism by being visible in climate change action projects in solidarity with environmental justice contributions to ‘The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference’, also known as ‘COP26’. It is scheduled to be held in Glasgow, Scotland from 1st – 12th November 2021, under the presidency of the United Kingdom. I have found visual language to be more inclusive in connecting with global audiences. See my project on Climate Change Creative; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k3cO-AZxxuc&t=3091
How has lockdown been for you, both personally and from the Scottish perspective?
The Scottish Highlands are quite isolated already. International tourism took a hit, so things were quieter for the self-employed artist. Covid restrictions impacted on artistic practices as the physical spaces to engage with the arts were locked down. I had to adapt to showcasing my exhibitions and campaigns to online platforms.
What have you learned from this year that you will apply to future projects or life in general?
In the 21st century, I shouldn’t be talking about Black Lives Matter in my artwork but I’ve had to. I’ve realised the immense gaps in opportunity for People of Colour in all areas. Unconscious bias has never been more stark. Intersectional inequalities have come to the forefront for me during this period. I suddenly feel overwhelmed by the creative work ahead to support people to heal from the onslaught of Covid, prejudice, politics, governance failures and basic personal relationships. I will definitely respond to this in my personal work. I can’t escape it. This is the emotional journey my work naturally takes. This year has made me think about solidarity, despite our differences. I’m looking forward to more collaborative approaches.
My goals are to reach out and deliver more cross cultural meetings online and expand networks. I see it as part and parcel of living as an artist. Art is work. I feel fortunate to have a flexible career that encourages networking and reaching out as part of self expression.
*The links below refer to further work on the Climate Change Creative;
All photography by Ewan Bush.
For more about Fadzai Mwakutuya and her artwork, visit her website:https://fadzaimwakutuya.co.uk/