The Sunday News
ARTS FOCUS with Raisedon Baya
This past week the arts sector bid farewell to Derek Huggins and Helen Lieros co –founders of the Gallery Delta in Harare. Both succumbed to Covid 19. It was indeed a sad week for the sector and more so for those that knew both Helen and Derek. It was only this year that Helen received the NAMA legend award with many other arts luminaries.
The third wave has been a true nightmare for most Zimbabweans. I didn’t know Helen much but I never forgot Derek from our one off encounter a long time back. Funny that it was only after reading his history this past week (after his death) that I got to know more about this man who made such a lasting impression after only one encounter. I was surprised to learn that Derek was a former director of the National Arts Council and National Art Gallery. And it was after reading this that it all made sense.
Derek, during one night in Harare, made me realise how valuable visual art is. That a single painting could cost a fortune. Coming from the township, I used to think paintings were just that — paintings. Nothing fancy about them.
Derek also made me aware of the sacredness of an arts exhibition and visual arts space. In the early 1990s we had just started out as professional artists and had just produced a hit play called Umhlola which examined the education system and lampooned how African children were being made to cram the likes of Shakespeare and all. We were receiving nice reviews in Bulawayo. Then from nowhere Derek invited us to Harare to perform at Gallery Delta.
The gallery was not really a performance space but they created a space within the gallery for us to perform. Young as we were we were excited to perform outside Bulawayo and for a mixed audience too! A rare opportunity. As young artists we had one dream then — to find a sponsor that would take us to Europe.
We fancied ourselves performing on Broadway or festival circuits in Europe. And all we needed was a sponsor to take us there. We were so naïve and maybe a bit stupid too for we always thought any white person in the audience was a potential sponsor. Only years later did we realise our folly.
Anyway back to Derek. He showed us the space. Told us to stay away from the paintings on the walls. “Don’t touch the paintings,” he kept saying. To us, straight from the township, the performance was more important than the paintings. Why else would a white man invite us all the way to Harare, so we thought.
Then it was time to go on stage. Our play was fast paced and had a few fight scenes but because we had not rehearsed in the space it was difficult to measure movement. So during one scene one actor pushed another to the wall, and pinned him into a painting hanging on the wall. Derek jumped from where he was, almost stopping the performance, rushed backstage to tell us that the painting was worth much more than the performance fee we were going to get that night. He was really unsettled with what had just happened on stage. And we were all relieved when the play ended without another incident. It was our first and last time to perform at the Delta Gallery.
However, that one experience changed our attitudes towards visual arts — we suddenly had a clear idea of the value of work that always hangs in galleries and how gallery spaces are not playgrounds. We also learnt about Derek’s passion for the arts, and not just visual arts, but all arts. He gave us chance and an opportunity to perform in Harare when people and other spaces had no idea who we were.
I mention this incident because sometimes when we move up we forget where we came from and the very people who recognised our potential and tried to push us up. Derek was one of those people — he had a heart for the arts — and tried to give young township actors a shot to the top. I dedicate this memory to him and pray the arts sector never forgets his contribution to the sector.