The Sunday News
Bruce Ndlovu, Sunday Life Correspondence
AT first glance, there is nothing remarkable about the yard that surrounds Voti Thebe’s house.
The path that leads to his front door is strikingly similar to many others in Queens Park West, Bulawayo, the suburb where he resides. It is a path, studded with small stones and a layer of dry red soil, whose neatness suggests that a woman’s tender hand runs over it regularly.
It is, to the casual looker, an ordinary yard. However, this seemingly ordinary house suddenly changes appearance the moment one takes a closer look at objects that pave this seemingly straightforward path.
Suddenly what looked like a sleepy, ordinary home sprigs into sudden and surprising life. On the right of the path, a square block stands with its eyes and mouth wide open as if it has been taken by surprise by an unexpected visitor.
Elsewhere in the yard giant birds, made of metal and wire, stand stationary as if afraid to take flight. Sunk on the green lawn in front of the house, is an Eversharp 15M pen, standing at least 2 metres tall.
“It simply means that people should shun violence and use the pen to vote,” Thebe says when asked to explain the pen’s significance.
His house is more than a home. It is an artistic shrine and this becomes even more evident when one moves inside the house itself. It is a rare Zimbabwean home, one in which paintings seemingly won the battle against their cousins, the family photograph.
Thebe’s work hangs proudly around the house, from the hallways to his children’s bedrooms. In the sitting room, a painting called The Strategist hangs on the wall and stands as testament of art’s timelessness. It was painted by Thebe after a visit to the countryside where he had seen, for the first time, the country’s liberation forces. It’s the portrait of four freedom fighters, three of them crouching and while one stands guard with an AK47 slung over his shoulder.
It is a painting that captures perfectly the time in which it was made. From the strokes of Thebe’s paint brush one can feel and sense the danger and determination that surrounded these young men.
Their desperation and sense of purpose seems to burst through the frame in which the painting is imprisoned.
“I submitted it at the National Annual but it was rejected because of the gun’s magazine. They said I was supporting terrorists. I had seen them strategising and what I noticed was that one of them would stand guard while the others were crouched on the ground,” Thebe says.
Thebe has come a long way from those days. When he retired and relinquished his position as the regional director of the National Art Gallery at the end of last month, many saw it as an end of an era. After 44 years at the gallery, Thebe at times very much felt like part of the furniture at the institution.
Thebe has had a long and illustrious career, but he remembers the early days when his parents did not want to see him with a paint brush in his hand.
“My parents didn’t want me to be an artiste. Even going to the club they would say you will be a tsotsi at that place. They wanted me to be a nurse or teacher or any other formal profession. It was only later in life that they understood that this is a calling for me. Because I don’t believe art is a profession, it’s a calling,” he says.
Despite resistance from his parents, Thebe remembers his first days as an eager young artiste.
“I grew up in Nguboyenja and that’s where I started doing art at Mthakazi Youth Centre under the tutelage of Reggie Dube, one of the club administrators. He was the one who taught me to draw and paint.
“I remember participating in one of the first exhibitions and I think it was in 1964. I did a figure drawing of a man sawing. That’s where I started. We used to enjoy quite a lot when it comes to drawing and even the discipline of drama. I’m an actor as well and I have participated in the making of one or two films,” he says.
Despite his love of art, growing up in the 1960s was not easy for Thebe. While he was picking up pencil and pad, other young men, slightly older than him, were picking up guns and grenades.
“Growing up in the township was really a challenge, especially in the 60s. We had uprisings like the zhi riots, the start of the national movements and other incidents. At that time I went to Lozikeyi Primary School and I did that up until standard six.
“I remember even back then teachers, who were not really good at drawing would ask me to draw on the black board so that other students could copy from there. This meant I always had a double assignment because I had to draw on the black board and draw on my exercise book,” he said.
Tragically, Thebe found out that he could not go ahead with his academic studies after failing to get a place at Mzilikazi High, a school that was notoriously hard to get into.
“I couldn’t make it but I never gave up. Someone suggested to my parents that I should try Cyrene Mission and I went on my own with my certificate, boarded a train, dropped off at West Acre and went to Cyrene.
“When I went there the Father at the school looked at my drawings and he liked them but then he said the school was Anglican and I wasn’t. My parents were Seventh Day Adventists. I couldn’t get a place there. By then schools were designated that way. I then went to Mzilikazi Art Centre and that’s where I trained. I did my fine art at Mzilikazi Art Centre for three years.”
After his time at the Mzilikazi Art Centre, Thebe found the problems of adulthood waiting for him.
“As you know when you’re growing up, especially in the townships, there are always these challenges here and there. I remember that one of the challenges was that my father was once diagnosed with TB and he was isolated for six months so we had to fend for the family. When he was diagnosed a police vehicle came to pick us up and we were the talk of the township and we were people with this “disease”.
“After finishing at the art centre they expected me to go to work. I was expected to pay school fees for my younger brothers and sisters. I started looking for a job because I couldn’t do art for a living. I worked in the industrial areas for companies like Supersonic and Security Mills and then in 1975 I started at the gallery,” he says.
Although he went on to become the supremo at the gallery, Thebe’s talent was discovered by accident. He had started work as a general hand at the gallery, making sure his superiors never saw his work which he diligently continued to do at home. His deft hand was only discovered during A Life Drawing Session, a session at the art gallery in which everyone is given space to try their hand in drawing.
Over four decades after his “discovery”, Thebe is eager to see the gallery discover similarly talented artistes that are starved of opportunity.
“I have always looked at the gallery as a culture house, not an art gallery where different disciplines of arts come together. When I was the director I started embracing other genres. We would rent out studios to the theatre people, to the sculptures, to the poetry people and to the musicians and so forth. We were trying to bring those different genres under one roof and hopefully this will continue,” he says.