The Sunday News
Bruce Ndlovu, Sunday Life Reporter
AFTER two years during which he spearheaded the rejuvenation of the National Art Gallery of Zimbabwe in Bulawayo, including the wholesale renovation of the city’s premier home of the arts, Butholezwe Nyathi is set to end his tenure as the regional director of the institution at the end of this month.
When his reign began in May 2019, the art gallery looked a pale shadow of its former glorious self. The historic house which kept safe within its bowels was falling apart.
Cracks rose from ground to ceiling, as the art gallery threatened to crumble, rotting from toe to neck. Its head was not in an ideal state either, with the roof also in need of urgent repair. So derelict was the roof that, as he sat down every morning to work, Nyathi worried that one day it would collapse on him and the rest of the gallery staff.
Two years later, the outlook of the gallery has changed. The roof, a crown that threatened to fall off the head of an institution that not only reigns in Bulawayo but the other provinces in Matabeleland, has been fixed. The walls, which, besides the cracks, looked thirsty for a coat of paint, have been brushed up into an immaculate state, restoring the dignity of the gallery.
The transformation of the art gallery, Nyathi told Sunday Life in an interview, could not have been possible without the help of staff that was dedicated to championing the cause of Bulawayo arts as he was.
“First and foremost, I would like to express gratitude to the government of Zimbabwe for the opportunity to serve. I think there is honour in serving your community and your country and as a young pewrson born and bred in Bulawayo it will always be a highlight of my cultural leadership journey. It will always be a highlight to have superintended over the art gallery in Bulawayo which is the biggest cultural institution in the region. To have had the honour to serve in the pwrime of my youth will always be something I will be proud of and I want to thank my staff because while people might want to acknowledge leadership, we work with and through our subordinates. So, the vast that we did over the last two years I want to thank my staff because we were working under very difficult conditions, economy wise and Covid-19 wise. All the same we managed to forge ahead and make a difference,” he said.
As his reign at the helm of the art gallery comes to and end, Nyathi counts the renovations undertaken during his tenure as the highlight of his reign.
“I think the biggest achievement for me are the renovations that we had here. I think you’ll acknowledge that the building was in a very sorry state in May 2019. We had a similar sit-down like this one at that time where I showed the extent of the work that lay ahead. I’m proud to say all the problems we had identified have been addressed. The building is now beautiful, it’s imposing and has regained its aesthetic ambience.
“So, we have fixed the building. It’s now running on solar which means we have played a part in greening our community. It now has a disability ramp which means people can use the main entrance to access the space. The whole interior and exterior were painted. We have also supported artistes in terms of the material, workshops and residency exchanges in the region,” he said.
The changes during Nyathi’s tenure were not only cosmetic. Sure, during his time the appropriate brush strokes were applied to cracks and outbreaks of decay that now scarred the gallery’s face. However, arts insiders in Bulawayo also paid the highest compliments for his role in transforming the gallery into a home for all art and not the visual arts alone.
In addition, he had to deal with a set of unique circumstances as Covid-19 led to the shutdown of art spaces in Zimbabwe and around the globe. In such tough times, Nyathi decided to distill lemonade from lemons, with even the pandemic embraced as a blessing in disguise, as it was used to spearhead a digital revolution at the gallery.
“When I came in, like any leader ought to do, I had my own aspirations and vision and one of those elements was to progress towards digitisation. I’m happy to say that when I sat down with my team and said we need to take our exhibitions to the virtual space they were willing to listen. Of course, change takes time to understand and so initially there was some resistance because people were saying if we go virtual what will we sale? I said no I didn’t say we are no longer doing the traditional forms of artistic expression but we are just saying continue producing your artwork but we just bring virtual reality (VR) guys and they transform it into a VR experience and that is what I had pronounced internally before Covid-19 came.
“When Covid-19 came I didn’t need to be convincing anyone about why we wanted to digitise because the gallery was closed but we needed to continue being functional and executing our mandate. People were now consuming things online so we did a series of virtual tours and I want to thank the British Council because they gave us an opportunity to do our first ever digital art exhibition. So, the timing again was very good,” he said.
In his seat at the gallery, Nyathi had a bird’s eye of the arts in Bulawayo at a time when many artistes struggled financially. As Covid-19 continues its fierce rampage, Nyathi believes the only way for local artistes to survive going forward is to diversify their income streams.
“Very few will be able to live off their art. That’s the sad reality. If you’re an artiste right now, the reality is that even if you produce good music, you might not be able to send your children to school. You will have to find an alternative source of income whether you like it or not. All of us are passionate about this but the reality is that right now it doesn’t address the fundamentals.
“I think there’s nothing as painful as a passion that doesn’t pay. It may not be the best form of advice to give to an artiste right now but as Covid-19 continues to take effect, you just have to find an alternative source of income,” he said.
Nyathi also encouraged artistes to look beyond Bulawayo.
“The other major lesson that I learnt is the power of geography. One has to think beyond Bulawayo. As a Bulawayo native myself I know that the default is to think Bulawayo but the world is a bigger platform. We took a resident artiste Ishmael Singo on a month-long residency at a studio in Cape Town. He had never had that opportunity and he is a good artiste.
“He went there and he managed to meet an art collector, so all the works that he produced in Cape Town were bought by that collector and that is something that might not have happened if he were here in Bulawayo. So, the power of geography is that when you go to different places, you come across new opportunities that your community may not avail,” he said.
As he looks forward to greener pastures, Nyathi said he would not be entirely lost to the Bulawayo arts scene, where he was already regarded as a treasure.
“It’s a short two years but the amount of work done is notable in my opinion. It’s not about the time served. You don’t need to spend ten years in an institution to make a difference. Even in one year you can do that and I’m happy to say that in the two years I was here I contributed to the institution to the best of my abilities.
“We could have done more probably. Where they things that we wish we could have done? Certainly. The idea with public service is that you come in you serve and you pass on the reins to the next person to run the marathon. I remain committed to art development in Bulawayo and Zimbabwe and that is what I will remain doing in the future,” he said.