Helen Teede is a Zimbabwean painter based in Harare. She left the country in 2006 and lived in France, then Italy where she studied painting at Florence University of the Arts before moving to South Africa to do her Bachelor of Fine Art and English Honours at the University of Cape Town. Teede’s paintings grapple, in multiple and oblique ways, with the tension between abstraction, landscape and human experience.
Bongani Kona (BK): How old were you when you started to paint?
Helen Teede (HT): This, and “When do you know when a painting is finished?” are two difficult questions I often get asked and never really know how to answer because they encompass the whole slippery and capricious practice of art-making and living as an artist. I think I started to paint with a consciousness about the act of painting when I left school in 2006 and spent a year working in France and another year in Italy, visiting as many galleries and museums as I could, spending hours and days in the Centre Pompidou and the Musée d’Orsay, among others. I think I was trying to make up for lost time, not having had access to paintings in the flesh that I had so delighted in growing up. I was nineteen when I started properly learning about the history of painting, and started to paint with a relative understanding of the context within which I was working. But then the childish freedom to play is lost somewhat when you start painting seriously, so perhaps I was more of a painter before this. As I said, difficult question.
BK: Who are some of the artists that made an impression on you when you were starting out?
HT: Growing up in a post-colonial country, I think I had two branches of artistic influences – those that I was taught about at school, or read about in books, and those that surrounded me. The two branches often clashed. I loved Delacroix, Chagall and Matisse whose works gave, and still give me the feeling of hovering halfway between this world and another, but never seeing them in the flesh, they existed in a far-away, dream-like context.
The immediate and very real influences on my art practice, in the end, happened in the city of Harare. I would often go to the National Gallery and wander through the sunlit space – which was huge and overwhelming for me – and Gallery Delta, looking at paintings, notably by Luis Meque. I loved his late works. There was one particular work – I forget the title – in which he painted a dancing figure with one continuous brush stroke leaving the paint to drip from the line and pool at the bottom of the paper. The painting retains the freshness of a sketch, but remains anchored in the surety of his hand, making something extremely difficult to do look effortless.
I spent four hours every Saturday morning at Gallery Delta, painting under the instruction of Helen Lieros. The only white girl, and the only person there below the age of 20, I was in awe of the very cool, very confident artists around me who talked loudly, laughed easily, made bold paintings and installations with found objects, and listened to music that you would never hear in the art-class of my private and over-privileged school. To me they were artists living in the real world, and they encouraged me out of my shyness, making me feel like I was part of a community. I still smile when I think that as a kid I was obliviously painting (or trying to paint) alongside Admire Kamudzengerere and Misheck Masamvu, now artists of international acclaim. They were all earning a living from their work, and yet still came to Delta every Saturday. I liked the idea that you could be a professional and a student at the same time, something which I think every good artist is.
… my place as a painter in an African country is a tenuous one… Sometimes I feel trapped by the rules of painting that I’ve learned… so I constantly have to work at breaking them
BK: My sense (though admittedly not well formed) is that there is vibrant art scene in Zimbabwe. The last few years for example, have seen the emergence of painters like Virginia Chihota, Portia Zvavahera, Misheck Masamvu, just to name a few. Can we talk a bit about that, what is it like working there?
HT: I choose to work in Zimbabwe because quite simply, it is my home. But working here as an artist is not by any means easy. I am lucky to be part of a stable of artists at First Floor Gallery who, together with the director, Valerie Kabov, are a steady source of guidance and friendship. While there is camaraderie and support between us, there is also a sense of competition as we challenge each other to push our practice consistently further.
A lot of people outside the country have the impression that the art scene in Zimbabwe is amazing, and yes it is, but not in the way people think. There is much less support than in the ‘90s, and most of the dynamism comes from the artists, and galleries themselves because there are few if any Zimbabwean collectors living here. A lot of exhibitions and projects depend on funding, or showing work outside the country. This can be inimical to the integrity of the local art scene because exhibitions and projects risk being prescribed by funders, and the fact that most successful artists end up exhibiting their work predominantly outside of the country prevents people living here from seeing the full extent of Zimbabwean talent, which has a knock-on effect of stultifying education within the country about local contemporary artists. Nevertheless, the artists and surrounding arts community continue to defy these challenges. There are more and more talented artists emerging who, together with the people supporting them are vehemently creating an art scene that is more vibrant than ever, with or without financial support, and certainly without the support of a local art market.
BK: Earlier you spoke about learning about the history of painting and trying to locate yourself within that history. How would you place yourself, as an artist, in Zimbabwe, contextually, stylistically?
HT: The history of painting, as I have learned it, has been rooted in the Western tradition of painting, so I feel that my place as a painter in an African country is a tenuous one. Sometimes I feel trapped by the rules of painting that I’ve learned and applied to my practice, so I constantly have to work at breaking them – they are rules that don’t even exist for a lot of the artists here. Talking and engaging with Zimbabwean painters, such as Gresham Tapiwa Nyaude and Wycliffe Mundopa, has helped me to find a place within a discourse of painting that is local to Zimbabwe and of necessary historic import within the context of contemporary African art.
BK: What is the inspiration for your abstraction? In other words, what are you abstracting? And is this driven by your experiences in/of Zimbabwe?
HT: The word abstraction sits a bit uncomfortably with me, because it immediately creates a boundary or a definition that I would have to work within as an artist. It also suggests that my paintings don’t originate from a subject other than paint itself, which isn’t the case. My work emerges from a strong connection to the land and the landscape that goes back to my childhood, referencing all sorts of forms of mapping and recording, including writing, cartography, storytelling and history. I think the experiences of living in Zimbabwe are too complex and difficult to speak about in a purely figurative or explicit way, which is why my work tends towards abstraction, while not being purely abstract. This layered way of working allows me to address the complexities of living here in multiple and oblique ways, giving space for a more open conversation to take place between the works and the viewers.
BK: You are also drawn to literature. I wonder if you could speak about your relationship to writers and writing as an art form.
Yes, while I was doing my BFA at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town I was also studying literature. A lot of my works emerge, or are at least influenced by some piece of writing or another. I like the way words conjure images, and as you read you start using your visual imagination almost without realising it. Writing is assembling words in a similar way that painting assembles colours. It’s layered, it’s complex, and it’s one of the most difficult things in the world to get right, because there is no right or wrong, and then on top of it all you have to make it look effortless because that’s when a piece of writing, or a painting really works. Writing is as much a visual medium for me as painting is, and I can identify with the struggle that goes on with words before they’re laid out in a way that makes you wonder how on earth that magic just happened.
Helen Teede’s work was recently featured in Tomorrow/Today, a selection curated by Tumelo Mosaka and dedicated to showcasing solo presentations by emerging artists who will be tomorrow’s leading names in art, at the Cape Town Art Fair, 2017.