An interview with Wallen Mapondera in this new issue of The Debrief, Foreign Agent's interview series.
You went from figurative art to abstract and conceptual art. Tell us more about how this shift occurred and what possibilities it has brought to you as an artist.
At Art College (2005-2007) we were only introduced to basic mediums such as pencil, paint, pastel, charcoal and stone to make art with. Students would then choose a medium they can comfortably work with, spending most of their time trying to master it. I chose to major with two dimensional works because I thought sculptures were a lot of labour. Besides the Great Zimbabwe and a few art centres in Zimbabwe, the art history we were being taught was mostly Western and European art. Even though we had trips to some sites with rock paintings in Zimbabwe, so little about Zimbabwean artists was documented therefore it was easy to draw inspiration from Rembrandt, Picasso, Cézanne and da Vinci whom we knew a lot about. These masters mostly did figurative work. I spent about six years of my practice painting. During my painting period, I could experiment more with paper, manipulating it into a variety of textures then collage it to my paintings. I mostly used canvas and paint for my work. Other than the subject of my work, I found out that the narratives of my paintings began with a brush-stroke; the material I used did not add value to my work. At this point I decided to use cardboard boxes which I could relate to and which connect with my everyday life. This material has its own properties, so I had to make artworks according to the material's capabilities.
Why do you think fewer artists in Africa work in abstract form?
My response might be a bit biased because my work is abstract and my eye is mostly drawn to artists who use found objects in their work. I strongly feel that materiality is a thing now for many artists from Africa. Interpretation of artworks made from found objects revolves around the materials used.
The world and particularly urban settings are filled with waste and decaying discarded material - which you are famous for incorporating in your work. What attracts you to urban waste?
In one way or another, memories are awakened by objects, which make people relate to them more and in turn give the objects meaning. To me, it could be the object's shape, scent, reference or purpose that triggers memories of how I may have engaged with the objects physically, psychologically or spiritually in the past.
Whether historical or modern objects, they can both be used to narrate stories of a particular people, space and time. In my artworks, I am drawn to discarded materials that spark a memory within me. It is easy for me to scan a community or someone's lifestyle through looking at what he or she throws away, therefore objects from the trash or elsewhere is where my subject narratives emerge from. Mostly objects from the trash are charged with energy from their previous use. So either the beauty of the object or the urgency to make art is what drives me towards picking up particular objects.
How do you work around waste?
Cardboard is the major material I use to make work even though I like experimenting with other material such as egg crates and toilet paper. I do not use brand new cardboard in my work; all the narratives and memories that the cardboard endured are what adds weight and meaning to my artworks. Other materials I use in my artwork are distressed tarpaulin and paper that I collect from shops, dumpsites and roadsides. Sometimes people I know (both artists and non artists) bring material to me if they think the material might be of interest to me because they know my work. The materials help me convey and explore the concepts I am drawn to through building up on the narratives that the material already holds before I alter it into an artwork. I work intuitively with the material so that it leads me into the best possible effective outcome as I connect and engage in a conversation with the material through researching its past and present purpose. The process may take hours or days, and sometimes it can take months to years depending on how rapidly the material and I link.
You recently started working with toilet paper (pre-Covid). What does toilet paper represent for you?
The basic use for tissue paper is to wipe. We either use it to wipe our hands and mouth after eating in place of serviettes or wiping after nature's call, there is a sense of cleanliness and relief. It would be ridiculous to go and do other business before wiping. Corruption, racism and xenophobic attacks are forms of dirt that needs wiping. In that sense, tissue paper is a symbol of hygiene and is represented as such in my work. Tissue paper is a medium that I am still keen to explore and see where it leads me.
The French philosopher Georges Bataille theorised the aesthetics of the formless - the informe - and tirelessly promoted the low and the ordure (garbage), matter over form, trying to generate visceral feelings. Do you see yourself within this tradition?
Ummm to some degree yes, but I just do what I do; it is up to the consumers of my work, academias and philosophers to tick the boxes that my work fit in according to them.
You recently went back to studies, completing an MA at Rhodes University. You were arguable quite accomplished already. Why was it important for you to go back to school and what was the main thing you learnt at Rhodes?
University enhanced my researching skills through critical analysis and critique of my work from my supervisors and fellow students. I needed that for my work and self.
You have done several residences abroad (US, Switzerland, UAE). What have you gained from those experiences?
Residencies are more like experimenting spaces for me so most of the residencies I have been to; I tried as much as possible to experiment. In some spaces, there is equipment and machinery that I have never used or seen before, hence I welcome the opportunity to use them and it is a different experience altogether. I feel like I have done enough residencies for now. I am longing for a museum exhibition.
You spent some time in Basel, Switzerland, thanks to Pro-Helvetia. Switzerland is known for its cleanliness and you work with waste and decay. Was it hard to find here?
Interestingly enough, material was not hard to find in Basel. The residency was three months long and the first two months were the hardest because I had a lot to master (the transport system, how to get around and where to get reasonably cheap food etc). I had to discover the city and also observe the patterns in which trash is moved around the city. The last month of my stay in Basel was smooth because finally I had the grip of how things roll around the city. Atelier Mondial staff were very helpful in assisting me with my needs. They really made my stay comfy.