Published  09/11/2019

Kudzanai-Violet Hwami - interview: ‘How I identify isn’t what pushes me to create. I create because I cannot do anything else’

Kudzanai-Violet Hwami - interview: ‘How I identify isn’t what pushes me to create. I create because I cannot do anything else’

The Zimbabwe-born, London-based artist talks about her new work for her solo show at Gasworks in London and why her paintings for this year’s Venice Biennale almost reduced her to tears

Kudzanai-Violet Hwami in her studio at Gasworks, London, 2019.


Kudzanai-Violet Hwami was born in Gutu, Zimbabwe in 1993. She lived in South Africa from the age of nine to 17 when she moved to London, where she now works and lives. This year, she is representing the Zimbabwe pavilion at the Venice Biennale, the youngest person to have shown at the biennale. Following a recent residency in South Africa, she now has a solo show of works made specifically for the gallery space Gasworks in London. Curated by Alessio Antoniolli, it is entitled (15,952km) via Trans-Sahara Hwy N1. The show has created an exciting energy, encouraged by events such as a tour of the show by Zoé Whitley, senior curator of the Hayward Gallery, and an “in conversation” with the painter Michael Armitage.

Jessica Draper: Since graduating from Wimbledon College of Arts, you have represented Zimbabwe in the Venice Biennale. I think, at 26, you are the youngest person ever to have represented a country at the biennale.

Kudzanai-Violet Hwami: Oh, right, I didn’t know that.

JD: What have been the most rewarding moments for you since graduating?

K-VH: The highlight has been Venice. It is the best place to have your work in conversation with other artists. It is amazing. I was there with three other artists, Georgina Maxim, Neville Starling and Cosmas Shiridzinomwa. We are all quite different artists, so it was a surprising combination speaking around the same theme, housed in the same space. I don’t think it would have happened without [the curator] Raphael Chikukwa having brought everyone together, so it was interesting how that happened.

JD: Did you make paintings specifically for Venice?

K-VH: Yes and no. The imagery included in the painting Hole in Heaven came from a collage I made in 2017. When we were asked by Raphael to reference the epic poem written by Herbert Chitepo titled Soko Risina Musoro, which translates as “The Tale Without a Head”, I immediately remembered that collage. I thought, finally, I can paint this and get it out of the way! That painting influenced the entire body of work I made for Venice.

Kudzanai-Violet Swami, Hole in Heaven, 2019. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 190 x 300 cm. Featured in Venice.

JD: Is there a line in the poem that you were responding to?

K-VH: The line that particularly resonated was “Vakuru vakakunyepera vakati, Upenyu hune mungamiri” (The elders lied to you and said: “Life has a pilot”). I was also struck by the poem’s emphasis on a land that has lost faith, resulting in a spiritual drought.

The paintings in the Zimbabwean pavilion are in conversation with one another. There is a beginning, a middle and an end, starting from Hole in Heaven to By the Fruits You’ll Know Them and ending with Jovian Swirl. There is a journey there – past, present, future. I guess I wasn’t responding to Chitepo’s poem only through a Zimbabwean lens, but wanted to give a little more thought to what it meant globally today, about how we are existing in a spiritual drought.

I took excerpts from that poem and applied them to my reality and my everyday interactions with people. Geography and the internet have shaped the way we encounter information and, inadvertently, I’ve been influenced by current western thinkers. Certain figures often speak about personal responsibility and a search for a true authentic self in the hope of becoming self-actualised. I was realising that, for some young adults, especially if you’ve removed yourself from the church, the search for meaning becomes more of a hero’s journey in a sense.

JD: What will happen to that painting when the biennale ends?

K-VH: It will go to a private collection.

JD: The paintings for Venice were a response to the poem and yet very much your own existing practice?  

K-VH: The images are archival photographs found on a website run by a white Zimbabwean man who seemed to be sentimental about what was then Rhodesia. Besides my own feelings about that, I visit his website now and then, sourcing information and points of reference for future works. Looking at these images and films, there is a distance and an unknowingness of how to deal with them honestly. I take them out of their supposed contexts and edit them to the point where I’ve imposed a personal narrative. This happens with most of my paintings; using family photographs, vintage pornographic photos and layering the story behind them with motifs or text to build a composition, so that they become more comfortable to deal with.  

Kudzanai-Violet Hwami, (15,952km) via Trans-Sahara Hwy N1, 2019. Installation view, Gasworks. Commissioned by Gasworks. Courtesy of the artist and Tyburn Gallery. Photo: Andy Keate.

JD: For your solo show here at Gasworks, I felt all the images seem to have a strong autobiographical inflection. Does it come naturally to you to look into your family history? Or are these more creations?

K-VH: I think for this show and the previous exhibition, If You Keep Going South You’ll Meet Yourself [at the Tyburn Gallery], I’ve intentionally looked at family history. As the title suggests, (15,952km) via Trans-Sahara Hwy N1 is the calculated distance between Zimbabwe and the UK. For this show, there was more emphasis on the distance between places and people geographically, but also psychologically. I have mentioned before that, in making the paintings from collage, they inadvertently become creations. They become fictional.  

JD: How did your family feel about being represented?

K-VH: I borrowed the photographs from my aunt. She wasn’t keen and I’m not sure she’s come around to the idea of me using them. I tend not to use certain photographs, especially of her husband, out of respect for her privacy. But I have painted her without her knowing.

JD: So, although not a direct representation in the traditional sense of portraiture, it is important to use images from your own history. Why do you feel compelled to do that?

K-VH: Because I see myself in those people. It is a direct blood link. It is a way to bring myself into the painting without making a self-portrait. What I am really interested in is making paintings where the subject is important, but is not something I am directly thinking about. There is a whole psychology surrounding creating that I’m much more concerned with. Making work about being a lesbian or a Zimbabwean woman, for example, isn’t enough for me to make paintings. These facts are unavoidable hardware subjects. Helen Frankenthaler was once asked in a documentary [Painters Paintings: The New York Art Scene 1940-1970] if it was harder for a woman to be a painter and she responded with: “Well, the first issue is being a painter.” How I identify isn’t what pushes me to create. I create because I cannot do anything else.

JD: The title of your show is about your route from South Africa to England. What inspired you to make that journey?

K-VH: It all happened by chance. I think everything has happened by chance for me in terms of life stuff. Circumstances. I Movingto South Africa from Zimbabwe when I was nine and later, my family realised that the economy was collapsing and I migrated to the UK. These were circumstances. My mother wanted better for my younger siblings and me.

Kudzanai-Violet Hwami, Untitled, 2019. Oil on canvas. 45 x 50 cm. Commissioned by Gasworks. Courtesy of the artist and Tyburn Gallery. Photo: Andy Keate.

JD: Do you listen to music while you paint?

K-VH: A lot of music and podcasts. I am currently listening to a podcast called Theory of Enchantment run by Chloé Valdary, who is an interesting character. I have just discovered it so I can’t share much. I know that she’s speaking about creating identity beyond our characteristics and categories, as well as creating a platform for young black people to seek self-actualisation. With music, I have a variety of genres I like, post rock and jazz musicians such as Pharoah Sanders and Nicole Mitchell, whom I find hard to place.

JD: In the paintings, there is a feeling of layering and collage. Would you talk a bit about your use of collage, why it is attractive to you and how it is useful?

K-VH: Collage came naturally, especially after seeing the Robert Rauschenberg show at the Tate – I didn’t think you could do that! Looking at his paintings made sense to me. I had a similar feeling with Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings. They both seemed to think in collage. I don’t think in a linear way – I often have images and random words running through my mind, which makes it difficult to connect each thought into a coherent paragraph when writing, but in paintings it’s possible. There’s a freedom and playfulness that collage allows. I can distil different ideas and thoughts in one still image. But it’s a phenomenon that is taking place on the internet through social media platforms – layering one’s interests and events in an organised collage format in order to create an identity.

Kudzanai-Violet Hwami in her studio at Gasworks, London, 2019.

JD: Do you paint using an easel or on the floor?

K-VH: It depends on the size. Sometimes the canvas is large enough for me to paint with it upright leaning against the wall. I tend to paint smaller paintings on easels. 

JD: Ah, yes, like the smaller works we spoke about during your talk with curator Zoé Whitley [senior curator at the Hayward Gallery]?

K-VH: Yes, exactly. What did you think about the talk?

JD: I really enjoyed it. Your comments on scale of the small family picture, the way you paint the underlayer and your use of colour. It was busy.

K-VH: It was busy, but Zoé made us very comfortable. I am going to be talking with the painter Michael Armitage at Gasworks. [This event took place in October.] He was here today to have a look at the paintings. He has been painting longer than I have so I’m hoping the talk won’t be him asking me why I did this or that. When I was doing my BA, I used to watch artist talks on YouTube and they would know why they made the work.

JD: Or say they did. I actually think that knowingness is not always the most compelling! Mistakes can happen, or things can happen by chance and  sometimes that can be more interesting. I think one should try to be comfortable in being vulnerable sometimes.

K-VH: I agree. You should think things through and maybe you did something because there’s meaning behind it – but I’m waiting for the day I sit back and look at my body of work through the years. I’d like to surprise myself – perhaps even begin to answer all those whys. I always think we young artists are being interviewed prematurely and asked questions beyond our life experiences. I haven’t spent enough time with my practice to fully know what this is all about. 

JD: Your work seems to be exploratory and that’s beautiful. You’re on a journey, so that should be celebrated for what it is. Which figurative painters inspire you?

K-VH: The very first time I saw a painting I liked was when my art tutor at Manchester College introduced Jenny Saville during our life drawing class. Later on, I discovered Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.

Kudzanai-Violet Hwami, Medicine Man, 2019. Oil on canvas. 120 x 120 cm. Commissioned by Gasworks courtesy of the artist and Tyburn Gallery. Photo: Andy Keate.

JD: She had her first solo show here at Gasworks, in 2007.

K-VH: Yes. When I look at her paintings, they allow me to wonder; they are suggestive and shy away from an imposed narrative. It’s truly what I think painting should do. I do appreciate political work when I need it, but I prefer the idea of escaping gently into a daydream, especially one that has the potential to empower you.

JD: What is political work for you, if you need it?

K-VH: It should still be delivered poetically. I would say American artists Arthur Jafa and Kerry James Marshall. I don’t know if they are directly political, but they deal with the politics of blackness yet I sense a soul there. They come across as authentic to me.

JD: What is your working practice like?

K-VH: I haven’t had much time to develop a day-to-day practice. This is why I have taken time off to go and do my MA at the Ruskin School of Art. I want to give myself more time with the work; live with it a little longer and build up a painting slowly. The last two years, I’ve felt as if I was working on assignments – a curator gives you a theme and that takes you out of the decision-making. I am trying to rebuild the relationship between my mind and the hand, to surprise myself again.

JD: How do you come up with an idea for a new body of work?

K-VH: I don’t mind if it is my own body of ideas. That’s where the work is. I have a great friend, Alan Fitzpatrick [who owns an art shop from which Hwami buys art materials and canvases], who said I need to plan a show in advance. So, for solo shows, I should plan three in advance so I am always aware of the next step. I might not know what the paintings will be, but there is a linear narrative that makes sense throughout. This informed the show at Gasworks. My first solo show could have been about queer bodies, but it would have been complicated to go from there, and to progress into the next show knowing how it relates to the previous show. It was good advice.

Kudzanai-Violet Hwami, (15,952km) via Trans-Sahara Hwy N1, 2019. Installation view, Gasworks. Commissioned by Gasworks. Courtesy of the artist and Tyburn Gallery. Photo: Andy Keate.

JD: So, you have started in a natural place.

K-VH: I thought it better to start off with things I know and then expand those ideas rather than go straight into the political. That was my initial idea. I was going to make work about China’s relationship with Africa. Then I thought, I don’t know anything about that. It would be a mess and I would have to keep up with it.

JD: Tell me about your favourite work in the Gasworks show?

K-VH: You and All Your Friends is my favourite. The scale is what surprised me. I didn’t think I would enjoy working that small. I find it really inviting in that scale.

Kudzanai-Violet Hwami, You and all your friends, 2019. Oil on canvas. 30 x 30 cm. Commissioned by Gasworks. Courtesy of the artist and Tyburn Gallery. Photo: Andy Keate.

JD: You seem to successfully create an internal psychodrama between the painted characters and viewers. What inspires the fictional storylines in the paintings – songs or films, for example, or your own experiences?

K-VH: Songs and films mainly and sometime personal psychoanalysis. It’s a combination of almost everything.

JD: Tell me a bit about the multipanelled piece in the second room?

K-VH: The series Speaking in Tongues is directly referencing the layout of Instagram and the idea of creating oneself using social media. The imagery from that work came from photographs I took on my trip to Zimbabwe earlier this year, including pages I copied from the book Stone Sculpture in Zimbabwe by Celia Winter-Irving. I borrowed the book from Sekuru Chiko (Chikonzero Chazunguza) while I was staying with him during my residency at Dzimbanhete. This an ongoing piece that will become larger in the future.

JD: Where does your interest in plants come from?

K-VH: In the previous paintings, early paintings, I had banana horns on the figures. I was trying to come up with a motif after looking at artists such as Kaws, Yue Minjun and Takashi Murakami. I realised I don’t need a motif. Similarly, I found that I didn’t need to start off my paintings with heavy themes; I freed the work up from becoming monolithic. Anyway, the plants were a slow migration from these banana horns to the banana plants and eventually meaning came out from them. 

Kudzanai-Violet Hwami, (15,952km) via Trans-Sahara Hwy N1, 2019. Installation view, Gasworks. Commissioned by Gasworks. Courtesy of the artist and Tyburn Gallery. Photo: Andy Keate.

JD: The single plant in the first room felt as if it may stand for something else?

K-VH: It is visual. I have done a painting titled Antennas to the Ancestors, with Shona sculptures behind this digitally manipulated plant; there was a spiritual meaning behind that painting. Plants have become symbolic gateways.

JD: I find plants can be anthropomorphic and particular flowers can trigger certain places or emotions, and I wondered if you had particular memories attached to them?

K-VH: You say that and I realise that there are plants in the photographs I’ve found in family albums, back when people were really conscious of how the image would develop. There was one chance, whereas now you can take multiple pictures anywhere, and you don’t really care about the environment. It is not as staged. Back then, it was a whole performance – “Use that plant plot there”; “Stand under the mango tree in the back yard”; “Tidy the red sofa.” You had to put on your best dress and make sure you gave your best smile. So, plants have also become like a prop to inform the construction of the image.

JD: Which have been the hardest paintings to paint so far?

K-VH: All three paintings for Venice because I didn’t have enough time nor did I have space in my studio. Screen printing large scale by yourself with no running water close by and having to redo the entire process because the face is not looking too great nearly brought me to tears. It all worked out in the end though.

Kudzanai-Violet Hwami, Untitled, 2019. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist. Commissioned by Gasworks.

JD: You did a self-portrait nude, which is not included in the show, but it is a really striking and brave work. Where did you look for inspiration for that?

K-VH: I was living with my aunt in Southend after I’d finished my BA, and I came out of the shower one afternoon and was in my room. I took a photograph of myself and thought it could be a great painting. That was in 2017.

JD: Tell me about your interest in the digital?

K-VH: I am interested in the digital because that is my life experience. I have been on the internet since I was 11. I made friends through the internet, even dated a girl who lived in Kenya from the age of 16 until 19 through the internet. It is home to me and I am trying to figure out how to bring ideas surrounding that into my paintings. At the moment, I take comfort in collage.

JD: If you could collaborate with an artist living or dead, who would it be?

K-VH: I would like to collaborate with Arthur Jafa on a film. I am not sure what it would be about. I am interested in film and I would like to start exploring.

JD: And if you could be represented in a particular museum?

K-VH: It would be the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, which opened recently in Cape Town, South Africa. It is very close to Zimbabwe and, thinking beyond myself, I’d like the work to be seen by people from the continent.

JD: What about in London?

K-VH: The Tate. The first time I really enjoyed a show there was when it had Rauschenberg. It was a mind-blowing exhibition!

JD: I see Rauschenberg in your work. Through your use of colour, particularly red and blue, I am reminded of his series Urban Bourbon, which was inspired by road signs in the US, and in which he, too, communicates a feeling of journeying through collage and text.

K-VH: Yes, he is a huge influence. I understand his work visually.  

JD: Which artist talking about your work would most excite you? Who would you like to bring to the show who might not have been already?
K-VH: Henry Taylor. Just because I watched his talk the other day. I think he is so authentic. He is not speaking art-speak and that’s refreshing. I imagine we would laugh and really talk to one another.

Kudzanai-Violet Hwami: (15,952km) via Trans-Sahara Hwy N1, is at Gasworks, London, until 15 December 2019. The Venice Biennale 2019 continues until 24 November.

Click on the pictures below to enlarge

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