Tara and her art

Her room is immaculate, save for the papers and notebooks on the desk.  The chime of a dream catcher on the wall is interrupted as Tara closes the window and sits down, cross-legged, on her bed.  Some of her drawings are up on the cupboard, with a gemstone chart stuck on her door.  Looking at it, I can identify some of the stones on her windowsill. A tinge of citrus lingers in the air, and Tara moves to tidy her bed, which she thinks is less than presentable.

“Art is the only thing I focused on.”

 

Tara the Artist

Tara paintingTara Dena Jack is an artist.  She always has been.  From her days in nursery school, to high school at Hellenic, and now studying towards her Bachelor of Fine Art.  That she was meant to be an artist, Tara never doubted that.  “It (art) has always been a strong point, since I’m not really academic.” Tara points to the paintings stacked on top of her bookcase as proof.  Even when she’s meant to be studying, her fingers itch for pen and paper and Tara draws instead.  “Art is an outlet for me.”

As happy as she is with her degree and career path, art wasn’t always her  first choice.  For a time, music held sway.  “I started music when I was 4 or 5, and I started playing the clarinet when I was 14, so in Form Two,” Tara says as she adjusts her legs to get more comfortable.  “I also taught myself basic piano, so I can play a few tunes.”  When it came down to choose between art and music, the decision boiled down to what gave Tara more creative license.  Art it was.

 

“I can express myself more with art. Art is more liberating.”

2016-06-03 (2)What of her art itself?  Tara scrolls through her Instagram and flips through her book of doodles as she talks about her style and what she’s created.  I notice a lot of pencil work and inking, but not much in the form of paintings.  A slight frown on her mouth as she readjusts her seating again and ties up her hair.  “With painting, I don’t have a style that I’ve developed.  With my pencil work, it’s more detailed.  I like stuff like pencil work and pen work, stuff that you can control.”  Her pencil work is stunning. Images of skulls and candles flit across her phone screen.   Tara’s proud of her pieces, but she admits that her work is dark. “In O Level, I did kitsch, still-life, like ‘pretty pretty girly stuff’.  But I find skulls more interesting. You think about a painting of a skull more than just a painting of a flower.”

 

“I always try incorporate a hidden meaning in my art.”

 

Tara fiddles with her hairbands as she talks about her plans for the future.  She wants to get her art out there for people to see – something she hasn’t been doing.  She thinks back to her art teachers in high school and how they’ve shaped her life so far, and continue to play a role in deciding her future.  “Most of my role models are my art teachers.  They see what I’m capable of, they’re more confident in my abilities than I am.”  It was Greg Shaw, her high school art teacher and artist in Harare, who pushed Tara to develop her skills as an artist.  It was her O Level art teacher who convinced Tara to study Fine Art at Rhodes University.  Their influence has motivated Tara to pay it forward and become an art teacher and artist.

 

Tara the Zimbabwean

Would she work in Zimbabwe?  Tara pauses, and takes a breath before responding. “I’m drawn to political stuff.” She tilts her head in inference.  “Political stuff that I wouldn’t be able to do that. And I can’t do kitsch stuff either.”  I ask her the question again.  She looks up, frowns and responds, “I don’t know.”

To see more of Tara’s work, check out her Instagram.

All the art pieces in this story are property of Tara Dena Jack. 

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Michelle: the scientist, the DJ

Michelle Mukonyora a.k.a Ella, has put on quite a few caps in her life so far. Both scientist and music lover, she has had experience in different spheres of life. Her story is particularly fascinating for me, because it was the first time I’d heard of an aspiring bioinformatician.

Michelle the DJ

Her journey into her first role began in 2008, after finishing her honours degree.  She decided to take a break for a few years, and during this period she got into the DJ booth for the first time.  “I’ve always had a passion for music, but I was never musical. The one day I got one of my DJ friends to teach me how to do it for fun and I got hooked.”   Michelle was fortunate enough to get a residency soon after she started.  Although this career path was wholly unintended, DJ Elle M was spinning the turntables for a few years.

Michelle the Student

Michelle got involved with biotechnology from high school.  “At the time it was being described as the ‘new frontier’ of the life sciences,” she says, and she was more than ready to launch herself into this scientific unknown.  The initial plan had been to continue her higher education in Australia, where she could do a joint degree in business and biotechnology.  Unfortunately for Michelle, life had other plans: that was the year that the Zimbabwean dollar crashed.  Australia was off the table.  South Africa was the next best option, and that’s where she got her undergraduate degree from the University of the Western Cape in Applied Biotechnology.  She graduated and after she left DJ Elle M behind, Michelle went back to her first love.

“Science is my life. I always knew I’d be back it was just a question of when.” 

Currently a student researcher at the Agricultural Research Council in Pretoria, Michelle’s main focus is drug and vaccine design in Africa, working on animal vaccines and predicting virus structures.  It’s in this team that Michelle can flex her brain muscles and push the boundaries of biotechnology. “I have been given the opportunity to drive my own research process with a wealth of resources at hand. Being exposed to the best equipment and computing power makes one better able to compete globally.”

“My biggest challenge has been not having an emotional support system as a postgraduate student.”

 Michelle has had to deal with a tough and often isolated environment: science is truly her life now. “Science is all consuming with very little reward when you are a student. Your work doesn’t stop when you leave the lab and I wasn’t prepared for that.”  It’s a break from the structures she was used to from her undergraduate studies.  To add to this list of problems, the field of science can be difficult for a young black African woman.  Michelle has been lucky enough not to have experienced any discrimination, but it’s a fact that she’s keenly aware of.  “When I look up to higher positions that I aspire to I don’t find many women, more specifically black women.  I know the ‘Black woman in science’ hurdle is coming up soon for me.”

Michelle the Biotechnologist

“Compared to the rest of Africa we have the potential to be leaders in the field.”

Despite the challenges in the past and the ones to face in the future, Michelle remains optimistic about her relationship with science.  Although studying in South Africa, she has every intention of coming back to Zimbabwe and tapping into the world of potential.  ” In terms of biotechnologists there are plenty of Zimbabweans across the world doing cutting edge research. The key would be to convince them to come back home to the right infrastructure in place.”  Invested in her work as a biotechnologist, Michelle created a website this year, Nyenyedzi Bio, whose aim is to provide a platform for all things science related in Africa.

What struck me the most about Michelle is her dedication to her craft. Although she has done other things with her life, she keeps coming back to her calling.  Zimbabwe is lucky to have people like Michelle: people always questioning the limits of our reality and pioneering the push into our country’s uncharted territory.

“The most exciting part about biology for me has always been how structure relates to function. I love the idea of predicting the structures of small molecules that we can’t see with the naked eye like proteins and DNA and predicting how they work.”

Keep pushing Michelle.

Michelle

You can follow Michelle on Twitter at @EllaBellaBleu

To find out more about Michelle’s interests and work, visit  http://nyenyedzibio.com/index.html. 

A comics creator named Bill

We are living in the age of the comic book.  From tv adaptions such as Arrow and Jessica Jones, to box office smash hits such as the Avengers and the Batman movies, comic book properties have never enjoyed such immense popularity.   In Zimbabwe, Marvel and DC have many diehard fans and loyal readers.  Admittedly, I am one of them (Team DC all the way).  Despite my unwavering love for all things comics, I couldn’t help but wonder why there weren’t more African based comics – comics that would speak true to the realities and stories on the continent.  That’s why my interest was piqued when I heard about Bill Masuku and his work.

Bill The Illustrator

Bill Comics Work

Some of Bill’s rough sketches

Bill Masuku recently graduated from Rhodes University with a degree in Commerce, but he chose to pursue a career in comics full time.  His relationship with them began thanks to an overactive imagination as a child. “I was but a wee lad (when his fascination with comics started), although reading comics religiously came in Form One.”  He created his first full comic when he was in Grade 5.  His first reader base were his fellow classmates, and Bill’s creation was a hit amongst his friends. “It was about a group of kids with superpowers fighting tyrant teachers. Shamefully it was titled BillSaga.” From the moment he saw how people received his comic, it was the beginning of a life of combining illustrations with compelling storylines.

“It was like self actualisation, like the precipice of my human potential.”

Bill the Storyteller

However, after this preliminary break, Bill took a break from comics.  Not only was schoolwork a major factor, but he still couldn’t wrap his head around the art of the good comic story. “My ideas for a good story were incomplete. Writing takes time and it’s a constant refining process.”  For example, his first was to create a story around a team of superheroes whose origins were in South Africa, with the plan of eventually expanding the team to include heroes from across the world.  Such a team made sense in Bill’s mind but translating it on paper proved harder than expected.  He decided to cut down the team and keep the focus on Africa.  This was the golden idea, and with this in mind, Bill started to flesh out the story, incorporating elements from his imagination and current African events to produce an interesting yet relatable story.  “There was that proposal from Gaddafi to initiate the United States of Africa.  Tearing down trade boarders, unifying the currencies and just being great.  In my current universe, the African Union, or the United States of Africa, is in effect by 2014.” In addition, Bill plans on reviving old forgotten folk tales, an audio series, as well as a separate title he calls ‘The Third Chimurenga’, whose premise is a cross between speculative literature, sci-fi, and historical fiction:

Blending fact and fantasy, the story starts in the Rhodesian Bush War, where scientists conducted experiments to create a human weapon. With the death of the lead scientist and the end of the war, the test subjects were put into suspended animation in a facility located a few kilometres outside of Harare.  An unfortunate stranger stumbles onto the site, unleashing these human weapons into modern Zimbabwe.

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Creating the stories behind the comics is a long process for Bill.  Not only does he do historical research, but he also has to test out the plausibility of the powers he gives to his characters. Bill explains his current concepts: “I’m currently struggling with human flight – somewhere between warping one’s own electromagnetic field against gravity and or adjusting the density of fluids in the body and treating the atmosphere as a liquid.”  Bill adds to the superpower factor by grounding his characters to ordinary, relatable people that Zimbabweans encounter on a regular basis:

“The secondary theme I’m following is what would an ordinary person  do with powers. Not a super buff millionaire or an alien.  A kombi conductor with the power to teleport. The circumstances of his life. And what choice would make him a hero or villain. Because in my universe, there is no evil.”

However, he’s hit a few speed bumps when it comes to fleshing out his stories.  Especially when it comes to writing female characters, Bill wants to present heroes that are complex but don’t fall into the stereotypes and tropes that have come to characterise representations of women in comic books.  “It’s harder to write believable female characters that weren’t raped, recovering from some trauma, or the converse depiction of them as a Mary Sue. A lot of thought has to be considered. It’s even more difficult for a black female character.”

Bill the Strategist

As invested as Bill is in his craft, he is not naive to the realities of the comics industry in Zimbabwe and Africa.   The industry is growing – with independent publishers in South Africa, and Nigerian comics gaining more prominence and publicity.  However, comics as a business is still not taken seriously – at least in Bill’s opinion.  “The obstacle,” he says, “is getting over the idea of ‘maPopeye’ and stagnant creators.”  MaPopeye in this case refers to the old style of animation, where people produced brief 10 minute clips of cartoon, such as Popeye. “It’s good for 10 minutes of laughs, but not really a career path or anything of value.”  For young artists and creators to have some kind of success, they have to continue in this old model without exploring their own artistic avenues, leading to a stagnant market.  Bill remains optimistic of the comics industry, and points to the Comics Conventions held in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Zambia.

“The number of dynamic creators has risen tremendously, but the perceptions mean that we can’t make a living off it and it becomes a sub-craft, coupled most commonly with graphic designers.”

SILVER DIAMOND issue 1 cover

With his recent graduation Bill moved back home, and whilst Zimbabwe’s economic situation isn’t the most ideal setting for a young illustrator like him, he’s learnt to appreciate the little things that are to his advantage.  “There are some pleasant conveniences, like EcoCash.  It’s the card that registered my patreon account.  I have more time free time to research and draw.”  To get some funding for his work, Bill set up a Patreon account, which works in the same way as Kickstarter or GoFundMe.  His mother and his friends have been supportive thus far, but he needs financial support to expand his work and produce more comics.  “I need to buy a scanner, so that as soon as I’m done with a piece I can edit and upload.  Then partner with a printing store so I can sell at conventions like AfriNerd Con and maybe even HIFA.  Later I’ll buy a tablet so I can do digital art.”

“Why walk when you can teleport?” 

Bill’s drawings and story arcs illustrate a growing artistic industry and space in Africa.  With non-African comic companies and creators possessing the lion’s share of the readers and collective imagination, it’s high time that young Zimbabweans like Bill get the opportunity to represent their narrative in comic form.  Who knows, perhaps in a few years, the continent could see its own crop of comic book adaptions.  And one of them just might be one of Bill’s creations.

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If you’d like to support Bill via Patreon, check out his account here for the details.

For more illustrations and comic creations, follow Bill on his Instagram at @billmasukuart

Let’s Talk About Mr.Rhodes

By now, I’m sure most of you have heard about the protests at University of Cape Town, and followed #RhodesSoWhite and #RhodesMustFall.  Yes, the age-old problem of colonial legacy and heritage has reared its controversial head again.   Southern Africa has come alive on this touchy topic, and judging from the reactions and debates on social media, the region is far from reconciling with its colonial past.

Cecil John Rhodes

The now infamous Cecil John Rhodes Statue at UCT. Picture sourced from the Guardian website

Cecil John Rhodes was not a nice man.  That,  I’m sure, we can all agree on.  He lied, stole, cheated, and harassed his way to become filthy rich.  For the longest time, he was presented in the history books as a progressive forward-thinker, who almost single-handedly made Southern Africa what it is today.  Yes, he did shape Southern Africa.  And this region still bears the scars of his schemes and interference.

This is the heart of the issue now:  there’s a giant statue, in the heart of a campus in Southern Africa, of a man who deserves zero adoration, respect, or celebration.  Rhodes did donate the land for the UCT campus – but then again, it wasn’t really his land to  start with, was it?   People walk by that statue every day, a constant reminder of the ‘great’ man who deigned to donate ‘his’ land and money to the establishment of a university.  In a country that is  still negotiating a difficult and traumatic history, it’s understandable that some students at UCT would be hurt by constantly being exposed to a monument of a man who killed millions of natives and relocated thousands of others.  And when people feel like their voices are being shut out, when the Powers That Be refuse to even listen to your views and complaints, people get desperate.  People get angry.  People get drastic.  The poo being flung on that statue was a demonstration of that frustration, anger, and disgust.  It worked.  People started to listen to their grievances.

Then came an equally controversial subject: changing the name of Rhodes University.   This debate is not new; the proposal was first tabled all the way back in 1994, by the then Student Representative Council (SRC) President Vuyo Kahla.  Fast forward to 2015, and the debate rages on, but something has changed.  The warm, friendly atmosphere at Rhodes has often masked the underlying frustrations and tension that bubbled to the surface a few weeks ago.  If  an institution does not condone, nor associate ourselves with the views and morals of Rhodes, why do they insist on keeping the name?  Name changes are not new: after Independence, did Zimbabwe not change its name from Rhodesia?  If a university is so intent on preserving its brand, then surely its reputation should be based on the quality of its education, and not its name?  Ultimately, why, until now, have people been so dismissive about this issue, an issue that clearly affects ALL of us?

Photo sourced from Wikipedia

Photo sourced from Wikipedia

Colonial baggage and the legacy of Rhodes is a burden that every Southern African must bear.  History has not been kind to Africa, and as a Zimbabwean living in a foreign country, I can personally say that nothing is more aggravating than someone trivialising your distress and your history.  Living with colonial legacy is hard enough, do we really need to live with the monuments that glorify a man who represents a particularly  dark period in African history?  A man who said,

“Pure philanthropy is very well in its way but philanthropy plus five percent is a good deal better”

AND

“I prefer land to niggers.”

Removing such monuments, contrary to popular belief, is not “erasing history”.  Rather, it’s acknowledging that some of the men and women who were celebrated as heroes in their time do not deserve that honour today.  The statue of Cecil John Rhodes in Zimbabwe was taken down, yet we are still very much aware of his life and legacy.  Statues of Lenin, Stalin and Saddam Hussein have been torn down, but that was not followed by the world collectively hitting Delete on their histories.

A statue of Rhodes in formerly Southern Rhodesia

A statue of Rhodes in formerly Southern Rhodesia

The statue was taken down and relocated to a museum

The statue was taken down and relocated to a museum

At the end of the day, this is a discussion that’s not going to go away.  It shouldn’t go away.  The effects of colonisation are still strong today, and even though the Born Frees didn’t live through it, doesn’t mean we are not affected by it.  Telling someone to “get over it” is downright insensitive and ignorant.  All it comes down to is consideration.  For any progress to be made, and for Southern Africa to reconcile with its tumultuous past, each of us needs to be open to each other’s perspectives, distress and opinions.  To quote my Vice Chancellor, Dr. Sizwe Mabizela,

“When you walk in someone else’s shoes that is when you realise what it is like to be that other person.”