Felix Shumba is a self-taught visual artist from Masvingo in Zimbabwe. In this conversation with Barnabas Ticha Muvhuti, Shumba, whose multidisciplinary practices includes figurative drawing and painting, poetry and performance art, talks about his background, his biggest influences and the obstacles he has encountered as an immigrant in South Africa.
Let us start with where you grew up, when you first started creating works of art and where you trained to be an artist.
Felix Shumba: I grew up in Masvingo, a city in southeastern Zimbabwe. I grew up in the rural areas near Great Zimbabwe, the monument and World Heritage Site which Zimbabwe is named after. I remember when I was about seven, my class teacher Mr Charumbira asked us to draw a depiction of the life cycle of a locust. He was so astonished by my diagram that he lifted my notebook and started showing my classmates. I got a lot of encouragement from him. I cannot recall how the news of the drawing got to my mother. She went and bought paints and a sketchpad. My first drawing was a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, which I drew from the one which was on the cover of the sketchpad. I also did other drawings from different materials such as school textbooks and newspapers. Besides drawing, I made mud and wood sculptures of cows and people. As such, I am a self-taught artist. Nonetheless, I do acknowledge other artists whose work I spent more time looking at closely, which I could see in different publications. I believe that also counts [as] informal training of some sort. I also visited artists’ studios where I picked a few techniques and advice.
Are there specific themes you focus on in your practice and do the materials you work with help articulate the issues you engage with?
Felix Shumba: I mostly use charcoal, pencil and oil paints. It is the immediacy of getting them which mostly draws me to them. Charcoal can be erased, a technique [that] I use in my drawings. I am drawn to oil because of its fluidity and its slow drying process. There are metaphors to be found in these materials. For example, when oil paint is left bare on a palette, it creates a scalp, yet the inside remains wet for some time. I would liken that to how wounds dry. The wounds of a continent, nations bleeding from gratuitous violence. Charcoal is often made from organic materials, application of pressure and compression also by elimination of oxygen. I draw similarities of the black colour and how it’s produced with the way black lives are put to death by suffocating.
Is your work born out of personal conviction or other factors?
Felix Shumba: It is mostly out of personal conviction and responsibility to abstract, explore and provide commentary on universal experiences.
I would like to think current social and political developments are relevant to your work.
Felix Shumba: To be black is synonymous with death. My work is an attempt at producing documents that show [the] directness of gratuitous violence on black people in the literary sense. The subject matter I choose shares a sense of impending doom, dislocation and alienation and uncertainty – an unfixed condition and the ability to be pluralistic.
Untitled – Prayer – Sermon 20 -55, Felix Shumba; 2021
Manasa, chainda, vari ruvhure, 9km – South – kyle water, Felix Shumba; 2021
Kusvika – Mvura – 15,10, Felix Shumba; 2021
Who are some of your biggest influences?
Felix Shumba: My influences vary, mostly based on the stages in my life and my age at the time. When I was young, cinema was of great influence. I was always fascinated by moving pictures. Andrei Tarkovsky, a cinema director, and literary works from Dambudzo Marechera, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy just to name a few. Now my influence has been texts. I like to think that I am indexing their text.
Felix Shumba: I have been closely observing and adopting different ways in which they approach their work. For example, work ethic, use of materials and theoretical practice in the case of Adrian Piper and Kemang Wa Lehulere. I am learning important lessons in Andre Tarkovsky’s movies which deal with themes of self-reflection, as well as the existential crisis shrouding Dostoevsky and Marechera’s works. All these influences have paved the way for me to create.
As an immigrant myself, the perception I have of South Africa is that of a highly restrictive country with a caring art community. How do you deal with such conflicts and contradictions?
Felix Shumba: The attitudes towards immigrants seem to be shifting now. There is activism, anti-hate campaigns and government involvement on issues such as xenophobia and provision of security. I have been fortunate enough to have friends who allow me to live with them in between short periods of being homeless. I have been helped by other artists for rent, art materials and other support. I am not always certain of security, so I avoid certain places. I try to be in the studio most of the time. In that way, I focus on my work and avoid unnecessary threats to my life.
I am fortunate to have been invited as a studio guest in Cape Town by Kemang Wa Lehulere. That opportunity has given me time to reflect on my work and the way forward. This is the first time I am working full-time without having to do odd jobs to support my practice.
What are some of the challenges or obstacles that you have encountered and overcome on the move?
Felix Shumba: Being held at Lindela Repatriation Centre, waiting to be deported was quite challenging physically and emotionally. My family did not know where I was at the time as I could not get in touch with them. They even assumed I was dead or got kidnapped attempting to cross the border. I heard of many Zimbabweans who left home several years ago that have not been accounted for. That on its own instils fear and anxiety about being in a foreign country. I must be vigilant all the time. There is a need to veil, to learn the local languages, to adapt, to speak, and act [as a] local. In the long term that messes you spiritually and it messes your identity. I have learnt to deal with or accept discontinuities in life as a foreign national. Crucial friendship and family ties can be disrupted by anything from arrests to gratuitous violence to constantly being on the move in search of work opportunities. There is that proximity to danger if one is an immigrant. Safety and freedom are not always guaranteed. I have developed a strong sense of self-preservation which always helps navigate violent spaces and keep a distance from dangerous people.
Untitled 1, Felix Shumba; 2020
Indx: Powerful letters, vehicle, streets of imagery, repose 16,444, Felix Shumba; 2021
Portrait of Felix Shumba by Kemang Wa Lehulere
Index Stripe, movement, category ,borehole 86,71, Felix Shumba; 2021
Barnabas Ticha Muvhuti is a PhD candidate in Art History in the NRF SARChI Chair program in Geopolitics and the Arts of Africa, University Currently Known as Rhodes