Many art lovers and curators in the East African nation of Zimbabwe are highly anticipating the exhibition of the early paintings of Black Zimbabwean students who were forced to learn the art of painting at the Cyrene Mission School in the 1940s at the National Gallery in Harare.
The collection of paintings set to be displayed includes one depicting Jesus as a Black man. These lost paintings are artworks which have been out of public view for 70 years. They were first exhibited in the “Stars Are Bright” exhibition at the Theatre Courtyard Gallery in London in 2020.
The uniqueness of the paintings lies in the richness of the colors used, the narrative captured on the picture frames including how household chores were done in the pre-colonial era, the culture of the Rhodesia people, hunting wildlife and the post-colonial development of electricity lines and railway network.
There is a groundswell campaign to get the artworks returned to Zimbabwe in the wake of calls for Western museums to return African artefacts that were looted during the colonial era.
In a press statement released by Star Are Bright exhibition, Curator and Director Lisa Masterson said the paintings were brought to their attention by a Zimbabwean who spotted the name Cyrene on one of the boxes of the church which was decommissioning it.
She said that singular revelation has led to a treasure of hundreds of paintings done by these Black students of the Cyrene Mission School. There is a huge euphoria among Zimbabweans as this is the first time they will be seeing these paintings.
She said the school was the first to admit Black students in the early 40s. According to her, but for the visionary leadership of an art teacher, Canon Ned Patterson, many of these paintings will have been in the imaginations of these students.
“He was of the belief that painting could be used as a tool to unite people irrespective of their race and culture,” she added.
One of the granddaughters of the artists who painted the Black Jesus, Gift Livingstone Sango, said he feels fulfilled knowing his grandfather’s contribution to art and history has been unveiled. He said knowing his grandfather painted the Black Jesus means he stood for strong Christian ideals and rejected stereotypes that were forced down the continent.
He pointed out that his grandfather’s soul will find peace because his great-grandchildren will also know his contribution to the arts.
“We are saying they must learn what happens when education was very very little. Look at the paintings how bright they are, they are as bright as they were done 80 years ago,” he explained.
Sango is also joining calls for the paintings to return to institutionalize the tradition and heritage of Zimbabweans.
The organizers say they are negotiating with the Curtain Foundation, owners of the collection, for the permanent repatriation of the works. The exhibition will be on until late October.