Art as a tool for liberation

Moleskine Foundation
Creativity Pioneers
19 min readMar 22, 2021


A conversation between Raphael Chikukwa, Director of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, and Adama Sanneh, Moleskine Foundation CEO.

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Adama Sanneh: Hello everybody, I am very excited now to have here with me the brand new Executive Director of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, you had been one of the protagonists of the National Gallery and now you are the executive director. How does it feel?

Raphael Chikukwa: Well, I feel really honored and I feel this is taking us into a new chapter and looking at the past 10 years, I’ve worked as the chief curator at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, and getting this position also position me into realizing some of the things that I also dream of and to be able to expand the network, which we have as National Gallery of Zimbabwe, and to tap into new grounds.

[AS] The three words that you choose are Chimurenga, Remix, and ground, actually fertile ground. Why did you choose these three words?

[RC] Well, the first one is Chimurenga. You know, Zimbabwe’s liberation was brought about through a Chimurenga which is a revolution, so Chimurenga is not yet over for my own thinking, especially in the creative world. Chimurenga has just started for us to be able to have a voice in the global arts community. And that revolution is driven by this Chimurenga spirit, which is Murenga was one of the key people in the history of this country and Chimurenga has been adapted to be a Pan-African word, which I think it is very important. Then the second word is the fertile ground, I think the creative or the cultural institutions have changed in the past six-seven months because of the Covid-19, so I would like to see this as a fertile ground for creativity. So that’s why the fertile ground is a very special word considering the events that have taken place in the changes, the cultural landscape that has changed for the past seven months. Then the remix is an opportunity for us to be able to remix our ideas in order for us to be relevant as creative people and as creative cultural leaders in the continent at large and globally. And remix was also inspired by Simon Njami Africa remix, and the remix is a continuation of what has been started many years ago and we have to look at the ways and means for us to remix our ideas in order to be more creative, especially post Covid-19.

[AS] Can you tell us a little bit more about the gallery? I mean, the gallery has a long history in the country and it’s one of those African institutions that were there during colonial time, they were there during the colonization independence. And now you are ahead of this institution and bringing it to the future. So obviously, there is an institution that talks about transformation, but it was central somehow in the makeup of the country. So I’m kind of wondering, can you tell us a bit more about the gallery and the meaning that he had in the development of the nation?

[RC] Now, thank you very much. And I think we have to look back into the history of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe. Founded in 1957 by the founding director, Frank McEwen, who really contributed immensely to the development of the hubs in that period when he came here to foresee the construction of this beautiful building that we have and that we have inherited from the colonial legacy, and when Frank McEwen arrived here, I mean, he had contacts from the European modernists and all that, and then he was able to transform the National Gallery right from the onset to be a global platform for artists from across the world, but also to create an opportunity for the Zimbabwean artists by creating the workshop school that was behind the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, which founded the so-called first generation of Zimbabwean artists, which I call Zimbabwean modernist painters and sculptors. And these artists were able to exhibit outside the Zimbabwean borders, especially at MoMA, in many other spaces in the United Kingdom, and ICA in many other spaces. So it’s Zimbabweans artists were able to be visible and that’s a bigger platform way back in the 60s. So that was Frank McEwen’s idea, and then he hosted the International Congress on African culture in 1962 that also saw the likes of Alfred Barr, MoMA Director Roland Penrose, who also came from the United Kingdom, and many cultural practitioners that came from across museums in America, in Europe, in the United Kingdom, and also within Africa, were able to come here and that was into the Steel band that came from the Caribbean and another group that also came from Burkina Faso Vincent Koffe, who also came from Ghana. So all these people were gathered in Zimbabwe so that Congress was a special Congress for this country and we were very lucky that we have got to we have laid our hands into the archives of the International Congress on African culture that took place in 1962. We also had artists like Selby Mvusi, who was very critical of what was taking place in Africa, where he looked at the Western thinking of wanting to remain teachers as Africans. So he was one of those people who are very, very critical and so that’s the history from that period and later on, Frank McEwen left the gallery and went sailing in Europe, but then many other directors came in after the independence, Christopher Till became one of the directors of the National Gallery and Cyril Rogers and later on, Professor G. Kahari and later on, Mrs. Doreen Sibanda, who just retired early this year. And now I’m taking over from a very powerful group of directors who have also contributed immensely to the development of the art in Zimbabwe and also making sure that the visibility of Zimbabwe on the global stage remains. So I’m looking at a situation where this is a chapter for us to be able to make our own history because the cultural landscape has already changed because of the Covid-19. What was normal then is no longer going to be normal now. So we have to open a new chapter because of the Covid-19.

[AS] I am kind of wondering, you know, the gallery now, you touch upon the importance that the gallery had in the development of the arts and the arts field in the country and even beyond that. I guess I want to ask the question the other way around: what the gallery did and the arts did for the country? You know, considering that time span in which a lot of things happen, you know, it was about, you’re one of your words is Chimurenga and revolutionary struggle. And you say that the revolution is not finished, but the revolution is something that is about our life that, you know, is about nation-making, is about culture, is about building new language, is about imagining new possibilities, a new future. So I’m kind of wondering, you know, we as the Moleskine Foundation, we always ask ourselves, how could we explore and really identify what creativity for social change means? In a way, I believe that the National Gallery of Zimbabwe is a great example of that but can you tell us more? What do you see a gallery did for the country and for the development of the country and for the revolution somehow?

[RC] One has to look back in 1962, I want to go back to 1962, where the former president, or the founding president of Zimbabwe, called Robert Mugabe, was sitting as a young man in the conference when it was happening in 1962, so to me that on its own, it’s a resemble of that revolution, that through Frank McEwen, because he was not very popular with the colonial government because his acceptance of we was called “the other” at that time, but sometimes you also question how can you be the other in your own country? But that’s was the reality then but there was Frank McEwen also opening the doors for the so-called “others”, were us, the local people, the original people of this country, and allowing people like Robert Mugabe to be able to attend the conference, getting many other people to be part and parcel black people of the colonization of what is happening. Hosiah Mapondera became Frank McEwen’s friend and whenever Frank McEwan was hosting events, Hosiah Mapondera became one of the pinnacle of Frank McEwen’s thinking and advisory committee so that on its own, it’s very important then independence arrived and a new crop of artists was born, those who used to carry AK 47 to liberate Zimbabwe they give up the AK 47 for chisels and hammers and paints and brushes for them to be able to tell the story of the past to independence. So the revolution then started in a new way to chatter new narratives of post-independence Zimbabwe, then you’ve got your post-nineties, where you’ve got another new crop of artists that were also born who also carried on with the revolution, the revolution to tell the Zimbabwean story. And later on, the other group crop of artists that included what we call today, the born frees those who were born after 1980. So they continued with the revolution of telling their story, and I would like to say in that group of artists that also included the likes of the Tapfuma, those were some of the artists that we have been able to showcase to the Venice Biennale with a number of the exhibition that includes “Seeing ourselves” because remember that our stories have been told by others for many years, but we want to see ourselves telling our own story. So “Seeing ourselves”, which was made in Zimbabwe Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2011, was also very important but to include one young born free artist was Misheck Masamvu, to be able to tell the story of these younger people and let on it was followed by Dudziro, which also had a number of young artists but also putting two senior artists Rashid Jogee and Voti Thebe to be able to have this generation to tell their own stories and their own revolution but social change is very key because it plays an important role in developing nations, in developing people.

[AS] So what I hear is basically the role of the National Gallery is a space for criticality to occur, for the imagination to happen and I remember that there was a talk that you gave some years back and you were talking about the role of the of a national cultural institution on the continent, the African continent in an era of severe economic crisis, climate change. Now, even we had a pandemic and the role that these faces can have in reality, again, I keep using this word because I can’t find anything else, this idea of building new language in a space where and for people that for so many years, you know, didn’t have a voice or better, that they did have a voice, but it didn’t have space and institution that could amplify their voice and could create those conversations. So I think this is particularly important and I think it’s often something that people forget about the importance of the arts and culture, especially these in these moments. But I would like to also ask you, though, What about you? You’re a young man in Zimbabwe, I saw the picture you had dreadlocks face, like a young activist, what brought you into the arts? What made you decide to start this journey? Why arts and culture? Why creativity?

[RC] Well, I mean, I always say to so many people that being in a creative world is not by mistake. It’s not a mistake and, I’m a village boy who grew up about a hundred kilometers away from Harare and when I grew up, it was during the colonial era, through colonial education, but in that colonial education that was never taken seriously. So I’m one of those who really wanted to be an artist and later on when I came into Harare after my A-levels, I wanted to go to the Mzilikazi Arts Center, which is a center that was founded in the 1960s by the Bulawayo City Council to train artists and young creatives from the money they were making out of the beer, which was called the Ingwebu. And I did pass the interview for me to study art at Mzilikazi, but then my mother didn’t want me to go to Matabeleland. And later on, I found it speaking to a cousin who was working as a sound writer at OK, which is a supermarket, introduced me to Harare Art Center, which was founded by Canon Paterson with one of the key person who came as a missionary before Frank McEwen arrived, and set up the Canon Paterson Art Center in Matabeleland and later on moved to Harare and set up Canon Paterson Art Center in Harare, including the Harare Art Center, gave it to one of the Zimbabwean modernist painters, Kingsley Sambo and Kingsley Sambo later gave it to Nomen Chovhuchovhu, who then trained me, but later on, after having been disgruntled with the opportunities in Zimbabwe and migrated to South Africa then I worked as a sound writer and let on as a volunteer guided the Johannesburg Art Gallery.

[AS] What years was that?

[RC] That was in the late 80s, around 1989 and then as a volunteer guide, I was able to get an opportunity to work with so many artists, and later on, I enrolled to do a postgraduate in arts and culture management at Witwatersrand University in 1997.

[AS] This is important because something happened between 1989 and 1997 in South Africa, 1994 it’s quite a moment so you can’t just gloss it like that.

[RC] So Independence of South Africa came and we all rejoiced as black people in South Africa, both black and white people because apartheid was finished. And I’m sure it opened up so many opportunities for me because I got interaction with people like Karen Brodkin, who really, I always think that she is my mentor. She’s a Jewish woman living in Johannesburg and I used to help her out and she opened me up to introduce me to the likes of Lorna Ferguson, we became students together at the Wits University, and Lorna Ferguson was the founder of the Johannesburg Biennale. And the Johannesburg Biennale, the first one in 1995, was really an important Biennale. I saw the Biennale, I was not even part of it, but I was one of those people who admired and later on when myself and Lorna studied arts and culture management at Witts, she was able to rock me into the second Johannesburg Biennale where I went with Bongi Dhlomo-Mautloa, Susan Glanville and then later Okwui Enwezor. So that was like a free university for me because I was able to really be in brushing shoulders with a number of international artists, the number of artists that came from all over the continent, and curators that came from overseas, that included the likes of Hou Hanru, Gerardo Mosquera, Evo Mosquito, and many others, the list is endless. And to me, it was a great, great opportunity. And also be able to meet with the provincial team, wanted to open an office in Africa. So they took an opportunity and that also had an opportunity to take them for a guided tour of the Biennale that also includes the likes of Prince Charles. So being at home was like a great opportunity because you have to be able to read the art you are also able to read the statement from the artistic director, the statement from the curators like Colin Richards, and many others. So working closely with Susan Glanville, was a great opportunity also and the other person who was also very important was Godfried Donkor. And the other person, an artist, was also Bili Bidjocka, who was also important because his presentation at the second Johannesburg Biennale was very powerful. So I remember very well that I was able to interpret the work of this artist to the audience that was coming to the Johannesburg Biennale. That also includes schools.

[AS] But I think what impressed to me, you have a story of migration, of transformation, of encountering unique people and personalities and as you just describe it, culture and art and criticality are at the center, not only of your work as now executive director of National Gallery in Zimbabwe and or as a curator by you as a person, since I know that the National Gallery has you know, when you go to the National Gallery in Harare it’s beautiful: There’s a garden, there’s a café. There’s a lot of young people moving around, coming in and out. We would work together on your educational program and for the community and I’m wondering, though, especially in light of your story, what is the vision that you have for the young people and the community around the National Gallery of Zimbabwe?

[RC] Well, thank you very much Adama, I think I would like to quote a statement by a very important person in terms of contemporary art history in Africa: Simon Njami. It’s from a catalog which is called “The Other Journey”. We saw an exhibition that took place at the concert hall in Austria. In a statement, Simon Njami, says what is art history about, which is a question mark. “The debate on African contemporary art history has only just begun and failing reliable truths and established references, everyone chips in their personal lead to speeches and contributions. This is a domain. This domain has gradually turned into a huge strategic observed battlefield were all kinds of mercenaries and adventurers rage. It’s as though, for want of deeper reflections, everyone believed that all you needed to do to pass the truth was to be the first like the days of the first discoveries.” I think what we need to think about today is to say how do we tell contemporary African art history? And the likes of Simon Njami, the likes of David Adjaye, the likes of Koyo Kouoh, the likes of Christine Eyene and the likes of El Anatsui, with the likes of Julien Sinzogan, the likes of so many African artists from north to south, from west to east, the list is endless. I’m sure there is a need for us to continue this revolution because whatever we are going to be able to do now, we are paving we are creating a foundation for the next generation and institutions like the National Gallery of Zimbabwe and other cultural institutions in the continent, like the museum in Bamako, the National Gallery in Senegal, in many other institutions, play a critical role in defining contemporary art history, in defining the moments that we’ve been going through. And it is very important that the archives that remain today in the so-called museums and objects that are also dotted around the western world, there’s a need for us to dig deeper into this. But for me, as the new executive director of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, the task is huge and it’s a very, very critical time But I think this gives us a fertile ground for us to be able to be creative, as creative people.

[AS] Well said. And I think this is kind of go to your last words that you choose about this idea of fertile ground, especially in this context of complexity, to say the least, with a pandemic going on. And on that, what do you see are the new opportunities, as you put it, you know, previously that that that, especially from an institution like yours that is, was based on physical presence. What is what are the new opportunities that there’s this pandemic has created? How do you see the future of your institution, not a cultural institution, in a nearby future?

[RC] I’m sure most of the cultural institutions in Africa when the pandemic arrived with a quarter of that. There’s a need for us to see the new opportunities that the Covid-19 and post Covid-19 have provided. Which are we need to think about how we can reach out to the digital audience. It’s is very important and very key that we also need a new opportunity for our collections to work for us digitally. Those collections that have remained in our storage for so many years, need to bring in new researchers, new curators to really dig deeper into these collections and to highlight these digitally so that our digital audience can be able to view our collections and our exhibitions they need to be online and we can capitalize on the digital rush that is currently a new wind of change, a new opportunity that has been provided by Covid-19. Our public programming also to go the same way in terms of our conversations to also go digital in order for us to reach out to this new audience as much as we want the audience that is going to walk in front of the gallery. But we need the audience that are going to those digital audiences. They are there because of the new normal, which is not normal.

[AS] Indeed, this is an extremely interesting conversation I will take with me this idea of Chimurenga from every revolution need to start from the revolution of the mind. We know that and many revolutionaries talked about this starting from Beko. But we can go and say, you know, many throughout history, within the African continent, outside the African continent. It’s a human condition and I’m really excited about the prospect to have an institution like the National Gallery of Zimbabwe now in your hands to really build new possibilities, not only for Zimbabwe, but for and not only the continent, but really to start building conversation internationally. Because at this moment, we always say this. We do need imagination, we need radical imagination and the main ingredients for that, as I strongly believe that the lays in the hands and in the hands of people like you and institution like you, so I’m very glad that you’re going to guide us for the next few years into new possibilities. This is very exciting.

[RC] I think it’s not about guiding you. It’s all about us working together in this path for us, for us to be able to realize or to continue the revolution because is a national gallery where national pride, but we are not a national pride without the communities. The communities play an important role in this pride that’s in this national pride and is a national institution. We need to clearly define our role and function. I’ve always said that there’s no exhibition without artists. Because the artists give birth to the artwork, which is the product and we are the consumers and we are the people who collect and present those artworks for the next generation, but we need to walk the path together for us to be able to realize the dreams and aspirations of this National Gallery of Zimbabwe, the role it has played during Frank McEwen and the role it has played through all the directors that have come through I’m sure there’s a need for continuity. There’s a need for reflection. There’s a need to actually looking at how Frank McEwen was able to collect the African modernists to add that into the collection, which I think is very special because today most of our contemporary artists are collected abroad. There’s a need for the gallery to look into this critically and to be able to fundraise to make sure that those African artists, contemporary African artists, their work remains also here in the continent because there’s a great danger we have in front of us of wanting to learn them from those cultural institutions abroad to bring them back to the Zimbabwean audience. I remember very well in 2005 during the Africa remix in Paris at the Center Pompidou, the conversation we had with Simon Njami was to say Africa remix, will the African audience be able to see it, and I’m glad to say that question was answered it managed to travel to the continent in more many other exhibitions have traveled to the continent, including the exhibition that came from Addis, Cairo to Zimbabwe, to Kampala, the Atatürk. In many other projects that we realize, including the project that we have been able to work together, including the project that we worked together about two years ago, and that continues to work with all of us. So I think the gallery needs to position itself to be accommodative of collaborations so that we can realize more and we can capitalize on more audience because when an exhibition travels it will get another leg with its audience, those collaborations are important.

[AS] Raphael, all the best for continuing the revolution.

[RC] Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity. And like I said, the revolution continues. Chimurenga is not only about yesterday, but it’s also about yesterday, today, and the future.

[AS] Thank you so much.

Born in Zimbabwe, Raphael Chikukwa is the Executive Director of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe. He joined the National Gallery in 2010 as the Chief Curator of Contemporary Art and Deputy Director. Previously he had worked mainly as an independent curator.

Chikukwa is the founding Curator of the Zimbabwe Pavilion curator at the 54th Venice Biennale 2011 and just curated AfterShock: Re-Imagining life after Cyclone Idai 2020. He seats on so many jury committees that include High Line Plinth in New York 2020, DAAD in Germany, Delfina Foundation London UK, Pinchuk Art Prize, and was a jury member for the Dakar Biennale 2018.

He also curated other editions of the Zimbabwe Pavilion from 2013, 2015, 2017, the current 2019 Zimbabwe Pavilion at the 58th La Biennale di Venezia 2019. Chikukwa was a panel for the Art Basel Hong Kong 2019 and also a jury member for the Dakar Biennale 2018 in Senegal. He has also contributed in a number of Publications that includes, a newly published African Art Reframed: Reflections and Dialogue on Museum Culture by University of Illinois Press USA, Mowonero: Insights in Zimbabwean Contemporary Art, Zimbabwe Pavilion Catalogues (Seeing Ourselves 2011, Dudziro 2013, Pixels of Ubuntu/Unhu 2015, Deconstructing Boundaries 2017 and Soko Risina Musoro — A Tale Without a Head 2019) Kaboo Ka Muwala: Migration and Mobility Exhibition 2016, etc. His qualifications and international experience earned this position at the national institution, which he hopes to change the visual arts landscape of Zimbabwe.

Chikukwa was awarded the 2006–2007 Chevening Scholar now holds an MA in Curating Contemporary Design from Kingston University London. The 2nd Johannesburg Biennale in 1997 provided an impetus to Raphael’s curatorial career after working as a volunteer guide for the Biennale. He later moved to his home country Zimbabwe as a process of relocation to his motherland. Chikukwa is a founding staff member of the PUMA-funded Creative Africa Network as an editor and advisor of the project from 2008–2009. Recently he was among seven Curators from Africa attending the Tate Modern Symposium “Curating Africa where he presented a paper on his curatorial practice. In 2008, Chikukwa represented Africa at the 2008 Art Basel Miami Conversations in the United States of America. The American Centre Foundation also awarded Raphael a curatorial research grant in 2006–2007 and he traveled to West Africa for his curatorial research.

This conversation was recorded as one of the Episodes of “Creativity Pioneers”, a podcast by the Moleskine Foundation.

As the Moleskine Foundation’s vision is to inspire a new generation of creative thinkers and doers, this podcast aims to equip all of us with new perspectives and unconventional ideas to amplify our creativity, critical gaze, and imagination.
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Creativity Pioneers

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