Moffat Takadiwa is a Zimbabwe-born South Africa-based artist who creates impressive sculptural installations from recycled computer keys. We sat down to chat about the politics of language, his creation process, and how he knew he wanted to be an artist.
On the politics of language
Sharon: This exhibition is called “Say Hello to English”, and it’s driving the idea that most Zimbabweans — as with most Africans — have to learn colonial English or French — in order to have better access to education and career opportunities. Is this the foundation of your idea for the exhibition?
Moffat: Yes, this is the case particularly in Zimbabwe, which has one of the highest literacy rates.
Sharon: Of course it’s also related to the debate about what is ‘proper English’ versus what is broken English. You know, the idea being that ‘broken English’ is just as useful communication as ‘proper English’, because as with most languages, it has evolved and changed in various places. What are your views on this?
Moffat: I think my show poses open-ended questions. I would say it’s a way forward that maybe we are trying to decolonize English. We are also taking advantage of it being an international language. As you know most Africans learn their mother language and colonial languages. We are part of a generation which has accepted the colonial languages unquestioningly which can be a bad thing. I would say there is an undeniable ‘black’ contribution on contemporary English through broken English. In addition, platforms like Hollywood and celebrated ‘black’ musicians are contributing a lot to the English we speak today.
Sharon: How many languages you speak?
Moffat: Shona and English. But Shona is a combination of many Zimbabwean dialects. It was a construct of five native languages. So I speak Korekore .
Sharon: I want to hear what it sounds like. How would you say, ‘Hi, My name is Moffat’.
Moffat: In proper Shona I can say, ‘ Kwaziwai ,ini ndinonzi Moffat .….’ but in more contemporary less strict lingo, I can say ‘Ndeipi ndeipi, ndonzi Moffox ’.
Sharon: It has been similar with my personal experience as a Ghanaian. I grew up learning English in school but we spoke Twi at home and Ga. However, it was common to hear pidgin which is an altered form of English. Then there’s also French that we learned in school as a proper language to help us expand our career opportunities.
On his re-use of found materials to create sculptures
Sharon: So here, we have your works which are keyboard pieces strung together with fishing wires. From afar you don’t really get to a sense how intricate these are, until you go up close. Then you get to see the keys — the spacebar, the enter bar, letters and different characters on the keyboard. How did you come up with this idea?
Moffat: From a distance, it looks like African crafts because I use craft in my work as a technique. I know there are big demarcations between art and craft simply because of the western narrative through authorship of the histories of art. I decolonize craft and try to use it as a medium for communication and art with modern materials which we use every day.
Sharon: You told me that you started as a painter, right?
Moffat: It was ceramics, but I’ve been drawing and painting from a very early age. In college I majored in ceramics, so I’ve been doing three-dimensional sculptural work.
Sharon: How did you first came up with the idea to use these keyboard materials?
Moffat: It was the lack of materials — of traditional art materials — in Zimbabwe. Because of the hardships I experienced when I was at college. The materials were there but they were very expensive so I ended up looking for an alternative. That’s how I started working with foreign materials. I discovered that most of the garbage in landfills was composed of imported items. Zimbabwe has very strong foreign policies so I’ve been exploring this with my work.
On how he knew he wanted to be an artist
Sharon: When did you realize that you wanted to become an artist?
Moffat: When I was young. Before the age of ten I knew that I wanted an artist, although I didn’t know if it was a real profession. I grew up in a very marginalized community in the middle of farms in a very small town very far from Harare. So I didn’t know if it was a proper profession but I wanted to do it. I saw a couple of movies with cool people who were calling themselves artists. I would say to myself, “I want to be an artist’.
Moffat: But it stuck with me, I said, ‘oh my god, I want to be an artist like this’.
Sharon: Wow and so what was cool about these artists?
Moffat: You know just the way they presented themselves, with a lot of freedom way. It was the way they dressed and how they do things.
Sharon: Do you find that being an artist is what you expected it would be?
As you can see I’m not like many of my male Africa artists, with dreadlocks, this look which you can say that this person is an artist. But I realize it’s just like another industry, another field.
Sharon: But do you feel that being an artist allows you to just be yourself, who you are?
Moffat: Yes, in a lot of ways.
On ‘The Falling of Rhodesia’
Sharon: One of the works in here is called ‘The Falling of Rhodesia’. Which one is that?
Moffat: That’s the big one. (points)
Sharon: This one. I understand that it was inspired by a time when students at Cape Town University took down the statue. Tell me more about that.
Moffat: This was by a generation of young people who are beginning to question the histories of narrative. They are also trying to decolonize academia and language with demand for African languages in the lot of institutions, especially in South Africa.
As a group of young people we gather the keyboards and destroy them, as the young people are destroying old libraries and putting down statues.
Sharon: So where did you gather the different keyboards from?
Moffat: The dumping sites, and there are a lot of people who sell the used parts.
Sharon: I wanted to know more about that as well, so you gather the keyboards and then you pull out the keys.
Moffat: Yes, I destroy the keyboards, pluck out the keys, and construct my own language by laying down the keys randomly. With ‘The Falling of Rhodes/ia’, I worked with a number for sketches from John Rhode’s statue that was put down in Cape Town. There’s a very famous cartoon of Rhode standing on the map of Africa saying ‘he would want to built a railway from Cape to Cairo and paint Africa red’. I also worked with that to come up with the statue of Rhodes, but also Zimbabwe was called Rhodesia before its independence in 1980.
Sharon: I asked whether you sketch each piece before making it, and you said that you don’t do that so much. Is it a process that’s been evolving for you, where you improvise as you’re going along?
Moffat: In some of the pieces, sketching takes away the creative energy. I want to suppress that energy and let it pass through the sculptural work. So I carry the idea in my head and develop it with the pieces.
Sharon: How many people are in your team? How does that work?
Moffat: Altogether, we are six.
Sharon: What’s next? What are you planning?
Moffat: From here, I will be part of a group show in Paris.
Sharon: Thank you Moffat, for doing this with me.
Moffat: Thank you for having me.