Part III: A love of flamboyant trees and the art of Valentine Magutsa

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IO – Finding the Zimbabwean artist, Valentine Magutsa proved to be almost as miraculous as Valentine’s own life. While writing my article about flamboyant trees in art and culture I found some wonderful paintings of flamboyant trees that truly stood out from amongst the many such paintings on the internet. I determined immediately to contact the artist for permission to use images of the paintings as well as to interview him. However, despite repeated efforts to contact him I was unable to do so. Nearly a year passed without my writing the article as I felt it would be incomplete without his paintings. I had reached the point of despair of ever being able to write it when something astonishing occurred.

There is only one Zimbabwean that I know in Indonesia namely the archeologist and anthropologist, Jonathan Zilberg. He is married to an Indonesian lady and has lived here for many years. At one time I counted him amongst my good friends but due to a misunderstanding I had not spoken to him for 8 years. That day as I looked at my emails to my surprise there was one from Jonathan reaching out to me. I was delighted and to cut a long story short not only did I get back a friend, in no time at all my friend from Zim (as he affectionately refers to the land of his birth) was able to locate Valentine and obtain his email address – and the rest as they say, is history.

Valentine Magutsa was born in Mberengwa on the 19th of September 1975 in the middle of the Zimbabwe War of Liberation or the Chimurange War. In the Shona language which is the language of the majority of Zimbabweans it means the revolutionary struggle. It was a conflict between three factions which lasted from 1962 until the end of 1979 and brought hardship in its wake.

Valentine Magutsa’s earliest memory is being carried on his mother’s back as she ran from their hut into the bush in the middle of the night, with the rest of his family also fleeing to escape the War. They could no longer return and it must have been very frightening but Valentine confides that he was not traumatized by these events but in fact was a very cheerful child. He says, “It was at the end of the War, so it was mostly only stories that I heard about it…”

His next memory is from the age of five, of the homestead or farm where he lived and where he could see people working very hard. This image of hard work cultivated in him an ethic of working hard. “The belief,” he says, “that if you don’t work nothing will materialize. You have to work for something to happen.”

By then he had been adopted by an uncle, his father’s brother who wanted to help his parents after fleeing the War with their seven children. His uncle only had one baby boy at the time. He worked on a tea and coffee estate in Chipinge, Manicaland province which is the whole of the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe.

Valentine would play in the forest on the way to and from school. He used to visit the Chirinda Forest which is very famous in Zimbabwe. It is very dense with enormous trees. Valentine reminisced, “It influenced my career waking up to see people on the farm busy cultivating the tea and coffee bushes – but also the great forest. Those were the two subjects I first began to paint. I truly enjoyed painting and seeing the reciprocal relationship between people and nature.”

Jonathan Zilberg says, “Manicaland is breathtaking with its mountains and waterfalls. It is a beautiful place with lots of trees and forests and this seems to have instilled a love of landscape painting in Valentine. He is very talented. There is a strong clear light in Zimbabwe and it makes shadows on the ground through the trees. It’s quite particular – especially the Mopani woodlands. There was a time in Zim when painting landscapes was considered a white man’s thing, very Rhody. A painting had to be highly conceptual and if possible shock the ordinary sensibilities but that has changed. Valentine has already exhibited five times at the Zimbabwean National Gallery. His work is so good.”

Valentine still remembers his first drawing when he was in the third year of school. They were given drawing exercises where they had to copy Biblical scenes. After writing the answers to the questions he would find time to include illustrations. “It was the plague in the Bible,” he remarks. “I just drew frogs, flies and locusts. I copied what I saw illustrated in the book but by the time I was in the fifth year of school I would make the illustrations for the story myself. I was just enjoying myself illustrating.”

Nevertheless, even in the third year his teacher had already noticed the talent he had. It was a school on the estate where the children were taught the Bible and Christian values. Later when he went to secondary school he made sure that he chose a school where art was a subject. He went to a mission school. It was during these years as he grew up and went to school that he developed a deep faith in God and the goodness of God.

After secondary school Valentine studied art for both industry and education at Chinhoyi Technical Teachers’ College. He then taught art in Chipinge and Bulawayo until 2005, when he began to pursue a full-time painting career in which he proved very successful with 14 solo and 34 group exhibitions in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Finland and the Czech Republic. He had customers from as far away as Japan, China, Europe, the US and Canada and he won several award.

Valentine is very proud to be a Zimbabwean. He says, “It’s my country of birth and in general my people are a very loving people with a rich cultural approach to the many ethnic traditions of Zimbabwe.”

In the area Valentine grew up there were cultural dances and ceremonies. It is through their different cultural practices that the differing tribes and cultures are identified and he has frequently painted this. Valentine was born a member of the Karanga people due to his place of birth but he grew up with the Ndau people and during secondary school in Mutare he was with the Manyka people who are a lesser tribe in Manicaland. They speak different language and when asked he says that he feels most like an Ndau.

The first time Valentine saw a flamboyant tree was when he went to study in the town of Mutare. He loved the red flush of the avenue of flamboyant trees that he lived on. He noticed that the trees blossomed in the spring during the months of late August, September or early October. It made Mutare one of his favourite cities.

Jonathan Zilberg who has an endless yearning for Zim remembers the same and says, “You know in my home town, Salisbury, now Harare, the avenues were planted with jacarandas and the streets with flamboyants. It’s so pretty when they are flowering, long overarching tunnels of pale blue one way and bright red the other, running parallel to each other.”

The flamboyant is not an indigenous tree of Zimbabwe and so according to Valentine they do not have cultural traditions associated with them. Culturally, they would identify more with the musasa tree, an indigenous tree which also has red blossoms in the springtime which like in Indonesia, is the start of the rainy season.

When the flamboyant trees bloom Valentine finds his whole mood changing and muses how once they start blooming they change the mood from social challenges into a world of aesthetic beauty. “You notice that as an artist: when they bloom it brings hope. Probably its because people are coming out of winter when colours are pale and people are cold. Then there is not too much movement just survival – but when spring comes everyone’s spirits are rejuvenated and people are joyful, they start to travel again and are filled with optimism. It is the rainy season and also a time when people start planting in their fields and begin to anticipate harvests in the summer.

It holds this meaning for me too and is not only one of my favourite seasons but is also the most fruitful time in my work. My paintings are very colourful and that season is a multi-hued one so I do not have to struggle to find something to paint. Colour is all around me.”

Valentine says that he was especially influenced by Van Gogh’s dramatic brush strokes and Monet’s powerful use of light. He has created a style of his own, a bridge between realism and abstraction characterized by rich textures, vibrant colours and dynamic brush strokes. His work reminds Dr Werner Kraus, director of the Centre for Southeast Asian Art in Passau, Germany of Henri Matisse and German expressionism. He calls the style practiced by the majority of international artists today: Webstyle as billions of images are available to everybody around the globe. Someone sitting in Africa has the same access to the web as a New York city man. Because of this the question of “school” or “style” in art has changed dramatically. He comments, “I’m very happy to see the high quality art of Magusta. He is just one link in a chain of wonderful artists Africa has offered the world. Right at the beginning of African modernism, we had a man like Gerard Sekoto (1913-1993), one of the founders of African modernism. I don’t know if Magusta was at all inspired by him. I like Magusta’s art. He has developed a very intimate feeling about the nature of his African nature and he has the technical abilities that allow him to transform his feelings into art.”

Indonesian museum curator and art auctioneer Amir Sidharta agrees and says of Valentine’s paintings, “I think that they are wonderful works. I especially like Flamboyants in the Sky and am intrigued by the way he flattens the image into two dimensions but somehow manages to bring out the three dimensionality, and even the fourth dimension. You can almost hear the flutter of the leafs in the painting and in Shifting Shadows you can truly feel the shadows moving.”

In 2011 disaster struck. Valentine contracted a crippling rheumatoid arthritis leaving him confined to a wheel chair and unable to paint. It was the heaviest burden an artist could be made to bare when he could no longer practice the activity he loved most. What kept him from descending into despair was his deep and unshakeable faith. “I believe in God and that He lives in me. I have had faith since childhood and it is rooted in the Bible where there are many promises. All you have to do is to appropriate them and make them come alive in your life. The same spirit that raised Christ from the dead now dwells in me and it revitalized my mortal body for we are spiritual beings and everything happens in the spirit. So, we must win in the spirit before it can be manifest in the physical.”

For 6 years he could not paint and was in a lot of pain but he kept his faith and continued to pray and read the Bible and slowly there was improvement until last year he found that he could handle the brush again without pain. He declares, “Whenever I paint I feel rejuvenated and the first painting that I painted was the flamboyant trees. We are not limited. We can go as far as we want. We have that inner drive. So we should not allow ourselves to be limited and that is why after the long break when I could not paint I celebrated by painting the flamboyant, the trees of hope They symbolized my struggle, my hope. Not to give up..”

Things are very difficult for everyone in Zimbabwe. There are electricity outages and shops are often out of their stock. First, his illness and then the corona virus pandemic made things very difficult not only for himself but all artists. He notes that artists rely on using public space like galleries but now cannot and so their works can also not be exhibited and with the economic situation in Zimbabwe people are looking for food and for fuel. Just meeting basic needs. So, art has become a super luxury.

With the difficult economic situation in Zimbabwe, Valentine moved to a self-sustaining homestead in the country where he can grow his own food. He plans art safaris where international artists come, stay, meet local artists and exchange ideas. His Valentine Art Gallery is under construction. He is painting again and has plans.

“Most of my paintings have a road in them because roads symbolize all the ups and downs of life; good times and bad; difficulties… and hope.”

He also plans to plant many flamboyant trees on his homestead.
(Tamalia Alisjahbana)

If you enjoyed reading this article you may also enjoy by the same writer:

Part I: A love of cherry blossoms and the spirit of Japan. Please see: https://observerid.com/part-i-a-love-of-cherry-blossoms-and-the-spirit-of-japan/

Part II: A love of flamboyant trees in art and culture around the world…
Please see: https://observerid.com/part-i-a-love-of-flamboyant-trees-in-art-and-culture-around-the-world/