Tshidzu in maiden Sibone Okunye exhibition

Phathisa Nyathi (left) Bokani Tshidzu (second from left) and two attendees

GLOBALLY-ACCLAIMED paint and creative crafter Bokani Tshidu privileged her home town of Bulawayo with an enchanting Zimbabwe African tradition rooted exhibition called Sibone Okunye at the Bulawayo National Gallery of Zimbabwe.

The United Kingdom (UK)-based Tshidzu, who was born and raised in Bulawayo and educated in the UK explores the significance of the reed mat (icansi in IsiNdebele) among other artefacts in the cultural upbringing and life of an African woman. Alongside her studio practice, Bokani is a climate campaigner, working to promote climate justice in London through local and global partners.

She hogged the limelight when she won the London audition of BBC 1’s The Big Painting Challenge 2018 Series and went on to win the public vote in the televised show.

A spiritual journey on foot along the Ignatian Camino in northern Spain led Bokani to make a commitment to pursue her artistic calling. Her work uses ordinary objects transformed into the extraordinary to comment about the climate crisis and how we are all deeply connected with each other and more widely in the cosmos.

This was her debut exhibition in her home town with the National Gallery.

The Sibone Okunye Exhibition was officially opened by Plan International’s Noreen Makhurane, programme area manager for Matebeleland. Makhurane hailed the collaborative work of artists, especially when it comes to uplifting Zimbabwean cultural traditions.

Tshidu told NewsDay Life & Style that she was moved to see so many people responding so well to the artwork.

“It has layers of symbolism, but starts with something everyone can relate to, icansi, the reed mat found in every Zimbabwean home. I loved seeing people interact with the paintings and installations and so many selfies!” she said.

“I was very humbled by, Noreen Makhurane, the Guest of Honour’s presence and her remarks. As an extraordinary leader she understood the empowering message and resonated with the emotional aspect as well as the technical innovation.

“Everyone knows the icansi has importance in the home, but the exhibition highlighted its cultural importance and alongside it the role of women politically and domestically. How the icansi is used to reinforce patriarchal norms. As the name of the exhibition says, Sibone Okunye, the guests felt they saw the icansi and their interaction with it in a new light. We were also honoured by the presence of historian and cultural expert Mr Pathisa Nyathi who I consulted with at length as part of the research process.”

She continued: “This exhibition takes icansi, a large reed mat as a canvas to explore the experiences of women. Icansi is a sleeping mat and so a site of dreaming, of intimacy, of healing and even an altar. Looking at it in these ways we are asked important questions, where do we find hope, pleasure, healing and wealth.”

Bulawayo National Gallery of Zimbabwe Curator, Doreen Kampira described the Sibone Okunye as an innate piece of creative work.

Asked how would she want the exhibition to change communities and the world at large, Bokani said: “I would love for the exhibition to be a platform for visitors to have meaningful conversations with the women in their lives, beloved sisters, friends and family about the recognised objects.

“I would love to see intergenerational conversations about love and marriage. The two kids are in conversation with an aunt about women’s role in the economy. Most important, I would like all who have attended to recognise the vast wealth in our traditional cultures, how rich the lessons of interdependence are in the upbringing of people. Our culture uniquely equips us to meet the challenges of climate, politics and economics with strength and resilience. I am immensely proud to be from here and want the exhibition to be a reminder of our cultural wealth.”

Bokani’s career as a visual artist started as a hobby painter as a way of dealing with a stressful job.

“It was a healthier form of escapism. I had thrown out a painting and a friend rescued it from the bin, I saw it at their house when I next went for dinner. It taught me that perhaps my work could be of interest and service to others,” she said.

Since 2015, Bokani has unveiled paintings and installations in wide-ranging group exhibitions across the UK and in France, and she has had two solo exhibitions in London. In 2022, Bokani’s solo exhibition at Fiztrovia Chapel featured an important series of stained glass paintings that reflected the site’s rich history as a hospital chapel.

Bokani has produced billboards installed across the UK as part of Black Outdoor Art. In April 2023, together with Ugandan-British artist Birungi Kawooya, Bokani produced a mural as part of a public art commission by the mayor of London in Kensington and Chelsea. Her billboard is included in an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

“My family had been very supportive, they push me to work hard, make the most in every chance to learn and be better. That really helps,” said Bokani

She holds a Bachelors in Politics with Economics degree from the University of Bath and Masters in Computational Art from Goldsmiths College, University of London.

In the next five years she hopes to see herself working as an artist full time.

“In five years I hope to be showing in other African institutions and perhaps building an organisation here in Zimbabwe. Too often we look to the global north for validation; my guiding star is how fellow Africans respond. I hope to be an African’s artist, it the honour of my life to be here. I have so many projects I want to work on touring exhibitions, books and films. Watch this space!” she declared.

Her inner wish is for people to support artists.

“Yes even your kids, it teaches creativity, resilience, budgeting and reminds them they matter. Support organisations like the National Art Gallery of Bulawayo, schools etc so we have a system, buy art for your home or office, live with things that will outlive you, its humbling and brings so much joy!” she added.

Related Topics