At 26 years old, the Zimbabwean artist Terrence Musekiwa broke away from his family’s business of carving soapstone for tourists. Ever since the age of five, Musekiwa had helped his father shape the indigenous black soap stones into animals. This practice was in keeping with a 1,000-year-old tradition belonging to his native Shona people. But as Musekiwa grew older, he began to find a disparity between the somewhat saccharine objects he was creating and life in his tumultuous society. So the young artist began carving human faces out of the stones and incorporating them with other found materials to create something other than crafty curios. Thanks to that decision, Musekiwa now has 12 humanoid figures taking up various poses in the exhibition Standing on a line, not being on either side at the Catinca Tabacaru Gallery in the Lower East Side.
For the past two decades Zimbabwe has experienced economic decline. In large part, this is due to the country’s long-serving dictatorial president Robert Mugabe, who was finally ousted by a coup this week following a 37-year reign. One of the many detrimental legacies Mugabe leaves behind is an 80% unemployment rate among young Zimbabweans. For Musekiwa, this state of affairs provided the impetus for his figures, which don’t carry individual titles but rather are named as a group, “the youth of today.”
At a glance, Musekiwa’s little guys, each around a foot in height, don’t appear too forlorn. This can be attributed to their gangly bodies made from sturdy plastic tubes that Musekiwa moulds using a blowtorch into various states of playful repose. The sense of joy evoked by the figures seems at odds with the reality Musekiwa seeks to represent. But their appearance only tells part of the story. The tubular bodies, for instance, are pre-formed two-liter cooking oil containers that get discarded due to imperfections. In turn, young Zimbabweans repurpose the tubes as containers for recreationally drinking cough syrup — an unfortunate habit that has developed among Musekiwa’s generation as a means to help pass the time.
A mixture of earth and glue binds the stone and plastic. For Musekiwa, there’s a great symbolism in this. “The world we’re living in is not only natural, but also contains things that come from other places,” he explained over the phone. In reconciling the sentimental sculptural traditions of his people’s past with elements that capture the perilous present, Musekiwa has managed to create a prescient set of sculptures, which, especially in light of recent events, offer a glimpse into a more optimistic future. “To my father [stone carving] was a business,” said Musekiwa. “I have taken it as a storytelling material.”
Terrence Musekiwa: Standing on a line, not being on either side continues at the Catinca Tabacaru Gallery (250 Broome St, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through December 3.