Patrick Makumbe (E)


After successfully completing his advanced studies at the Rijksacademie in Amsterdam, Patrick Makumbe (1978) returned to his native Zimbabwe. He had little choice since he had left his family there. Incredibly, the country he returned to was in an even worse state than the one he had left two years previously. Conditions made it difficult, if not impossible, to work. Even if he could have found the basic materials he needed for work – paint, canvas, etc. – he had no money to buy them. Unsurprisingly, therefore, it was more than two years before Makumbe was able to produce sufficient work for a new exhibition. He worked like a man possessed, especially in the last few months, to finish all 25 paintings and drawings. Consequently, when they arrived in the Netherlands some were not yet quite dry.

His drawings are actually acrylic paintings on smooth paper. He uses large, free brushstrokes to portray his African figures. With one exception, no context is provided. They stand or sit in an empty, white space. There is no detail to their faces. They speak with their bodies. Black is the basic colour. Occasionally he adds other, surprisingly bright, colours. Sometimes these are here in their own right; usually they are used to accentuate a particular component – a hat or cap, for example. It is striking that most of the drawings portray only one, or at the most, two figures.

His paintings are more detailed, but also executed using rough brush strokes. While he does use more colour than in his works on paper, they are generally still subdued, as in his earlier work. Once in a while he goes to town and uses a range of pinks and lilacs. Colours that might suggest cheerfulness, but, given the predominant sombreness, for me they are here more readily associated with youth. He does not add much detail to the faces and other parts of the body in his paintings, either. They are still moody, restrained black areas. As in his drawings it is the way in which his ‘models’ are standing or sitting that represents how they feel and the state of mind they are in. Their identity is derived from their body language. A little boy wearing a cap becomes poignant as he holds his trousers up with one hand. The way a female figure, seen from the back, is sitting indicates utter weariness. Perhaps the word “shattered” better describes her feelings.

His paintings often also have to be content with one, inactive figure. Someone watching or waiting. Even the armed soldier poses little threat. This bearing, combined with the lack of surroundings – where do they live, where are they, who do they belong to? – gives them an air of being lost. As if Patrick Makumbe has tried to visualise the concept of the ‘Lost Generation’. Such an interpretation can be dangerous, of course, coloured as it is by my knowledge of the wretched situation in Zimbabwe, but I cannot get away from the impression that this is what the artist is referring to with these latest portrayals of the sombre, resigned mood of the people he sees every day.

I can imagine that some of Patrick Makumbe’s fellow artists might decide to use their work to make a clear, political statement. A natural and understandable response to a dubious and still brutal regime. I have no way of judging whether this is dangerous. Whether it has any effect is a debatable point. Makumbe has chosen to follow the more indirect, more implicit route. He depicts emotions that enable the story behind them to be imagined. He transposes the politics to everyday life and thereby ensures universal recognition.
Patrick Makumbe is an artist of great potential who is now ready for his international breakthrough.

Amsterdam, August 2009.
Translation Jane Hall