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The Identity Project

On identities lost and homes found: Late-night conversations with Bulawayo-based visual artist Charles Bhebe (Zimbabwe)

Charles Bhebe is a Zimbabwean artist, whose works have been featured widely in Africa and abroad. His works explore the human nature as individuals and as members of a community focusing on the issues of identity and belonging.
On identities lost and homes found: Late-night conversations with Bulawayo-based visual artist Charles Bhebe (Zimbabwe)
Guest post by Emmaus Kimani (@Emmauskim)


Charles Bhebe is a Zimbabwean artist, whose works have been featured widely in Africa and abroad. His works explore the human nature as individuals and as members of a community -- the spaces we occupy, the information we receive and share, who we associate with, our response to changes around us, be it a pandemic or the rise of technology. These social and individual dynamics and values integrate to form what is known as 'identity' -- our own image of self and the way others see, understand, and value as individuals and as member of a group.


In a workshop organized by the Goethe Institute in Nairobi, the facilitator Gabi Ngcobo asked us to identify ourselves by answering his questions starting with, “What is local?”.
In my interview-turned-conversation with Zimbabwean artist Charles Bhebe, his answer to “What’s local?” is a story of “re-appropriating spaces to create your own new way of surviving outside the perimeter of conventionalism”. The story takes a few hours, during which his and my “local” merge and separate again, showing us the common threads in our identities while allowing us to remain the unique, different selves.
Before replaying a recording of our zoom call with Charles, I rant on Facebook about “going ahead and making your world” and share my video about worlds, fitting in, and belonging.  My energy spurs into the growing night as I turn to the interview.
In his quest to understand and redefine the ideas of who we are, Charles Bhebe explores the human state of being, and our reactions as humans to changes around us: "Our world is now so technologically advanced, so virtual, that our own identities have become intertwined with technology. I feel that in their journey to redefine themselves and adjust to the new realities, the 21st century humans face the risk of losing their authentic selves."
His works interrogate social beliefs inherent to the human need to belong; they recount decades of continuous physical and psychological evolution as a human condition motivated not just by the need to survive, but also the need to justify our existence in relation to our surroundings. "Existentialism has always been crucial to the ways the mankind seeks out belonging; and belonging is a means of defining our identities as ‘part of’ but also as unique individuals. Belonging created a new form of radicalization and nationalism, prompting questions of place, history, origin, and identity."


“Identity, is that what you talked about?” – you may ask. Well, here is a sneak peek of our conversation.


On how we see ourselves and how we are portrayed

 “During the year I spent in Dusseldorf (Germany), my only source of information about my country was the news, where Zimbabwe was a frequent feature. That year, upon my return home, I considered getting a gun. Because of how my country was presented in the media, I was coming home in fear – only to find people still struggling to survive.

Information is designed for spaces, for consumers. You only see, what you are shown, a selected reality. For example, colonialists created a narrative for their countrymen; that narrative ‘back home’ turned into fantasies about Africa.

In Africa, our idea of self is still intertwined with colonialism. This is one of the things I learned in Berlin. This is when I discovered Africa. When you live in a bubble, you do not see it until you get out of the bubble. I found myself talking more and understanding more when I was on a different continent.

The idea of blackness – we do not talk about it, we are not taught about who we are, we know less about ourselves than about others.  What we do, who we do it for, what our purpose is... Those are critical questions, and we cannot have others answer them for us.

We are taught to not look within, to search for answers out ‘there’. When you return home from abroad, people ask you, why you are back. There is still this inclination that the answers, the success are ‘there’ not ‘here’. There is still this search for betterness out ‘there’. Yet, there is nothing like betterness -- there is otherness and it's always different. What we perceive as better is just different, there is no better place but there are other, different places." 

On home and its varied meanings

“I am fascinated by the idea of entering a space and appropriating it to your preferences. For example, urban spaces are never seen as home in African context. That's just where you go to work, and then you go back home, and home is your rural home. These strange urban spaces are non-places. I just live here. I call it home, but this is not my home. Yet, we make it work.

I explore the economics of men and women of the streets; the way they shape new spaces within existing spaces, making the new spaces closer to the notion of home. These all are examples of re-appropriating spaces to create your own new ways of survival.

I try to explore that with my children, because they exist in-between the worlds, in-between spaces. They know it’s not always ‘sunny’ in Africa, they also know it’s not all rosy in Europe. There's a lot of grey in every space, there is room for interpretation, appropriation. I speak to that through my works.”


On education

“Symbols play a big role in education. Think of money – that rectangular piece of paper we call money has no value. The value is in the assets that never leave a bank reserve, and that rectangular paper – is no more than a commodity. In the same way, the rectangular paper that you receive at graduation carries a symbolic value of an institution, which gave it to you – but does not directly translate into the knowledge you acquire.

Why is a degree from Cambridge better than a degree from Nairobi? It’s all about the symbolism, not the knowledge. It’s about a job the rectangular paper can buy you – that’s the value of education, not the knowledge.” 

On our languages and culture

"I was writing a text to accompany one of my works, and I thought, let me do it in Ndebele, my native language. I will just put it out there as if by mistake. I do it for fun – write everything in Ndebele and then run it through Google translate.

But we need to rethink the role of language as part of our identity. It needs to be cool again to be Kikuyu or Ndebele or Shona. Because If we don't, one day we will be in a position, where for anybody to understand you, you will have to pass through Cambridge.

Language is a critical element of differentiation, of otherness. This is how creolization of English started. This is why there is pigeon English in Nigeria. Language is a form of art. Let’s keep something to ourselves, let’s keep them guessing. You can keep my art, but I will keep the secret behind its title.”

On being an artist

"Remember why you became an artist? It was never about money, and that’s the main flaw of art as a business. You wanted to be an artist to express yourself, but then someone decided to pay you for that! 

You are an artist not because you couldn't do math and science. You are an artist because the society needs artists, and you have the capacity to be one. I think of an artist as a prophet; and in a more capitalistic way, I think of an artist as an R&D department of a large corporation. Yes, this is how significant they are, but some societies have not recognized it yet.

We need to find ways to record our artistic journeys, to document the works of today’s artists while they are still here, still creating. Today, a teacher talks about Picasso to their class. Will they talk about you tomorrow? They may not if your work is not documented like that of Picasso. How would they learn about you? One day, somebody will find the work of contemporary artists, intellectuals, curators, and art administrators interesting and important. But we need to find a way to document it, and we need to start from love – from loving ourselves, regardless if someone collects our work or not. We are taught to do it for the ‘rectangular paper.’ But I am telling you from experience – you do not have to have that paper to excel as an artist.

You have to be a bit hardheaded, because if your work is as accessible as a sneakers bar, you will never matter. I know the value of my work; I control that value. You have to find a balance between your art and your needs. You must take care of your daily bread by running a business or having a job; your daily needs should not compromise the value of your work. Some people say, I drive my clients away. But as an artist, you need to choose wisely, who you let to collect and showcase your work.

At the same time, we need to find inclusive ways to preserve our stories in shared, public spaces. We need to give back, to gift our works to the community through murals, or similar accessible displays. Inclusivity is a critical element of unity, strength, belonging and survival.”


“So, what’s next?” – you may ask.
In that workshop with Gabi Ngcobo, we talked about the fluidity of the teacher-student dynamic. In Africa, we are still learning, but we are now also teaching. So many of the topics we talked about with Charles, echo what’s going on in our collective global subconscious and conscious (if we dare!) narratives: social and individual identities, the search for betterness, the legacy of colonialism, the symbolism of education, the definition of value, belonging and survival, appreciation vs. appropriation, the role of culture and language, artists as prophets...
So many thoughts and ideas... The next step is bringing more people into this conversation, creating a pan-African and then global narrative of identity, home, and human values.