National Gallery of Zimbabwe historical background

IMG 7843Image taken by NGZ

The National Gallery of Zimbabwe has been in existence for almost 60 years, and in its lifetime has witnessed the dramatic shift in the country from colonialism to independence. In addition, it has been central to the meteoric rise of Zimbabwean artists in the world art market. The Gallery was initially planned in the 1930s, but the outbreak of the Second World War impeded the colonial government's involvement in its progress. However, the idea was given new life when in 1943, Sir James McDonald, a friend and colleague of Cecil John Rhodes,left a bequest of 30,000 pounds "in trust for the people of the colony"to establish an art gallery and art museum in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia. At the end of 1953, the Inaugural Board of the Gallery was established, chaired by the Governor of Southern Rhodesia. The passing of the National Gallery Act of Parliament in early 1952 saw the dissolution of the Inaugural Board and the establishment of the Board of Trustees. Major (later Sir) Stephen Courtauld presided as Chairman of the Board until 1962. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the Gallery right from its inception, and remained so even after his departure from the Board, when he and his wife became the first patrons of the Gallery.

From the outset, the Gallery was conceived as a national institution, acting as the artistic representative not only for Southern Rhodesia, but also Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland, governed from 1953 to 1963 as a united Federation. Salisbury City Council agreed to take full responsibility for overseeing the building, establishment and administration of the Gallery, and the Mayor of Salisbury was made a fixed appointee to the Board of Trustees. The first responsibilities of the Board were: to establish funds for the building; to select the building design and to appoint a Director. The second responsibilities were: to establish funds for the running and administration costs of the Gallery, and to make provision for an endowment fund for the acquisition of a permanent collection. At that time, the building funds consisted only of the McDonald bequest, and a further150,000 pounds had yet to be raised. It was decided that an appeal should be launched among local businesses in support of building a gallery in Southern Rhodesia. "In all great countries of the world art galleries have their place in the cultural life of the community, and it is the firm belief of the Trustees that a National Art Gallery is essential to the progress of the people of this land," stated Sir Stephen Courtauld in the annual report of 1954, giving voice to the Board's support of the establishment of the Gallery.

An architectural competition was launched for the design of the building. This was assessed by two Johannesburg architects trained at the Royal Institute of British Architecture, London. The competition was open solely to architects registered and normally resident in the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. The winners of the architecture competition were Messrs. Montgomerie and Oldfield, whose design was put into construction in 1955. It was pertinent to the design of the building to have the guidance of an experienced gallery director, thus necessitating the appointment of such a person as soon as possible. The post was advertised overseas, as there was no such person qualified to undertake this position in the Federation. Of the twelve applicants for the position of Director, Frank McEwen was appointed and took up his post in an advisory capacity in 1955. He was previously Fine Arts Officer at the British Council, having trained in Art History and Painting in Paris. He was well known for his skill in organising large, significant exhibitions, notably the first Picasso-Matisse Exhibition in London, and was an avid supporter of Henry Moore, promoting his work in Paris during the 1940s and 50s. McEwen assumed his Directorship on the 1st April 1956 and was closely involved with the design of the building, ensuring among other things that it was capable of displaying and storing loaned works from overseas. The final design is typical of architectural theory of the time. It makes use primarily of natural light, and is essentially a large open-plan space, which can be divided and broken up into smaller areas through the use of temporary partitions.

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Image taken by NGZ

When McEwen accepted his post as Director, he was asked to write a memorandum outlining his intentions for the new Gallery. The memo suggested policies to be taken up by the Gallery, beginning with the main objectives: to work with quality rather than quantity, and to establish a National Gallery rather than a provincial one. McEwen based his policies on his experience as Fine Art Officer at the British Council, and on the many surveys carried out by the British Council on art galleries and museums worldwide. Quality rather than quantity was considered a universal "contemporary policy" by McEwen, which he endorsed through building the permanent collection by carefully selecting work by European Masters. He deliberately sought out lesser known works by famous artists, rather than greater works by lesser known individuals. McEwen further maintained quality with his exhibition programme by bringing in from overseas exhibitions of originals and reproductions by world-famous artists. Thus, he ensured that the Rhodesian public was exposed to the best work available. The issue of presenting the Gallery as national rather than provincial was important in raising support for the Gallery in its formative stages. McEwen stated in the memo that "as a National Gallery, it should differ from a provincial one in that a provincial gallery can permit specialization in only one or a few branches of art, or in local art". Ironically, the encouragement of local art was McEwen's own objective in coming to Rhodesia, and specialized support of local artistic talent remains an important ongoing policy of the National Gallery.

Other policies outlined in the memorandum principally define ways in which McEwen could hope to educate the Rhodesian public in the appreciation of the arts. He planned many activities in which the public could be involved in the work of the Gallery. Films, lectures and discussion groups; the establishment of a library of art books and reproductions; exhibitions of Industrial Design and of the Applied Arts as well as Fine Art; the encouragement of art by children through the education system, and a consultation service for the conservation and restoration of artworks were all considered essential activities of a National Gallery by McEwen. In addition to the work which was required on a national level, international promotion of the Gallery was, in his opinion, essential. Frank McEwen had a great many contacts in the wider world of art, and planned to make use of them to encourage international promotion of the Gallery. He planned to participate in international conferences, and to hold conferences and symposia with international speakers at the Gallery. McEwen additionally provided a list of eight suggested future exhibitions, not including the opening exhibition. The suggestions demonstrated a trend towards the popular artists and periods in art history, and there was only one exhibition which would call on local talent, reflecting the fact that he did not know what to expect from Rhodesian artists, and had little knowledge of locally produced art.

It was hoped by the Board of Trustees and the new Director that the running and administrative costs of the Gallery would be met by the local authorities and municipalities throughout the Federation, thus demonstrating that the Gallery was for the benefit of all, not just the community in Salisbury. Most town councils in Southern Rhodesia were happy to comply with this. However, there were problems in involving those municipalities in other regions of the Federation, most notably Bulawayo, who only assisted financially when a branch of the Gallery opened there in 1970. It was decided early in the Gallery's history to alter the name of the Gallery from the Rhodes Centenary Gallery to the Rhodes National Gallery, thus emphasizing the position of the Gallery as a national institution. The appeal which was locally launched was not as successful as originally hoped, and while funds were forthcoming for the building, the Board was forced to seek endowment funding elsewhere. Sir Stephen Courtauld came to the Gallery's rescue and showed his support for McEwen's work by giving an interest-free loan of 40,000.00 pounds to the Gallery, which later became a gift and was written off from the Gallery's accounts. A further appeal was launched in London in 1955. The London Appeal Committee became functional over the following two years and acted as a representative of the Gallery to the colonial motherland. Its function was to raise funds for the purchase of works of art, and to inform the Board of Trustees of the availability of suitable works of art as they came onto the London art market. The Committee had among its members the High Commissioner of the Federation Sir Gilbert Rennie, Captain Spencer-Churchill and Georgia Rhodes. Unfortunately, the London Appeal Committee was short-lived, becoming dormant in 1958 due to lack of funds and had problems raising interest in the United Kingdom. The Committee resigned in 1959.

The Rhodes National Gallery was opened to the public on 16th July 1957, by Her Majesty, The Queen Mother. In her opening address, she stated, "I trust that this centre of art, with your continued support and care, will radiate an influence which will enrich the lives of all who dwell in Rhodesia". The Inaugural Exhibition was an enormous undertaking, involving the loan of many art objects from around the world, with most of the work coming from some of the world's most prestigious galleries and museums. McEwen selected the loans in three parts; Old Masters, Impressionists and Contemporaries. While he expressed doubt over his ability to persuade international galleries to lend important works to an as yet unknown, remote art gallery, McEwen succeeded in borrowing approximately 200 works of art, mostly paintings and a selection of tapestries, from galleries such as the Louvre and the Mus‚e De l'Art Modern in Paris, and the National Gallery and the Tate Gallery in the London.

The exhibition was entitled From Rembrandt to Picasso and was fully representative of works by European artists within that expanse of time, and included a selection of Italian Renaissance artists. The minutes of the Board meeting dated 17th April 1957 describe the exhibition as including works by artists: Rembrandt, Rubens, Cranach, Mantegna, Bellini, El Greco, Poussin, van Dyck, Veronese, Hals, Caravaggio, Steen, Ruisdael, Mestu, Terborch, J. Brueghel, Ribera, Turner, Constable, Romney, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Jordeans, Fyt, Le Nain, most of the Impressionists and the moderns including Corot, Courbet, Van Gogh, Renoir, Cezanne, Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Bonnard, Sutherland and Moore. The opening was broadcast by the BBC and a total of 181 press reports on the gallery appeared in local and international publications during its first year. Some 30,000 visitors came to the gallery to see the Inaugural Exhibition which was on show for 6 weeks.

Image taken by NGZ

In its first year citizens of the Federation saw not only the impressive range of works in the Inaugural exhibition, but also sculpture and drawings by Henry Moore, Old Masters loaned from the National Gallery, The Tate, Major Stephen Courtauld and Mr. van den Burgh, American silk screen prints, modern French graphic work, drawings by Ginette Signac, Japanese screens relating to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, contemporary British paintings organised by the British Council, a large photographic exhibition The Family of Man on tour from the USA and a locally produced photographic exhibition. McEwen's directorship was characterised by his abilities as an exhibition organiser. The exhibitions which he put together during his directorship exemplify his imaginative approach. Exhibitions were displayed as complete environments within the gallery. The Family of Man exhibition included a tall rotating pillar from which two 45 foot arms extended, with mobiles suspended from each, to provide a display of shadows against the upper gallery walls. In 1960, for an exhibition of paintings by Thomas Baines, McEwen had a giant baobab tree constructed in the centre of the Gallery.

Frank McEwen organised in the region of 80 exhibitions in the Gallery's first five years, most of them borrowed from overseas lenders, including regular loans to the permanent collection from the National Gallery in London and the Tate. McEwen introduced policies which set a precedent followed by the Gallery until Zimbabwe gained Independence. He saw the need to build the permanent collection, so that it could be used as a source for exhibitions. The National Gallery had no permanent collection when McEwen took up his post. His first priority, therefore, was to build up what he considered to be a representative collection, with work relating to the most important periods of European art history, supplemented with African and Oceanic artwork. In 1959, Sir Ronald Prain made a statement in a Board meeting regarding gallery policy on the purchase of work for the permanent collection: "As the amount of money at the Gallery's disposal for purchases [is] limited, due regard should be paid to the necessity of obtaining a nucleus collection which [is] truly representative". Until the permanent collection was large and suitable enough to be hung on a regular basis, McEwen relied on imported exhibitions, and on creating a local source of art for exhibition.

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Image taken by NGZ

The principle of an annual exhibition of local artwork was first put to the Board at the end of 1957. It had already been a consideration of McEwen's in his initial memorandum on gallery policy. The first Federal Annual Exhibition, later named the Annual Exhibition, was held in 1958, and became the most important fixed exhibition in the Gallery's schedule. Eleven years later, in 1969, it was recorded in the Annual Report that this exhibition had become a local version of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Local artists worked all year on the pieces which they entered for selection, and it drew the highest number of visitors to the Gallery over the course of the year. Other annual exhibitions which became very popular under McEwen's Directorship were the Child Art exhibition, which was initially conceived in his memorandum, but not put into practice until 1969. This became the annual Schools Exhibition, and is still a fixed exhibition in the Gallery's schedule. Also, photographic exhibitions by local amateur and professional photographers became an important fixture in the exhibition schedule from 1969 onwards.

Surely one of McEwen's greatest achievements while Director of the National Gallery, was the first International Congress of African Art and Culture (ICAC), held at the Gallery in 1962. In planning from as early as 1959, the ICAC involved an enormous amount of travel by McEwen, and brought many experts in the new academic field of African culture to the Gallery. In 1961, the Chairman recorded in the Board Minutes that "more examples of African art should be acquired as a matter of policy". In planning for the exhibition, and conference, McEwen purchased several African artifacts for the permanent collection. Some of the artifacts were donated by delegates. The majority of the African artifacts in the collection were purchased by him on two buying trips to West Africa and Britain, in 1962 and 1964 respectively, after the ICAC had taken place. With his famed eye for quality, McEwen selected a good range of work, bringing to the Gallery a small but significant nucleus of African masks, figurative sculptures and functional objects.

The ICAC established the gallery in the eyes of the international community as a centre for the advancement of African studies, and the promotion of the arts of Africa. It was the first forum in which the arts of Africa were discussed by Africans in Africa. Many of the delegates were, of course, academics from the USA and the UK, but there was a significant number of delegates from West and Central Africa, where the philosophies of Negritude and Pan-Africanism were popularly debated and supported. The conference was a turning point for the exhibition and collecting policies of the Gallery, and preceded national political events which made borrowing works of art from Britain near impossible. McEwen suffered great difficulties in raising local public awareness of the purpose of the ICAC and the debates on African art, despite the international attentions paid to the event. On one occasion, he recalled how he tried to convince a visitor to the Gallery of the validity and significance of African art by recounting that a small Nigerian mask had been bought in London for 22,000 pounds, to which the reply was “Well, that only proves one thing. It does not prove the validity of African art. It proves the purchaser in question had more money than sense." "I nearly gave up." recalled the frustrated Director. Such frustrations were exacerbated by local criticism of the event in the national press.

In addition to his work on the ICAC, McEwen simultaneously embarked on the other activity with which his name is associated during his period as Director of the Rhodes National Gallery: the Workshop School. He began encouraging the attendants at the Gallery to produce art. He set aside space in the Gallery storerooms for them to work, and initially provided materials, although these were later donated. McEwen's initial intention was to hold the ICAC in 1960 and then launch the Workshop School in 1962. However, as funding for the conference took several years to secure, it was postponed until 1962 thus coinciding with his launch of the School, through an exhibition of contemporary African art held during the ICAC. The other two exhibitions which supported the conference were 100 Masterpieces of Ancient African Art and African Influences on Western Schools which made use of reproductions of work by Picasso and other Ecole de Paris artists placed next to African sculpture.


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Image taken by NGZ - 2016

The early 1960s was a period when the international reputation of the Gallery was secured and McEwen made use of his international contacts to secure exhibitions imported from and exported to Europe and the United States of America. However, this security and international promotion of the Gallery was not to last long. In 1965, Ian Smith, Prime Minister of Rhodesia, declared unilateral independence (UDI) from Britain. This had an immediate impact on all aspects of life in Rhodesia, particularly at the National Gallery. Economic sanctions were put into place, and Britain was no longer a source of loaned artworks or exhibitions for the Gallery. South Africa became the main source for imported exhibitions, as its proximity also reduced transportation costs. The most significant effect of UDI on the development of art in Rhodesia was that more support than ever before was given to locally-produced art by the National Gallery. By 1969, all but one of the 9 exhibitions held that year were of local art.

The work involved in trying to promote the Gallery under these circumstances proved difficult for McEwen to sustain. In 1966, under medical advice, he withdrew from Gallery and took a year's leave. The pressures of organising the ICAC, and trying to follow that conference with a further Africa-wide event, promoting the Workshop School overseas just after sanctions had been imposed, and his divorce from his second wife Cecilia resulted in severe over-work and health problems. It was McEwen's intention during this year to write articles about the Workshop School for the international press, and to compile a catalogue of the permanent collection. In fact, McEwen continued to work during the year on promoting the Workshop School, and while he wrote articles for African Arts magazine and other international journals, the permanent collection catalogue was not completed.By 1969, McEwen had dedicated himself entirely to the promotion overseas of the Workshop School sculpture. He and his third wife, Mary, established Vukutu, a farm in the Eastern Highlands for sculptors. Mary and Frank divorced in 1970, and Mary remained in control of the sculpture community and promotion of the sculpture produced at Vukutu.

This was also the time that the Bulawayo community began their efforts to establish a gallery there. Although many Bulawayo artists supported the Annual Exhibitions they felt isolated from the Gallery activities in Salisbury. In 1969 they formed the Rhodesia Society of Artists with one of their intentions being to establish a gallery in Bulawayo. Senator Strong, who was critical of the direction McEwen was leading the Rhodes National Gallery, became a staunch supporter of the Bulawayo initiative. A board of trustees of the Bulawayo Art Gallery was formed with Strong as chairman. The new board recognized that the Bulawayo Art Gallery would have to be affiliated to the Rhodes National Gallery if it were to receive Government funding. McEwen was invited to meet with the Mayor of Bulawayo and the new board. By January 1970 all parties had agreed to the gallery. The board had raised 7 000 pounds, Bulawayo municipality offered the lease of the old market building on Main Street and voted 1 500 pounds annually. The Minister of Internal Affairs offered to increase the Government grant to the Rhodes National Gallery to cover assistance to Bulawayo. In July Mrs. Con Hepworth, former secretary of the National Arts Council, was appointed secretary/organizer and the Gallery was launched with a small gathering on 31 July. The inaugural exhibition took place in December 1970 with a loan of 'old master' works from Salisbury and painting from the South African National Gallery, Cape Town.

1970 was an important year for the expansion of the Gallery's work on an international level. Mary McEwen organized a highly successful exhibition of the Workshop School at the Musée de l'Art Modern. Paris. In 1971, McEwen took an exhibition to the Musée Rodin in Paris, followed the next year by an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London.

A new National Gallery act was promulgated in 1972 with the Rhodes National Gallery being renamed the National Gallery of Rhodesia. Bulawayo Gallery now officially became part of the National Gallery and was governed by the same Board of Trustees, two members of which were to represent Bulawayo. The old Bulawayo board became the Committee of the Bulawayo Gallery and set up the first purchase fund for that gallery.

In March 1973, McEwen announced his decision to resign from his position at the National Gallery, quoted in the Sunday News as saying, 'I am terribly tired and ill, I must get away to the sea'.He formally resigned at the Board meeting of 9 April. The reasons for his resignation were not recorded by the Board, but minutes note that the Board fully supported his work for the Gallery and expressed sincere gratitude for his unstinting efforts on behalf of the Gallery.

The Gallery in Bulawayo was opened in 1970 with a different board and was housed in the Old Market Building on Main Street. It became part of the national gallery in 1972 and was governed by the same board, which had two members representing Bulawayo. McEwen resigned in 1973 and was replaced in 1974 by Brian Bradshaw, a Professor of Fine Art at Rhodes University in South Africa.

However, Bradshaw was only present at the gallery once or twice a month since he was still lecturing at the university. There were few additions to the permanent collection during his term because of his restrictive opinions on local art and the unavailability of funds from government, which was channeling most of its funds to the liberation war. McEwen’s workshop school was disbanded in 1975. Bradshaw introduced the Insight Magazine in 1977, which had articles on art history and theory, news on forthcoming events and exhibitions among others. Bradshaw resigned in 1979 and was replaced by Christopher Till.

The Douslin House, currently housing the Bulawayo Gallery was purchased from the African Associated Mines in 1980. Another workshop school was opened in 1981, with the support of the British America Tobacco and was known as the BAT Visual Arts Studios to provide instruction, materials, studio facilities and encouragement for young artists at no expense to themselves. BAT sponsored the school until 2000 and was later sponsored by NORAD. 1981 also saw the appointment of Doreen Sibanda as the Gallery’s first Education Officer to increase the Gallery’ education activities in line with the development of the new BAT school. Till resigned in 1983 and was replaced by Cyril Rogers in 1985 who in turn resigned in 1992 and was replaced by Professor George Kahari in 1994. 1994 also saw the appointment of Jerry Zondo as National Gallery if Zimbabwe in Bulawayo’s first black Director and also the official opening of the Gallery at Douslin House. Zondo resigned in 1995 and was replaced by Stephen Williams who held this post until his death in 1996.


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Image taken by NGZ - 2016

Dr. Yvonne Vera became the first female Director within the Gallery when she took over from Williams in 1996. Another gallery was opened in Mutare in 1999 and was housed in the newly restored Kopje House, which belongs to the National Museum and Monuments in Zimbabwe, with Traude Rogers as its first Director and this gallery is known as the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Mutare. The NGZ in Mutare Director, Judy Mutunhu replaced Rogers in 2000. In 2009, Elizabeth Muusha took over from Rogers and has held this position since then. Doreen Sibanda, the current NGZ Executive Director came into office in 2004 almost at the same time as Addelis Sibutha, who became the director for the Bulawayo Gallery. In 2010 Voti Thebe became the new director in Bulawayo and has held this position since then. Tapfuma Gutsa became Deputy Director of the Harare Gallery for one year until Raphael Chikukwa took over his position in 2010. Chikukwa is both the Deputy Director as well as Curator.

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