Chasing the Sun

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic
When I dropped out of university in my final year to pursue a full-time career in art, I knew I was going to lose everything. Little did I know that I was also going to lose my sanity. A lot of people would ask me why I didn’t finish the degree and then maybe start my art journey. I tried to come up with all sorts of explanations but the simple truth is that I just got bored and couldn’t continue any longer.

Submitted: June 29, 2017

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Submitted: June 29, 2017

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CHASING THE SUN – An Autobiography by Isheanesu Dondo

A minibio project

Chapter 1 – POINT OF NO RETURN

When I dropped out of university in my final year to pursue a full-time career in art, I knew I was going to lose everything. Little did I know that I was also going to lose my sanity. A lot of people would ask me why I didn’t finish the degree and then maybe start my art journey. I tried to come up with all sorts of explanations but the simple truth is that I just got bored and couldn’t continue any longer.

After high school I had enrolled at the National University of Science and Technology in Bulawayo. I was to do a four year degree in Applied Biology & Biochemistry. I was excited in the beginning as I hoped the degree would open up my mind to the workings of the world.  However, as the years went by, I realised that instead of getting a clearer picture about science, I got more and more confused by the many words and jargon.

I got so bored I ended up spending lecture time at the National Gallery in Bulawayo. Here I would spend the whole day watching Lawrence Bango painting in his studio. A feeling of well-being always took over each time I entered the gallery.

 

Chapter 2 – MBARE

After quitting school I went to Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. My first few months were spent in Eastlea at Kuda's flat then I left for Mbare.  My stay in Mbare was enlightening but not so rosy. I had no job. I struggled to pay rent. I started having panic attacks and self doubt issues. I became disconnected from my family. They fought me so hard over my decision to quit school. I lost the woman I loved. This was the beginning of my emotional breakdown.

Anyhow, Mbare had a lasting impression on me. Here I met so many sculptors, painters and ‘starving artists’ like me. One of the artists I met was Wisdom Vangani. He was from Bulawayo. I got my first painting lessons from him. Unlike me, he had started off as an artist. He’d even travelled to Capetown, South Africa to explore the art world there.

Stories of his adventures in the “art capital of Africa!” gave me a ray of hope. At this time, I did not fully appreciate the value of art. As fate had it, I would later travel to Capetown. Wisdom was right. Capetown was indeed the art capital of Africa.

 

Chapter 3 – CAPETOWN KHAYELITSHA

Art proved quite difficult to sell in Zimbabwe. In time, I started applying to advertising agencies in South Africa. After a while I got a response from the Jupiter Drawing Room, one of the leading agencies in South Africa. They invited me for an informal interview in Capetown. I went for the interview in shorts and sandals. I was so broke at the time. I knew I wouldn’t get the job anyway. My wish was just to get a shot at the Capetown art market. Vesta Madzingira who was living in England, sent me bus fare to Capetown. Mxolisi Nkau-Dube, also living in England, was to send me return bus fare in a week’s time. Both he and Vesta were friends and former classmates. I was so excited to finally go to the art capital.

After the interview, I had to find a place to stay as I waited for return busfare. I knew no one in Capetown. I looked for the nearest internet cafe so I could send an email to Mxolisi. I found one in Observatory.  Interestingly enough I had received an email from Biko, a fellow artist from Zimbabwe. He had learnt that I had left for Capetown. Biko was hoping I could meet Anele, an activist/organiser working from Woodstock. Anele was part of the organising team for an upcoming Afrikan HipHop Caravan. He would need an artist to do posters and other graphics for the inaugural Caravan. The Caravan was to travel from Capetown to Dakar, Senegal. I immediately called Anele, who told me he’d call back in a few minutes.

Meanwhile, I bought a cigarette. As I sat smoking, a man with two missing front teeth approached me. He asked if we could share the cigarette. I said yes and we sat together and chatted. His name was Edward and he lived on the streets. I told him I was an artist and had come for an interview. Edward told me he was also an artist. I didn’t believe him until he reached into his plastic bag and pulled out several sketches. We instantly clicked. I decided to buy a bottle of cheap wine.

Anele later called and gave me directions to his workplace in Woodstock which was right across Observatory. Edward said he knew Capetown like back of his hand. Indeed he did. So we walked to Woodstock and met Anele. He showed me his car and I put my bag in the trunk. I said goodbye to Edward. He was happy to get the unopened bottle of wine and left with these words: “We’ll meet again cap’!” He had no phone and Capetown was such a big place. How could we ever meet again?

Unbelievably enough, we did bump into each other again. Twice! He even came to my exhibition at the Capetown Central Library. I really hope to see him again. He was a very spiritual and happy person.

After work we left for Khayelitsha, Anele’s home. Khayelitsha means 'new home'. Khaya means home in Xhosa. Elitsha means new. It’s interesting that some Xhosa words are very similar to Shona words. Itsva means new in Shona.

Khayelitsha was to be my new home for the next six months thanks to Anele and his family. My stay there changed my worldview. I am forever grateful to the people I met there. I hope to go there again.

 

Chapter 4 – OUT AND ABOUT

Each weekday Anele would bring me along to his workplace. They had some great literature there. I would also get time to walk around Capetown on my gallery search. I couldn't believe the amount of graffiti in the city. The art totally blew my mind.

This place was so different from home. My walks were usually around Observatory and Woodstock. There were so many books here! One could buy second hand books for cheap.

When the day ended I would walk back to Anele's office. Sometimes I would be late and so had to go back home via metrotrain.

Very interesting things happened on the train. Suprises included live traditional Xhosa dance shows. These were performed by boys and girls dressed in traditional regalia. The  shows would last about 5 minutes and people would throw coins into a basin to promote the band.

 

Chapter 5 – FERNANDO

I met Fernando Tolosana in a second hand book store in Observatory. He happened to overhear me asking the store attendant about books on ancient civilisations. Fernando was interested to know why I was so keen on getting those books. I told him that I was an artist and showed him my sketches. "My son is an artist. His name is Luis. Would you like to meet him?". I said yes. He told me to wait whilst he finished getting his own books. We left for his house which was about 5 minutes away.

Luis' work surprised me. I was so impressed that I bought one of his comics. Fernando gave me a book on ancient civilisations. This book, entitled "Antiquity", would inspire my work in the coming years. 

In time Fernando would give me pamphlets on depression and coping with various pyschological ailments. I think he sensed my struggle with anxiety and depression. I started to suspect that I was bipolar.

Anyway, Fernando helped me get a venue for my first solo show. He was friends with Aziza and Hajira from the Capetown Central Library. I was so excited about my first show. Hajira, Aziza and Fernando were more excited. I think they felt sorry for me.

I had named the exhibition "Chasing the Sun". That's how I felt then. I felt I was chasing the sun. One doesn't have to run after the sun. If you stop and wait, in a few hours the sun will rise again. Yes I had come running to the art capital, which was good for exposure, but I didn't have to be there. My work wasn't strong enough yet but if I went back home and regrouped, I could have a much better chance.

No one came for the exhibition opening. I was devastated. Hajira had prepared an opening speech. We had rehearsed it together several times in anticipation for the crowd. I laugh everytime I think about that.

No one came except Edward. Yes, Edward with the missing front teeth who'm I'd met on my first day in Capetown. Fernando had left Capetown so I knew he wasn't coming. After the no show, I wanted to go on the train but Edward offered to buy us wine in celebration of my breakthrough. I agreed. I always enjoyed my conversations with Edward. He had a certain calmness about him. I didn't expect that from someone living on the streets. I didn't expect he'd buy wine either.

Each time we met he'd show me his art books. Edward was obsessed with Rennaisance art. I was not suprised. He always talked about spiritual things. Later we said our goodbyes and I left for the train station.

 

Chapter 6 – STICK UP!!

When I got to Khayelitsha, it was already dark. I was excited by the heated argument about Zimbabwe on the train. "Why are you going to Khayelitsha so late?" one of the ladies had asked me. At the time I didn't understand her concern.

When we arrived, I got off as usual. To my suprise all the people who got off the train immediately started running towards the exit. I also started running and caught up with the man ahead of me. "What is happening?", I asked him. "We want to outrun amaSkoli...". I had no time to ask what skoli meant because as we turned the corner, we found our way blocked by at least 5 young men. They started moving towards us. One took out a pistol. I had never seen a pistol in my life. Of course I'd seen one on tv but not in 'real life'. We were forced to the ground. They took cellphones and money from the gentleman and let him go.

I had no money. Only a book on African Muslims, drawings and Fernando's library card. The library card would have got me killed as one of the skolis thought it was a bank card. He wanted the bank pin code. I tried to explain that it wasn't a bank card. The one holding the pistol didn't believe me and used his gun to hit me on the head several times. I started bleeding.

Death is not a pleasant thing. Especially when you die so far from home without saying goodbye. I begged for mercy. The skolis took me to a dark corner outside the train station. I started to remove my shoes. Both had holes in them. Anele's mom had bought them for me. Those were my only pair. I wore them everyday on my long walks so in time my toes found their way through the fabric.

"What are you doing?", one of the skolis asked. "My brothers, I have nothing. I am only an artist and have come far from home. You can take my shoes and anything else."

To my relief, they let me go. They disappeared into a dark alley. They took the library card. I was happy to keep the book and sketches. One of them, the youngest I guess, stayed back a bit and stared. We looked at each other for a moment and he left. I think he never really wanted to live a life robbing people. He looked so innocent and full of life.

I was relieved. On my way home I met another group of young men. These were familiar faces. We started talking about crime in South Africa. I got home and got cleaned up.

Everyone laughed! Anele said the gun was probably empty. Everyone had been robbed before. Anele's mom had warned me about travelling at night. Now I knew why.

 

Chapter 7 – HOME

I came back to Zimbabwe empty handed. At least that's according to what people would say. People would expect someone coming from South Africa to bring something tangible. I had gone to the art capital and brought nothing. What now?

Most of my time back home was spent trying to defend art and my actions. I still had no job and no idea when I would get my next paycheck. It's sometimes hard to balance artistic success and financial success. In my heart however, I knew I had gotten treasure from Capetown. I had seen with my own eyes the impact and value of art. I had met new people. I had gotten exposure.

I wasted so much time trying to justify my actions to people who didn't really understand what art was about. Home became quite frustrating. I started fiddling with the idea of returning to Mbare. It's funny how society can shape your perspective to life. It's so sad when that very society is wrong about it's own perspectives about success and failure. I started to understand this when I read a letter written to the editor of the Teachers' Forum in Zimbabwe of 1992. In the letter the writer said:

"Dear Editor. It is now more than a decade after independence. It is well known that art was deliberately left out of the black curriculum by the colonial regime. What have we done so far to address that?"

Reading this made me realise why so many people I met in Shamva had a typified view of art. "Are you an artist? Can you draw my face exactly as it looks?". Ask any Zimbabwean artist and they will tell you that someone has asked them the above question. This is a very superfucial understanding of such a rich and central subject. I am happy that the reviewed public curriculum has taken the issue of art into account.

My stay at home became more frustrating and I left for Mbare. This time I was more confident with my decision despite the immediate challenges I faced. Luckily, art jobs began to trickle in and my network grew wider. I also started getting invited to art shows and events.

Mbare yet again helped me meet a new inspiration in Tom Chigwazo. But that's a whole story on it's own.

 

Chapter 8 – TAPFUMA GUTSA AND THE SITUATIONISTS

Tapfuma taught me to love life again. I think it takes a mad man to treat another.

We first met at the Harare International Festival of the Arts. He was with his two apprentices: Ronnie and Daniel. I was part of a group of Zimbabwean artists invited for a week-long workshop on giant puppet production. Tapfuma happened to see a sketch I had done as a proposal for a puppet. He invited me to his studio at the Harare Polytechnic. Tapfuma, a sculptor, was the first Zimbabwean artist to get an art scholarship from the British Council in the late eighties. 

Tapfuma's studio seemed more like a traditional healer's surgery than an artist's studio. I think I got that impression from the goat skins, sea shells, bones and rocks that he kept.

"This is my last time buying you beer. I don't drink with my students. Christmas is over.", Tapfuma would say each time we went drinking. Our discussions were usually about the cosmos, fibonacci sequence, the Dogon tribe, death and art. In some ways we were searching for the same things.

The studio became my new haven. I felt free to express my views about anything. Freedom is very important to artists. I started getting my confidence back.  I was very lucky to be invited to the studio. Not every upcoming artist gets an opportunity to get free access to a master.  Or drink with them.

I once asked Tapfuma what the secret to artistic success was. He hesitated then said, "Friendship...". I had expected a technical answer. In time I would discover that Tapfuma's sister was married to my uncle, Maxwell, who lived in Canada. Life weaves some very interesting webs.

 

Chapter 9 – KUTAMA: BE WHAT YOU ARE

Quitting school was the best and most important decision I have ever made. I regret no part of it. I would have never found myself if I had taken art as a hobby instead of a full-time career. I am thankful to my friends. They believed in my dream even when I had lost hope.

Looking back, I feel very lucky to have gone to Kutama High School. My four years there exposed me to a vast world of knowledge and inspiration. However, all that knowledge would have been useless without the school motto: "Esse Quam Videri". This can be loosely translated to "Be what you are" or "To be and not to seem".

I am an artist. I had spent most of my life running away from that. Embracing that I am an artist has made everything else fall into place. If I had denied that, I would have been some bored and frustrated scientist working somewhere in a lab. Not that science is boring but because I would have been pretending to be something that I am not.

 


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