Black as a signifier of the infinite

Zimbabwean-born visual artist Shumba Felix reflects on the meaning of his series of black artworks, his pilgrimage to Great Zimbabwe,

John Coltrane blares out of the windows of a small room. Visual artist Felix Shumba, 29, who has inverted his name to Shumba Felix, stirs within. The tall, slender man from Masvingo, Zimbabwe, moves slowly and deliberately, ordering blackened brushes and books – including George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me – into a haphazard stack against the wall as he awaits his guests.

Dressed in his typical black T-shirt and black cap, Felix, perhaps manifesting his work, seems to have been dipped in acrylic black paint as his blackened hands and fingernails gesture for us to come closer. As he gets ready to speak about his work, and the artistic and spiritual journey that brought him to South Africa, Felix seems in communion with his artworks as he sits atop a stack of wooden planks framed by a big, black canvas behind them.

Felix first came to South Africa when he was 17, at a time when he was beginning to make sense of the world and his relationship to it, and how he identified with his environment and the people in it. “I needed to know what it is to be me, what it is to be Shumba,” he says. “My surname is Shumba, meaning ‘lion’ – that’s my totem – so I was trying to find out who I am and where am I going.”

Roar of selfhood

Felix’s quest for self-discovery led him home, to Great Zimbabwe, having grown up in nearby Masvingo, a city in southeastern Zimbabwe. Felix hadn’t considered that his mother’s insistence to visit the site when he was a young boy would ground his artistic and visual inferences as a young man.

He recalls how, when he was out late one night, his desire to return to his home was propelled by a fortuitous meeting with a stranger. “I had an elderly man who I had met by chance say to me, ‘Are you an artist?’ I said, ‘Yes, I am an artist.’ [The elderly man replied] ‘You have to go back and find out who you are.’ He asked, ‘What is your totem?’ I told him and he said, ‘You need to find out how the Shumbas roar.’”

“A lion roars in a particular manner,” Felix continues, “to scare off a stranger, to express a territorial sense, to mate, to hunt … I needed to find out how my metaphorical Shumba roared, so I went back home.” He describes returning home as “the beginning of understanding … and a return of self-artistic discovery”.

Related article:

“The Great Zimbabwe,” Felix explains, “is the cradle of the Shona people. It is the cradle of understanding who we are.” He stops to consider this moment briefly and continues: “When I got to the Great Zimbabwe, there were elderly people there. Sculptors. When I got there, I got to speak with them and ask how the Great Zimbabwe came to be.” As his interactions with the elders continued, Felix was informed of a spirit that resided in the river. The spirit was summoned to build Great Zimbabwe as a kind of fort, a symbol of strength from stones. “From hearing all those stories about the Shona, it created a sense of pride in me.”

His trip home would foreground the artistic impulse he explores in his second solo exhibition, Mondoro, which loosely translates to “the spirit of a female lion”. “It was about exploring and paying homage to the Shona spirit, the Shona ways of seeing and hearing, and mondoro as a medium,” says Felix. “As I spoke with those old men, they told me that the story begins with the Great Zimbabwe – us arriving from the north and building this fort,” he recounts.

When he came back to South Africa, Felix wanted to pay homage to all these stories by creating an exhibition based on his experience. “I created an exhibition that was nonrepresentational, but was filled with colour. I had a sense of colour when I was back home. I could visualise these things in colour. I wanted to pay homage to those stories and it had nothing to do with my own personal expression, which meant there was more colour. I used symbols, some of which were found back home and some of which I had created from the subconscious mind.”

Brightest colour of all

It is difficult to believe Felix was once attracted to colour given how much blackness populates his studio. But the radical shift, although deeply philosophical, was unplanned.

“So I am in my studio. I am working and working. I run out of colour and then I am left with black, so I stretch out a canvas on board and then I paint this huge picture of black. When I stretched out that picture and started painting it, it was so beautiful. I could not imagine. I thought it was something else. Then I rolled that canvas away and when I rolled it away I started to think deeply about that piece,” Felix recalls excitedly, the gentle timbre of his voice becoming animated.

He remembers how he had never seen the black as being so beautiful and so undisturbed, which led him to meditate on the role of black as a colour of artistic and philosophical expression. As Felix began to imagine black as a signifier of the infinite, blackness became a site of wonder, recuperation and healing.

Related article:

He says: “I can paint very figuratively, but there is that sense of limitation behind representation. I discovered that by removing man from my canvases, I am able to express a sense of tragedy, to express a sense of joy and all things inherent in the human condition … black became an existential question about who I am and what makes me human.”

“There is so much fear around the colour black. At one point, I remember being asked if I was mourning. I said, ‘Nah, I’m not mourning.’ I realised that black represents infinity, and realised that if I could give an aesthetic experience to this, I could also give others this sense so that could relate to it in this way,” Felix continues. “Black now represents the beginning, the genesis.”

Art as the alpha

Felix describes his process, and how the textures he uses to create his artworks are placed together to create a kind of visual synthesis and antithesis. “I wanted to find that dichotomy of material,” he explains. “The first layer to me is like a clean slate … it is like a metaphor.” Felix juxtaposes his smooth, blackened canvases with found objects such as broken logs, strips of cloth and sacks, which have all been painted black. These materials vary depending on their durability and compatibility with the requirements of his initial canvas.

“For me, it is about how man relates to material. How do I create meaning and metaphor?” he asks rhetorically. “For example, you see that painting with two strips [of cloth]?” he says, gesturing to a painting in the corner of the room. “For me, as a migrant, I find meaning in that work because there is a point of departure and a point of going that is represented in that piece.”

As Felix speaks about his process and the significance of his palette, his words are reminiscent of Nigerian writer Ben Okri’s musings on the role of the poet in his essay While the World Sleeps. “The poet [artist in this instance],” writes Okri, “needs to be up at night, when the world sleeps; needs to be up at dawn, before the world wakes; needs to dwell in odd corners, where Tao is said to reside; needs to exist in dark places, where spiders forge their webs in silence; near the gutters, where the underside of our dreams fester.”

As the conversation winds down, Felix bemoans the lack of artistic literacy in Africa and its implications. “Art is given a backseat – in schools, art is a hobby. It’s like the system understands that revolution starts with artists, and that’s why we don’t find funding and laboratories for artists. With art, there is the beginning of understanding. It is a way of visually perceiving the world, and that perception can create individuality that can challenge the system.”

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.