The display at the National Gallery in Harare features paintings done in the 1940s and 1950s by young Black students.
They were studying at Cyrene Mission School, the first to teach art to Black students in what was then white minority-ruled Rhodesia.
Using bold strokes and bright, lush colors filling the entire canvases, the artists depicted African life in dance, household chores and hunting wildlife, alongside the emerging modern world of railroads and electricity lines.
For the first time in his life, Gift Livingstone Sango is seeing a painting by his father depicting Jesus as a Black man.
“This art being brought back home is what we want, so that when we are long gone, he is already gone, he’s already gone. What about my son, he doesn’t even have son or a child, what about his children? What about the other artists who are coming from Mzilikazi Art Centre or all the arts centres we know, from Mbare from Mabvuku. We are saying they must learn what happens when education was very very little. Look at the paintings how bright they are, they are as bright as they were done 80 years ago,” says Sango.
Sango’s father went on to become an accomplished taxidermist working for the National Museum in Bulawayo, the second largest city in the country.
“The story must be brought back home, the heritage must be brought back home. That is really our story. We are hearing these sentiments that the government is saying they must be brought back. This will dry our tears,” says Sango.
A photograph of Sango’s father, Livingstone, as a young boy hangs next to the painting.
Overall, the paintings vividly depict tales of African folklore as well as Bible stories in an arresting intersection of African tradition, history and Christianity introduced by Western settlers.
And the artworks quickly won admirers, including Britain’s King George VI, who visited the school in 1947.
A collection of the work created at Cyrene school between 1940 and 1947 was sent overseas to be shown in London, Paris and New York.
Many paintings were sold and helped to fund the school.
Later the paintings were stored in the basement of St. Michael’s and All Angels Church in London and over time they were forgotten.
“This is a collection of lost Zimbabwean artworks from the 1940s from an Anglican Mission School in Cyrene, called the Cyrene Mission School,” says Lisa Masterson, curator and director of art exhibition.
“It was opened and started by a visionary art teacher called Canon Ned Patterson. It is basically the first school in Zimbabwe (then colonial Rhodesia) to offer art as a compulsory subject to young Black students in the 1940s and Ned Patterson was a true believer that art could unite people. And that no matter what people saw in an artwork, it didn’t matter what colour you were, or where you came from or what tribe you were from, art was a unifying factor.”
The artworks were rediscovered by a Zimbabwean who recognised the name Cyrene on the boxes when the church was being deconsecrated, according to a press release by the organizers of the exhibition.
He brought the paintings to the attention of others who realized they’d stumbled across a treasure trove of art.
“The Stars are Bright” exhibition has returned the paintings to the country, where many Zimbabweans will see them for the first time.
Photographs of some of the artists as young boys are displayed alongside the paintings.
“It’s a completion of my history as a Damasane to know the stories that my grandfather would tell through painting, through his artworks,” says Nomashekawazi Damasane, granddaughter of one of the artists.
“It’s also very important for me as an artist, as a creative, to know that our artwork is coming back home, because it allows for people to know that it did not just start now. People started doing art way back. So it’s really important and I’m very pleased and grateful that this artwork is coming back where it belongs, to the people that it belongs to, and us the third and fourth generation of these amazing artists can actually see what our forefathers did before we were born.”
Many students from Cyrene school went on to become artists, teachers and professionals, despite the restrictions of white-minority-ruled Rhodesia.
In 2020, “The Stars Are Bright” exhibition showcased the works at the Theatre Courtyard Gallery in London.
Now, the full exhibit has come back home to acclaim.
Coming amid growing calls for the repatriation of African art to the continent, some say the Cyrene paintings should return to Zimbabwe permanently.
The organisers say they are negotiating with the Curtain Foundation, owners of the collection, for the permanent repatriation of the works.
The exhibition will be on until late October.