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The Harare National Gallery of Zimbabwe recently displayed a collection of rediscovered historic paintings for the first time in 70 years as they returned back to their home.
On display until the end of October, the set of paintings, known as “The Stars Are Birght,” were created in the 1940s and 1950s by Black students attending the Cyrene Mission school, an Anglican mission school devoted to creating art revolving around ideas about the African diaspora. Considered a “pioneering school,” Cyrene Mission was the first school to teach Black students how to create art in a then-white minority-ruled Zimbabwe or Rhodesia as it was then known.
The paintings were returned to the country after they were rediscovered in the basement of a London church in 2020. After sending the collection to London, Paris and New York, many of the paintings in the “The Stare Are Bright” collection were sold off in an effort to get the funds to keep Cyrene Mission running. Forgotten for some time, they were found at the St. Michael’s and All Angels Church by a Zimbabwean man who recognized the name of the school on the boxes.
“When we began organising The Stars are Bright, which takes its title from a work in the exhibition by Musa Nyahwa dated 1945, we could never have imagined just how much the world would change around us,” said the co-curators in a public note. “It is a critical time to share the work of Black artists past and present. We have attempted to present this exhibition in a way that is accessible and that encourages viewers to let their imagination take inspiration from the environment in which the artworks were made.”
Created by more than 40 art students in the school, the paintings use bright, bold colors to create depictions of religious figures such as Jesus, nature, folklore and history. Since then, a few of the artists, such as Samuel Songo and Kingsley Sambo, have gone on to create a name for themselves in the art world, serving as inspirational figures in Zimbabwe’s modern art scene.
Songo became famous for his paintings about traditional African life and iconography and was featured in Time Magazine, the Museum of Modern Art and the Institute of Contemporary Arts while Sambo worked as a cartoonist for the Daily News in Harare and also had his paintings featured in the Museum of Modern Art.
As of now, the organizers say they’re still in talks with the Curtain Foundation about the works of Songo, Sambo and the other artists that are part of the “The Stars Are Bright” collection. Focusing on their historical value, the museum hopes to be able to permanently keep the newly rediscovered paintings.
“It is very important for this heritage to speak to its own people,” the executive director of the museum, Raphael Chikukwa, told The Associated Press. “The families of these artists can have their children and grandchildren look at this collection, to be able to speak to this collection and to admire it. Because at the end of the day if the collection returns to the U.K., they are unlikely to have any further connection with it.”