Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Helen Leiros - Zimbabwean Artist

The Bull - Helen Lieros
 When I think of Easter my mind turns to the tenets of Greek Orthodox Church. And when I mind turns in that direction it automatically moves to the Greek Orthodox Church in Harare. This most beautiful of Churches with artwork that saturates the interior of the building and give it the grace and mystical character that equally haunts and comforts me whenever my thoughts turn homeward. Much of this is due to the magnificent murals painted by the matriarch of Zimbabwean art Helen Lieros.

I wish I could show or describe the pieces devotedly painted onto its walls, pathos squeezing your heart with each stroke of Helen's brush work. The photos I took last year just do not do justice to her work. I  want to share with you the art that I have daydreamed over since childhood. Please forgive the very poor quality photography and try to imagine the art in situ high on the walls of the church. Gentle dust mote dancing natural light filtering into the cool deep interior of the building, thin, soft, tapered candles flickering with congregational prayers, the faint hint of incense from the last service, footfalls echoing with each step on high polished wood floors, traditional orthodox artworks and Helen’s gaunt works set amongst gleaming brass lamps, pillars and domes 
a corner in my favourite church. Helen Lieros art top left

I found  a really insightful article which  comes from one of the publications of “The Art Magazine" from around early 2002.
Article taken from The Art Magazine see the link here  of Helen Lieros At home or read the transcript below:

Helen Lieros is one of Zimbabwe’s fines painter and is amongst its most enthusiastic teachers of art. Seven years ago the then Editor of Gallery . Barbara Murray, interviewed her and asked if her youthful admiration of Oskar Kokoschka was in any way related to the expressive turmoil of her own painting.

Maybe that’s the Greek part of me coming out. Probably the drama. I feel that the biggest thing in my life is to try and be an individual and try and identify who I really am. It is a battle in my life, in my work, this identity. Am I Greek? Am I African? And yet there is a link in the superstitions accepted as a Greek or as a white African I feel that this has been really my biggest fight.

Helen Lieros is one of Zimbabwe’s fines painter and is amongst its most enthusiastic teachers of art. Seven years ago the then Editor of Gallery . Barbara Murray, interviewed her and asked if her youthful admiration of Oskar Kokoschka was in any way related to the expressive turmoil of her own painting.

Maybe that’s the Greek part of me coming out. Probably the drama. I feel that the biggest thing in my life is to try and be an individual and try and identify who I really am. It is a battle in my life, in my work, this identity. Am I Greek? Am I African? And yet there is a link in the superstitions accepted as a Greek or as a white African I feel that this has been really my biggest fight.
Helen Lieros was born in Gweru, the capital of Zimbabwe’s Midlands Province, in 1940. Sixteen years earlier, her merchant seaman father had been shipwrecked off Cape Town; during the wait for a replacement vessel to take him home to the Greek island of Serifos, he accepted the invitation of an old friend to visit Rhodesia. As Helen Lieros recounts it, “He came here , and that was it. He went back and said to his captain “ I want to be paid out; I don’t want to carry on. “ And that’s how he came to be here. He had travelled all over the world, and was always looking for a country where he wasn’t an alien.”
Her mother’s route south was equally unlikely. Like Lieros’s father, she was an orphan, and she was brought up by her grandmother.

My mother was in Greek drama school, in her final year. It wasn’t the thing in those days of a girl of good family to go to ancient Greek drama school: she worked out a system with her best friend, so that everyone thought she was going to the gym, and in the meantime she was studying drama.
In keeping with her spirited nature , and through a contact made by a relative, she began corresponding with her with her castaway compatriot in Rhodesia. “ You’re an orphan, and I’m an orphan,” he wrote,” come and marry me!”

Gweru was probably more touched than most Rhodesian towns be the events of World War Two with pilots from Europe and Australia joining local men at the airbases of Moffat and Thornhill. “Although we weren’t directly involved,” Lieros recalls, “this whole cloud hung around us.”
If the active engagement of Africa in a distant European war was on reminder of the bizarre geopolitics of the colonial world, the issue of language was another .Gweru sits squarely between the Ndebele and Shona speaking parts of the country and by the middle of the century more and more people were speaking English as second or third language. And in the Lieros household?
Life was Gweru, and life was Greek. At home we never ever spoke any other  ;language except Greek. It was the first language I learnt; I was not allowed  to  speak one word of English. I didn’t know any English, to be quite honest, until I was six years old, it was very hard for me to go to kindergarten, but I had a wonderful teacher, who was my mother’s best friend, and mine, and she taught me to speak English. But at home it was Greek.
Unlike today, there was no Greek school in the country: and certainly not in Gweru. Lieros attended Chaplin High School, where the headmaster at the time was a classicist. If the mild, intra-European racism of the times intruded on the young Helen’s life ( “it was a British colony after all, and many times we were referred to as “ the bloody Greeks”), he reinforced the message of her mother, that she cam “from a history of culture”. “ my mother used to say that when Greece was building the Parthenon, the British were still cannibals.”

Notwithstanding its “history of culture”, the Greek community ad a general disdain for girls’ education. Lieros and her younger sister, Mary, learnt much from their mother about classical drama, literature and philosophy, and at Chaplain School she focused her early creative energies on music, rather than painting.
I played the piano. Mostly musicians I didn’t like. Because of the speed of my fingers, I was pumped wit Bach. I hate Bach to this day. I always wanted to write music, but I knew my limitations. Then all of a sudden . when I was about fifteen. Art came into my life, and I found that I could express myself that way. And there was a link with music – because even when I was working with music. The sounds were colours. I was fascinated. If  I played something that I really loved, it was full of colours, and of the things that sere happening within me as a young girl.
In an academic sense , music continued ins dominance through to the end of her school days, at which time she battled with her father over what was to follow. He wanted her to study music in South Africa 9 it was at his insistence that she had taken Afrikaans as a second language at school): she was determined to study art. “ Then my father wrote to his cousin in Greece , who happens to have studied architecture in Launanne, and he writes back and says that there’s a wonderful art school in Geneva”.

Lieros was in Geneva for 1958 to 1962

It was beautiful. It got rid of all my hang-ups, my complexes. There were no ethnic differences. I couldn’t speak the language at the beginning, but there was integrity about everything, I can’t tell you even arriving there with little white socks, when everybody was wearing stocking and pantyhose! It was like another world, and the discovery of that was magnificent.
In the first year you do everything, especially drawing. We did design, sculpture and painting,  and I was very close to the sculpture. I liked the sculpture element, you know, and of course they were working with granite. I had a fantastic doyen and I asked him, “ Do you think I should go and major in sculpture?” and he said, ‘No, you’re a painter I’ve seen your works. “So I decided to go into painting. The history of art was the worst, because of the language. I didn’t  mix with English speaking people. I refused to mix with English speaking people. So the barrier of the language was strong.
And the painting?

I was painting what they wanted me to paint, and I had to use the colours they wanted me to use, the Swiss’ colours: the greys, the beige's, If I would use red ( which I was dying to do) they would make me cross- hatch grey over it, to subdue it, it  was a very formal kind of education. And the lecturers hated each other so that you went into one class and he opposed the other ones, You had to somehow change your identity to please the professor. 
Armed with her degree, and a scholarship awarded by the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland ( Roy Welensky’s personal interest in the young Rhodesian art student was one of his last acts as Prime Minister before the Federation was dissolved). Lieros proceeded to Florence for a year. Her main area of study was fresco painting: not the fresco secco, which is painted on dry plaster , but the true, buon fresco, perfected in 16th century Italy, in which the pigment is applied to damp plaster and becomes integrated into the structure of the wall itself.  As in Geneva , there was a tendency for students to have to parrot their teachers’ views, rather than develop their own, and several month of study fell victim to strikes ( The Christian Democrats were  on strike. The Fascisti were on strike. The Comministi were on strike so we lost out”), but the galleries and palaces of the city offered rich recompense.

Lieros returned to Rhodesia in 1964, at her mother’s request.
I came home. I came back to Gweru. I had no job. I was exhausted, disillusioned. What was I going to do? I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to be a painter. I remember Geoffrey Atkins interviewing me on television; I had a wonderful rapport with him, and asked, “ Do you think I could work here at the television studio, doing murals? And he said, “forget about it, you’re an artist. Why don’t you consider teaching?” I went back to my headmaster at Chaplin. “Sir you know, I was  thinking, maybe I should go into teaching and get back to the school? “ He was delighted. Sp a door opened for me. But it was an alien thing, trying to teach it was like discovering and working out something again. On the sideline I was still paining. Even when I’d given them something to do, I would walk to my little easel on the side  and work away, and then walk around again. I think that rapport, that the teacher was painting as well, made it interesting for the kids.
After three years of teaching, Lieros married and moved to Harare with her husband, Derek Huggins ( “ He was a gentleman. He loved literature. There was something in him that I had not found in other people…” She was offered, and accepted, a commission from the Greek Archbishop to paint some murals in his church. Her father was already living and working in Harare , and her mother joined him as soon as Mary finished her schooling in Gweru.
The mid sixties ushered a heightened sense of tension into the country, and saw the proclamation of Ian Smiths Unilateral Declaration of Independence. Looking back, Lieros claims that , “I never was really political”, but the strength of the values she absorbed from her upbringing and her experience suggest otherwise.

Why, she wondered during her teaching days at Chaplin, did the students have to learn French and Afrikaans, when they should have concentrated ( in the nineteen-sixties, of all times) on Shona, Ndebele and Karanga? Living , as she effectively did, in the medium of a second language herself, her ideology was totally different from that which prevailed at the time.
Her childhood, it’s true, was marked by the consciousness of national differences, but it wasn’t in any way scarred by them. The cosmopolitan years in Geneva left a different sort f mark: “ the race thing, of being a Greek or Spanish or black American or whatever else was there , there was nothing in of that, I never sensed it. And when I came home, there was this sort of discovery of what was going on, which did not really please me.”

After completing the Church commission, and after taking Derek on an introductory trip to continental Europe, Lieros returned to teaching, in private schools and colleges and in her own studio. “I didn’t want to go back to the government system of education. I tried to break away from the formula that was stuck on me when I was a student in Geneva and in Italy. I wanted individuals to be able to express themselves.  To find out what each student want, what kind of field, whether graphics or design or painting or sculpture. You had more rapport that way, and at the same time you discover yourself. I was intrigued with the situation. I discovered Zimbabwe all over again. I discovered those colours that they were suppressing and they were killing when I was trying to use them as a student in Geneva. They all became alive, this wonderful continent of reds and blues and all the colours that I was trying to use all these years. All the elements of my childhood returned with the discovery of the colour, and the space. But I battled. I battled for about ten years to really identify with myself. Also, I blessed sanctions. We couldn’t get paper. We couldn’t get canvas. We had to improvise materials: we had to find new ways in order to paint. We were joining paper, that’s when we started doing collage. My sister’s husband, Peter, started making oil paints. There was a unity amongst the artists. We shared everything. There was a determination to explore whatever was available. I think, literary, it was 1974 when I become an artist, in other words that’s when I discovered something. It was, again, because of improvising. I feel that this was so important, to discover Africa. My subjects were all about Africa and the war; it was very politically oriented in a symbolic way. The late 1970s were absorbed by teaching, painting, the cultivation of artistic links, and tending to young roots of Gallery Delta, which Derek Huggins had opening in 1975. Then, in 1980, came Independence. I was very optimistic. I felt that the change had to be, I felt that justice had to prevail , And I must admit that I was proud of being here, the way it happened. I was pleased that there were no extremities. I hate extremes of any sort, whether this site or that side. Everything was taking its course. A lot of doors opened for the artists, overseas, whereas before we were under sanctions. There was a focus. It was around that time, or just before, when the young black painters made their mark. They’d been around before then – Charles Fernandes, Thomas Mu, Kingsley Sambo – but they were pushed to one side b all the attention on sculpture, and I felt that was  very unfair.
The popular emphasis on sculpture at the expense of painting has been aggravated by the generally low priority given to the arts in education in Zimbabwe. Having taught in state schools and private colleges, and in the informal environment of Gallery Delta’s amphitheatre, how does Helen Lieros’s approach to students differ from the way she leaned herself?
We all need basic training, right? How to draw. How to use colour. But you can’t impose yourself. I will never touch a student’s painting. I will show it to them on another piece of paper because it was done to me, with a big cross, “This is crap you’ve got to paint like that”. I will never do it.

Sacrificial Goats

There is no formula, and that’s what worries me. That all of a sudden there might become a kind of a formula. Also, there is a question of survival: You have the artist dividing himself between his creative work, and the pretty pictures he knows he can sell to make his bread and butter. I feel, somehow, that it is destructive. You have to try and keep your integrity as an artist, whatever way you have to make a bit of side money. You can get a cup and do beautiful paintings and sell them. that is still part of you. You can illustrate. Or can make beautiful cards and sell them. During this crisis, this economic crisis, we are feeling sorry for ourselves, and we are not using our imagination, our talent in order to make certain things that we can survive on. “We are” Where are these words rooted? I am getting older now, and I am trying t re-identify to the beginning of my life all that had happened to me as a child, my identity as a Greek. It has a lot to do with the murals that I’ve been doing in Mozambique (in the Orthodox Church in Maputo), going to Greece an researching, and also discovering things which I had not discovered before. But I was born here. I am a Zimbabwean by birth. You can never, ever take that away from me. No government, no one, only God can take that away from me. I was born here. But you can’t also make me denounce my parents, who are Greek. It you are maKaranga and you have got a Ndebele father or mother, you are of that. You can’t denounce. But you can’t take Africa, and the country that has given me everything, away from me. I will always be loyal to this part of the world. But you can’t also take away my blood, which is Greek. Can the tension between those two be positive?
It’s very positive. There are so many things from the Greek superstitions and beliefs that are similar to African ones. The breaking of the pot: the breaking of the amphora, when you are dead. You’ve got the goats: in our religion, for forty days we don’t eat any meat, then a goat is sacrificed and we a feast on the spit an then we eat the goat. I am taking about in Greece. Here in Zimbabwe we also sacrifice goats. There is so much that you discover as you grow up; I love listening to people telling me about the myths of the Shona and the Ndebele. I am intrigued with them. There are so many things, funnily enough, which are in Greek mythology and also in superstition here. The owl, for instance, the owl m is bad luck here: in Greece it is wisdom but it is also bad luck. So there’s a link up somehow along the line.

Have other artist here been affected by the geography of their lives? 
Paul Wade. Paul was a textile man when he came here: he did the most amazing sculptured textiles, in bright colours – he was avante garde in that time. An then he went back to starting to paint here That’s when he got really good. I think I am very fortunate in that I have watched and observed these people from the beginning. Like Thakor ( Patel) and Paul . for example . The progression and explosion in their work. When Thakor first came here, he painted little black and white figures: there was pain in these beautiful drawings that he had done. And he was working small. Then, the symbolism from the Indian rugs and carpets emerged, and his own history came out. He started exploring , So it\s been fantastic – I am privileged because I have seen the progression of the artists.
So, can there be such a thing as an “ African artist?
My point is very basic here. Western civilisation has a very preconceived idea of what African art is. I noticed that in the Africa 95 festival in England, where they chose what they thought was African. Let’s put it this way: people often expect black Africans to do naive work. They never expect them to do abstract art, or the sort of exploration being done by young artist living in African. On the other hand, there are so many African living in Italy, France, German, working as African artist, and they are the ones that have lost their identity, have succumbed to the so-called Western trend of art. So if you go to the Biennial in Senegal , or in Sao Paulo, you  have philosophy of what is happening. Of course, art has to be international. You can say it comes from African, it comes from Spain, it comes from here it comes from there. That has to be. But in Zimbabwe, we all have the rub- off of Africa in our work, because we were born here. END OF TRANSCRIPT.
Helen Lieros taught my sister ( Sophia) who went on to study Art  at Rhodes University and later exhibited with Gallery Delta  as part of the gallery's Young Artist Exhibition that is held annually in Harare. My sister too now teaches art.  The long arm of Helen's influence continues. I have in my collection of art several pieces of work from Artists mentored by Helen Lieros. They are the pieces that have stood the test of time. I love them as much now as I did when I bought them. They are a reminder of the country I love and the creative spirit that flows through the blood of its people. 
I like to think that Helen Lieros would agree with me, when I say that her talent  is not only for creating art but also for helping artists creativity to emerge. Her legacy  will be made up in equal parts of her body of fine work and the people that she taught who have gone on to create beautiful things in the world and at home in Zimbabwe.
The photos from the Church I took in October 2013. The other  works  shown here are taken from the Gallery Delta Web Site.
odes and prayers
African Icon

Hellenic Academy 2011 article with great pictures

clubofmozambique article

Living In Maputo 31 July 2013

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