In conversation with Yvonne Vera

Yvonne Vera, Zimbabwean author
Yvonne Vera, Zimbabwean author (© Eric Beauchemin)

Zimbabwe’s extreme economic decline after 2000 eroded the ability of artists to create and of the public to experience art. Dr. Yvonne Vera (1964-2005) was a novelist and for six years, she was the director of the National Gallery in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city. Not long after she took up her post, when she first spoke to Radio Netherlands, her enthusiasm and optimism were boundless. She was establishing a space for artists to create their own work and for all Zimbabweans to come and appreciate art.

But as time passed, government funding petered out, and the situation of the gallery deteriorated dramatically. In May 2003, Dr. Vera resigned. In a wide-ranging interview, she explained why she decided to leave the gallery and how she felt about Zimbabwe’s economic and political situation.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Original broadcast: August 28, 2003


There were so many pressures pressing on me. The economy, as you are aware, in Zimbabwe has really gone down. The departure of artists left the community so small. The community of artists as well as the viewers and friends of the gallery were reduced dramatically. So you had to try and adjust to that kind of phenomena, and it was very difficult and traumatic for me because this was my gallery family. So every day, somebody is coming to say goodbye to you. So I found that especially to be very, very hard. And then it meant you could prepare exhibitions but to exhibit means to show. And you want to show with the voice of a community that is together in doing something, in celebrating the art, building your dreams. And you cannot do this on your own because an exhibition is a showing. And so who was I going to show to and with? So it aged me. It just suddenly felt a sense of collapse and something in the country itself that surrounded the gallery seemed to be and still is on its knees. So I felt that I was in a tragic moment in Zimbabwe, more tragic than even the moment of armed struggle for independence because then we had a very fierce and a very affirming undertaking, and we were going to do this, we were going to do that, even though we were a colonized people and we were an excluded people. But we felt such a sensation of overcoming the impossible. So there were dreams and we were the dream children. And suddenly we were in this period. You are just perplexed, stunned, astonished, and you look outside or you go to the city center which is where the gallery is situated and you see such absolute and tragic poverty in people’s eyes, along their brow. The queues, the lack of bread. Fuel queues – there is no petrol. So I thought: first, how do I get work? Just that. How do I get there from my house to work? There were just so many perplexing questions. What do I eat? There is no bread. There’s no Mielie-meel. I was quite shaken and shocked. And there was no one because everyone, as I said, was leaving. There was no one to really talk to, especially around art, where we could say what are we going to do as artists? Is the role of the artist more important and central at a moment like this or how is it? Because the artists had already answered, that they had left. So I just felt like a crushed beetle (?). I had no feeling what I’m going to do. Fund-raising became very difficult because there were all these struggles between government and NGOs. Government itself had no money to give the institute. And one could not be assured of any continuity of anything, even of the community we had formed. And I’m not talking specifically only about the artists but the community who we were serving because we are very keen to take our art to the people. I had worked very hard to bring what we call township residents to the gallery. This had been to me my major success to make it popular and to the art gallery like the place to be and all of a sudden, they can’t afford the transport costs to come to the gallery. Or if they, the transport is not there because there’s no fuel and things like that. I remember one month, I think we had ten visitors from outside, and yet we used to have 2000, 2500. So if you are going to have these 10 people coming to view the exhibition, you’re not going to sell anything. So the cost of putting up the exhibition, besides the creativity that it has cost the artist and the imagination of the artist and all that, all seemed to go to nothing.

National Gallery Bulawayo
National Gallery, Bulawayo (© Eric Beauchemin)

EB: Were people not coming because they couldn’t afford it or because art at this period in time in Zimbabwe is not important because of the crisis?

Absolutely not. Art in Zimbabwe is important. It has always been important in all times. But when I talk for example about international visitors whom we had lots and lots of, there was very poor publicity about Zimbabwe. They simply didn’t come to the country. And if they didn’t come to the country, they couldn’t come to the gallery. Those who are local, as I’ve said, they had problems with transport, and there was an increase in bag-snatching and all these thefts. So some people were just reluctant to go somewhere where it’s like a leisure pursuit. Maybe something will happen to me or to spend money on that because they were trying to catch up with the rising costs of things. It came full circle. It suddenly became very elitist again to buy art or to look at art. It changed again. And the young township men and women, boys and girls, whom we had managed to bring together so often simply couldn’t do it. All these things were not foreseeable by myself. One could not have been that prophetic. It eats at the heart. It eats at the skin, and in the end, you deteriorate in your sense of control and responsibility, and you yourself need help. And it’s not there, and you feel like the last person on earth. Everything just had to be rethought. For all the things you were thinking, you had absolutely no answer, especially if you were so committed, if you had been so committed for so long, like I had been for six years with the gallery. Should I leave the gallery? What will happen to it? Does that mean all my work which I have put in will be sustained? But you know of course that it’s impossible because that person may be as motivated as you were but they might not have the resources to do it. I did not want to be a witness to that collapse because I didn’t think I could survive it.

National Gallery Painting
National Gallery Painting (© Eric Beauchemin)
National Gallery painting
National Gallery painting (© Eric Beauchemin)

EB: One of the other factors was of course that your salary was worth nothing at the end.

It was never, ever worth anything. I don’t know if I was getting US$25 or whatever. I don’t know. It was never ever a salary that one could talk about. My mother was always saying when I was trying to open an account somewhere, she would be pinching me and said you have to feel your salary. Don’t do that. People will wonder that you really accept such a salary. I always had to subsidize my life at the gallery. But I didn’t feel it because I had wings. I just felt creatively. I learned so much, acquired so much understanding of creativity and such knowledge and got to know so many wonderfully talented people. So I feel immensely privileged that I had that, and that I assisted a lot of people towards achieving also their goals. So I don’t regret my role, but this however could not go on. It even seemed cheaper for me to stay at home because I don’t have fuel costs or any other costs except to just make sure I have enough potatoes in my kitchen. And, of course, I began to just change what kinds of ideals of living. So it became a lifestyle choice, and I thought: OK, I’m a writer. In fact, working at the gallery had stood in some way between me and my writing, though it had enhanced it in another way. It seemed to me if I go back and write full time, I’m still contributing to the nation, in fact to the international community a cultural product of my country and so I stopped weighing these things up and saying which is which and just accepted that I was perhaps trying to juggle too much. And I felt well, maybe it’s time for you to rest. If you can take two years off, it might be good for you. But I decided to remain in the country.

EB: Why did you decide to stay in the country?

Those decisions are never clear. Of course, there’s my family, my parents, my young brother. Some friends are still here. But the decision is never clear what in the end makes you write that resignation form, whatever. But I remember I had been given a year off. First, I thought I’ll take a year off, see what happens, come back. So I went to Berlin with a year’s grant. I only lasted three weeks before I was just completely homesick and felt I had to reverse this immediately and phone my mother and she said, do you know your secretary has resigned. I think about 10 people resigned while I was away. This shocked me because I really felt ‘cause she was such a good secretarial administrator and I thought for her to leave what is my….I thought, no, I have to go back. Then I also got a message that the ceiling of one of the rooms in the gallery had collapsed. Well, I couldn’t sleep any more in Berlin, you understand. And so I had to come back. It’s just emotion. And so I came back not knowing what does that mean, coming back. I had not thought of this. Then when I came back and reviewed the situation, I realized really that everything was just so messy, and I was not the one to fix it. My coming from Berlin was not going to fix the ceiling or to bring back all these fantastic people I had trained. I felt dislocated and it was apparent to me that I’d better pursue my novelist career.

EB: Zimbabwe is living through a crisis at the moment. Do you feel it’s the role of artists to denounce what’s going on?

I don’t know about denouncing because to denounce is to abandon in some way or it is to corrode something or someone. There should be no prescriptions for artists. I would never be one to say that artists should say this or say that, or do this or do that. I remember Maria Cha (sp?) saying I want the maximum space around my typewriter, maximum space. An artist must be given that liberty to explore whatever subject they wish, no matter what the times are. I simply think: sometimes you cannot escape the times you are living in. It percolates into your work. I have written about things which have happened in Zimbabwe, like the book called “The Stone Virgins”, not because I thought it was my task to do so but because I felt a deep inspiration to do it. I think an artist has the privilege of being on the margin and of looking in. Of course, I don’t have an absolute answer for this. Am I saying artists should stand aside and watch a holocaust? No. I’m not saying this. My friend, Changarai (sp?) is in France now. He was writing very harshly against government, even before things became as bad as they are. But eventually, according to him, he had to flee and go and live in France. And I’m writing back and forth with him now. He’s feeling very lost, solitary, misunderstood, yet feeling some justification. “I told you people and you thought I was crazy or someone had bought me, bought my head. Some whites had bought my head and I’d done this. But indeed you are living through the times I had projected.” I have a strong fear of living in exile, personally, to be honest with you. I spent almost 10 years living in Canada, and I don’t really wish to go back because I have already spent 10 years of what…a human life is really quite short. I can go back to Canada. It doesn’t seem a very creative use of my lifespan. If I lose the vision and the space which I am inhabiting now in Zimbabwe, would I still write the same? I have friends like Nuridian Farrow (sp?) who believe they can write from anywhere. They just need a room and a desk and a glass of water, and they will write as if they are in their homeland. But I can’t. I have to see and sense memorable and tangible things that come to you as you observe people, and the pain that you harbor as you watch them, as you participate in a life with them. This morning I gave a lift to two women, for example, when I was going into town. They tried to give me money. And I said, no, there’s no need. There’s no need for that. I’m giving you a lift because transport is so difficult. They were almost in tears. For me…I’m almost in tears because I’m thinking: what have I done? I’m one person in a car which can take four people. And here are these women just struggling to survive. I was very moved because then they asked me for my totem. Oh, what is your totem? So I tell them. I say my last name is Vera. And one of the women says are you Vera who writes? I said yes. And she grins. She’s happy. And then I’m happy because I’m thinking people take seriously writing. These were women who were obviously poor, going maybe to the market to try and do something, but they know about things in their culture and I felt people, just ordinary people to whom I give lift, they know that there is a writer called Yvonne Vera. So that’s my community. As I writer, therefore, it is my role to absorb and synthesize those experiences that are at the ground. One time I bought an avocado from a woman from the streets and she started dancing, dancing, just dancing with a laughter that was like…she was just a unique being. She danced like a locust. And I just laughed. This woman, this old woman. She had so many rags around her. But she just felt that she was specially chosen, just that. And yet there is a pathos to this. There is something very painful and devastating. And I come home, I lie down like for four hours and I replay this woman, her manner and her ways and her laughter and her tying up of her robes and things like that until my mother says, hey, can you just stop this. My problem is that I can’t even understand it properly to give it a name, to comment on it. And that’s my level of thinking and feeling. And if I met the president today, I would have no advice for him except to ask him to walk the streets I’ve walked.