Photo: Paul Greenway 8 Rhodos l August 2012
pAyinG it fORwARd
by Chelsea Geach When mathias Chirombo was 16, he was brilliant at two things: art and cricket. in fact, he was one of the top five fast bowlers in Zimbabwe. then a stress fracture in his spine crushed his cricket dreams and cast him firmly in front of the canvas. ten years later, with the help of scholarships from rhodes University and sponsorship from cricketer peter roebuck's learning for a better world (lbw) trust, Chirombo has earned his bachelor of fine arts. he has also found a unique way to return the generosity shown to him. for the next decade, he will donate two paintings a year to rhodes. these works of art will be auctioned in New york and london, and all the proceeds deposited in a fund for rhodes applicants who simply cannot afford to attend. "i've gained a lot from rhodes," Chirombo says. "i need to give back - there are others who are struggling, and this is the best way i can contribute." the auction will be managed by terryl mcCarthy of the alumni relations division. the two paintings on offer for this year were handpicked out of mathias's latest exhibition, Sacred Spaces, which opened at the National arts festival last year. bidding for the first piece begins at r22 000, while the bigger second piece will open at r36 000. Chirombo initially registered for a Commerce degree, but soon switched to fine art. Now he is working towards his masters in anthropology. "i'm exploring spirit-mediated landscapes and material culture within Shona and venda artists," he explains - a thesis topic which feeds directly into his artwork. as research, Chirombo collects paintings which represent an experience of the spiritual plane. he takes these works to villages where he speaks with spirit mediums, healers and diviners and asks them for their interpretations of the artwork. the key is finding out what they see when they are possessed by the spirits of the ancestors. in a way, his work continues that of the ancient rock art found throughout southern africa. "it's the same spiritual portents within the work, but now we have more mediums to use," he says. his medium of choice is paint, because it is practical and allows him the most freedom to express his visualisations of spiritual experiences. this skill with paintwork dates back to his schoolboy days. it all began when Chirombo was five years old, growing up in harare. "my dad used to draw bunnies for us, with nice ears and big eyes," he remembers. "he was so good, and you know, i just couldn't do it!" fascinated by the skill of drawing, mathias snapped up the opportunity to attend weekly art sessions, even though his primary school was under-equipped and had little time for art. later at a specialist sporting high school, he studied drawing and painting along with his cricketing classmates. "i didn't really enjoy using a paintbrush," he recalls. "i started using a pallet knife, spoons... anything i could find." his experimentation moved on to bones, broken glass and any tool which would render his unusual subject matter better than the passé paintbrush. Such odd artist's implements can still be seen scattered around his workspace. Chirombo works from a studio at his house in grahamstown, which he shares with other artists. weaving up a footpath through a garden littered with pottery and sculptures in all imaginable mediums, a little stone shed appears. two adopted dogs skitter away behind a corner while wooden wind chimes mellow the crisp winter air. inside the shed is an artist's paradise: fluorescent lights beam down on vast canvasses, illuminating visions of another realm. tins and tubes spill colour onto just about every surface. a paint-stained stereo rests against the patchwork wall, its melodies escaping through the many gaps in the ramshackle structure. a bag bursting with cricket kit gathers dust on a shelf, quite at odds with the ethereal images surging about on stacked canvasses. where do these images come from? "i have no idea!" Chirombo says. Sometimes he wakes in the middle of the night, steals through the garden up to the shed and begins to paint. "Usually i just seek guidance from the ancestral spirits and god, and then i proceed." he works in layers, using different techniques to overlay colours and textures. thick, smooth strokes are scraped away to reveal blunt shapes below. all the paints are his own mixtures, depending on the consistency needed for each technique. the heady scents of oil paint, turpentine and ink are ushered out the studio by a breeze which sneaks in between wooden planks and a bubble-wrap-covered gate. Chirombo's talents may lie in fine art, but he wants his gift to benefit financially needy students from all different fields and backgrounds. this, he says, is because, "you just don't know what the potential of a person is until you give them a chance."