Exhibiton of paintings by students at Cyrene Mission School in Zimbabwe some seventy years ago
My visit to this art exhibition in early October 2020 felt like a journey into a fragile time warp. I left it filled with nostalgia for the land where I was born … and with a question.
How would this show of school art from Africa, intended originally for international audiences in the 1940s, be seen in the middle of Black History Month in London, over seventy years later?
The exhibition, free to enter, is in the Theatre Courtyard Green Rooms in Shoreditch. The space is full of light thanks to wide, glass fronted doors, and the show is rippled with the gentle sounds of the ‘mbira‘.
In early October we wandered around the exhibition. There were no other visitors there. Just us and the world as seen by youngsters through the art they created in a country thousands of miles away, many years ago. It was fascinating to see the lives they knew then so clearly depicted.
Zimbabwe, where the Cyrene Mission School is based, was a young British colony at the time these pictures were painted. All the students in the school were between the ages of twelve and twenty. Most came from the local area, with a few from neighbouring countries.
The school’s founder was a young white priest, called Edward ‘Ned’ Paterson, who had been born in Aberdeen, Scotland, but moved with his parents to South Africa in 1901. During the First World War he served with a regiment called the Transvaal Scottish, after which he was given a grant to study at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, in the early 1920s.
Studies complete he came back to Africa, and in 1940 opened Cyrene Mission School in the south of Zimbabwe (then called Southern Rhodesia).
Art was a key part of the curriculum at Cyrene, and Paterson encouraged the pupils to draw from the life that surrounded them. Their work included carving and murals, and some were used to improve the school and to raise money for it through exhibitions and sales.
One of the grander exhibitions was in London in 1949, where a collection was exhibited at the Royal Society of Painters in Water-Colours. That exhibition then went on tour, and reached as far as New York and Paris, before returning to London in 1953. Once the exhibition was over the pieces that remained were packed away and forgotten about until recently when they were discovered at auction, when the church where they were stored in was sold.
The art is gentle, and must have provided some easy relief when it was first exhibited in a city still recovering from the damage of the Second World War. Today, once again the art is displayed during a time of stress.
It was such a pleasure to look around it, and it made me think that perhaps, as we try to find our way through Covid and the pain of an abused planet, we should all focus more on the skills and the value of arts and crafts. Maybe it is Cyrene that is now our teacher.
As to how London audiences today will see this collection, I still don’t know the answer, but I do hope that as many as possible will have the chance to visit.
The Stars are Bright remains open until 31 October 2020.
If you would like to know a little more, below are two of the links that I found helpful:
- A piece in The Church Times with information on the exhibition
- A dissertation written by Grace Zhou looking at the influence of two mission schools (one being Cyrene) on the development of different artistic communities in southern Africa.
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2020