by Lisa Masterson and Neal Hovelmeier
“For a genuine art to exist at Cyrene it should be a communal effort for all the artists to express themselves – their comment on life, on what they feel and see in their strange city life, in a sympathetic environment. The people do not need art teaching but simply the tools of art.”
Canon Edward “Ned” Paterson
The Stars Are Bright (Zimbabwe through the eyes of its young painters at Cyrene Mission 1940-1947) exhibition proudly sees a return to Zimbabwe of an astonishing collection of artworks created by the young black students at the Cyrene Mission School between 1940 and 1947. Cyrene became the very first school, in what was then Rhodesia, to formally offer an art education to young black students. This collection was lauded around the world in the 1940s and 50s, lost to the public for decades, miraculously rediscovered and now finally returned to its home soil for an emotional reunion with the Zimbabwean public.
Where It All Started
It was a Scottish clergyman, Edward “Ned” Paterson, born in 1885, and who served in the British Army in what is now Namibia before taking up the priesthood and moving to Matabeleland in 1938, who established the Anglican Mission School at Cyrene, just outside Bulawayo in January 1940. Ned had taken advantage of an Army scholarship to study art in London and was quick to introduce art into the curriculum at Cyrene from its inception.
It was a challenging time in our history. Rhodesia was a country divided along racial lines under colonial rule and the world was struggling with the horrors of WWII. Ned believed that the artistic achievements of people could help overcome prejudice against them. He saw art as a unifying force that was internationally understood and able to cross boundaries. By fostering the arts, he wanted to show that “the disabled, the outcast and the abandoned were all are capable of great achievements.”
Ned named the Mission Cyrene after Simon of Cyrene, who was of ancient north African decent and who compelled by the Romans to carry the cross for Christ at his crucifixion. Ned claimed, “The name has come to carry in it the idea of hard work, hard work for God, for Africa, for each other and for oneself.”
Students came from all over Zimbabwe to study art. The focus on art at Cyrene was to prove both inspirational and liberating. They embraced the freedom and immersed themselves in their imaginations. Many of the students were severely or partially disabled and were particularly encouraged to focus on art as a vocational career and as a form of personal therapy.
As word spread around Southern Africa of a new art school for black students, many departments of education (now Botswana, South Africa, Malawi and Zambia) and local authorities began to send students with artistic talents to Cyrene to gain a deeper understanding of the arts (painting, drawing, wood carving and stone sculpting). Many of these students returned to pioneer the establishment of art schools in their home countries.
In 1947, the Queen Mother made an impromptu visit to the Cyrene Mission to see the artworks of the students. During the visit, she insisted that Ned Paterson bring the artworks to the UK to show the British public the immense talents of the students at the school. The purpose of sending the artworks abroad was to ignite interest in the abundant freshness and originality of the imaginations captured in art by the local students of Cyrene. What followed was a highly successful tour of the UK, Paris and later New York between 1949 and 1953.
The tour was a resounding success and proceeds of the art sold at exhibitions funded future work at Cyrene, new art materials and scholarships for some of the students. At the same time as the 1949 Cyrene Exhibition in London, an exhibition titled, “40 000 years of Modern Art” (featuring, amongst others, Matisse and Picasso) opened. Critics unanimously preferred the Cyrene works which they saw as “effortless” vs. the more modern pieces that were produced “consciously and after prolonged thought.” Critics praised “the alertness and restlessness of style, the sincerity which comes from the heart and not the intellect, the brightness of colours, the lack of inhibition.” The Lancaster Daily Post declared it was “shorn of all humbug.”
In 1953, the unsold artworks were not repatriated back to Zimbabwe. Instead, they were carefully packed into storage at St Michael’s and All Angels Church in Shoreditch, where they miraculously survived a rapidly declining physical environment (damp, rats and vagrants) in cardboard boxes and remained in pristine condition. In 1978, the church was deconsecrated, and the artworks were rediscovered and subsequently cared for by the London Architectural Salvage and Supply Company (LASSCO) who appreciated what treasure they had unearthed. By sheer coincidence, the LASSCO employee inspecting the collection happened to be an ex-Zimbabwean. The collection was later bought by an international collector, who in 2015, offered the collection to the National Gallery of Zimbabwe. Due to unfortunate circumstances, the National Gallery declined the offer to purchase, and the collection was purchased by a philanthropist in the Zimbabwean diaspora.
Now, after 70 years away from their homeland, under the care of The Curtain Foundation and proudly presented by The Honde Valley Hydroelectric Power Trust, these astonishing works of art receive their long-awaited turn to be viewed and fully appreciated by Zimbabwean audiences. They indeed represent a staggering wealth of our country’s artistic, cultural and social history.
The Collection’s Heritage
The paintings included in this exhibition offer a vivid insight into the type of art being produced by the students at the Cyrene Mission School in the 1940s. Although only a fraction of the vast output of art is on display here, these representations capture the vibrant use of colour and the range of common themes the students (typically aged between 9 and 19) tended to focus on. Although diverse in their subject matter, Cyrene art is also distinctly recognisable for its lush, broad sweeps of brushwork (students were encouraged to “fill up the whole page”) and particularly for deploying an unusually decorative style which often translated Western Christian themes into distinctive African imagery. The result was a highly successful project to encourage young black scholars to forge a connection with their indigenous landscapes and reimagine local myths and biblical narratives as they personally saw them.
The school also catered for many disabled students, like Samuel Songo, who were particularly encouraged to focus on art as both a personal therapy, as well as a possible path to a vocational career. Cyrene produced an astonishing pedigree of black artists, scholars and practitioners: Adomech Moyo, also a cripple, became the first black teacher of occupational therapy in Southern Africa; Livingstone Sango became a prominent taxidermist with the Natural History Museum (Bulawayo); William Mariwi became a highly praised artist of religious iconography; Randford Sililo was commissioned to paint three large murals at Livingstone Museum, while Richard Rachidi became the first qualified black art teacher in his home country. Samuel Songo was severely crippled and had only 2 functional limbs (2 fingers on left hand but excelled at painting, drawing, sculpture and carving. After graduating from Cyrene, he became a teacher and went on to teach at Mzilikazi Art School (Bulawayo) for many years. But these artists represent just a tiny fraction of the many art students who immersed themselves in the craft of either sculpting, carving or painting and who contribute to Cyrene’s vast artistic legacy; a legacy which has subsequently spanned the globe. Following the world tours and exhibitions, many of these artists’ works were bought by prominent private collectors and found proud homes in collections as diverse as the Royal Collection and the Smithsonian in Washington.
A Proud National Legacy
The Stars Are Bright presents a proud snapshot into a period of our country’s history viewed from the lens of black artists. The artworks produced at Cyrene capture a reimagining of a brighter, more equal and just future world; a vision of social equality which was then still some forty years away. These narratives explore a wide range of Africa’s heritage, myths, and lore by capturing the rich spirit of local history and tradition, including many legends passed down by oral storytelling, which the Cyrene artists recreated and reanimated through their work, not to mention their striking reworking of Western Christian iconography into distinctly African themes and subtexts.
After their rediscovery, the collection of Cyrene artworks was staged as The Stars Are Bright Exhibition at the Theatre Courtyard Gallery in London 2020. It signalled one of the first cultural events to open in London after Covid-19 lockdown measures and was widely acclaimed.
And now, befittingly, the collection has achieved its long-awaited return to Zimbabwe, to be cherished and enjoyed by audiences who share a direct lineage with the original artists of the Cyrene school. The first exhibition on home soil was held in the newly launched The Arches @ Aberfoyle venue in November 2021, Honde Valley, a spectacular state of the art setting for this historical collection. The event was opened by the Minister of Sport, Arts and Recreation, the Honourable Minister Kirsty Coventry, and attended by many dignitaries. The second part of the tour has seen the exhibition launched in the National Gallery of Bulawayo in April 2022 – a truly historic and majestic setting for the paintings and a real “Homecoming” of the collection that originated from Bulawayo. The third installation of the exhibition will be held in The National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Harare with an official opening ceremony on the 14th of July.
That this astonishingly brave and truthful work can now be reunited with the very landscapes that inspired it after 70 long years makes for an exciting and emotional homecoming.
“He (Canon Ned Paterson) gave me courage. I have never been much happier than in his presence. He feared no one, yet respected all. I may never again meet such a noble artist and preacher. He was of the chosen few of Christ, one of the chosen few who illuminate the world.”
Job Kekana (Cyrene student and later, fellow teacher)
The Legacy Today
Ned Paterson set in motion the wheels
for the start of Modern Art in Zimbabwe. He didn’t see himself as the originator of Modern Art, but rather “the baking powder.” He recognised that not all students were destined to become world famous artists, but rather wanted to equip each student with an appreciation of the arts within their own lives.
After leaving the Cyrene Mission in the 1950s, Ned Paterson moved to Harare where he set up Nyaratsetso Art School and Farayi Art Centre, where hundreds of students were taught on a daily basis until Ned was in his 70s. Ned Paterson was also a board member of the National Gallery. William Morris’ idea of a community of artists and crafts appealed to Ned: people working together in harmony for a common goal. Another important lesson that can be gleaned from the Cyrene Mission project was that of acceptance of each other and the teachings of hard work, dedication, and service to others. Many of the students were inspired by Ned Paterson’s dedication to others and his belief in each individual’s potential, taking up professions in the priesthood and teaching, giving service to their communities.
This is a truly great Zimbabwean story about truly great individuals who collectively comprise a story that is magical and inspirational on so many levels – a story that has touched so many who hear about it. In the words of one American visitor, “This story is another magical surprise in Zimbabwe – a country that never fails to surprise us!”
On our many discoveries with the exhibitions, the endless legacy has not failed to astound and delight us. Several family members of Cyrene artists have come forward. One such person is well-known Radio DJ and producer, Leander Kandiero, son of the student Caxton Kandiero. Leander was delighted to discover the history of his father’s schooling career and it has been amazing to watch him put together the pieces of their family history. Although Leander was very young when his father passed, he vividly remembers him talking passionately about Ned Paterson and the school. As a young student in Penalonga, Caxton was severely punished for drawing during class instead of studying. His mother decided to send him to Cyrene, in the hope that this would help him further his art studies. He would travel as a small boy all alone on the train from Mutare to Bulawayo (often hidden in his metal trunk to escape bullies). He was so inspired by his time at Cyrene that he too became a teacher and later headmaster of Sakubva High School in Mutare. At this school he insisted on art and music as part of the curriculum subjects. He often spent time drawing portraits of his students – something he had seen Ned Paterson doing at Cyrene. We were able to show Leander a portrait of his father from Cyrene dated 1944 done by Ned Paterson. In his own work today, Leander is inspired to serve his community through providing information and talking about subjects pressing in today’s society. A magical reunion with their family legacy.
Cyrene Mission Chapel Today
In November of 2021, members of the The Stars are Bright exhibition team, including Mr Voti Thebe and Miguel Esteban (UK exhibition Director), travelled to see the original Chapel at the Cyrene Mission situated 37km out of Bulawayo on the Plumtree Road. The school is still in operation as Cyrene High School (for boys only) and art is still taught by Mrs Samu Mpofu. What a magical morning of discovery. Although now in need of some serious repairs, the chapel is a sight to behold. All the murals were done by Ned Paterson and the students at the school. The Bible stories and characters are depicted in a Zimbabwean context – parables are shown in local rural settings, with indigenous animals and scenery familiar to the students of their own villages and experiences. Reading the stories and seeing the Bible stories through the eyes of the Cyrene students makes for an emotionally charged experience.