Fare thee well! Helen Lieros a name deeply engraved in Zimbabwe’s creative history

A legend is gone but her legacy will live for generations. Earlier this year conferred with the NAMA (National Arts Merit Awards) legend status Helen Lieros was one of Zimbabwe’s finest painters and Gallery Delta co-founder has died.

In 2011 i had a chance to interview Helen Lieros and wrote an article which i never got to publish then.

Gallery Delta was established by Derek Huggins and Helen Lieros on the 17th April 1975, a time of sanctions, conflict and war to provide an exhibition space for contemporary paintings, graphics, textiles and ceramics of the highest standard possible as an alternative to ‘Shona Sculpture’ which, led by the National Gallery, dominated the art scene in the city. Within a year or two the gallery occupied seven rooms around the atrium of the premises, and three on the first floor narrates Helen Lieros in an exclusive interview with Plot Mhako.

By Plot Mhako

Helen said, in those years – the 1970’s into the 1980’s – most African artists were stone sculptors or wood carvers. The experiment of Frank McEwen, the Director of the then Rhodes National Gallery, from the late 1950’s,to find and promote a new form of African art had succeeded phenomenally with promotion and development of ‘Shona Sculpture’ which led to the ‘Great Excitement’ of the 1960’s in which the Western world was a participant

There were few facilities for serious art study. It meant commencing at the beginning to encourage and promote a new movement in painting. This unearthed numerous prominent artists such as Marshall Baron, Robert Paul, Arthur Azevedo, Helen Lieros, Henry Thompson, Thakor Patel, Stephen Williams, Rashid Jogee, Simon Back, Berry Bickle, Richard Jack, Gerry Dixon and others.

Potential amongst young African student painters was discovered as a result of the establishment of the BAT Workshop under the auspices of the National Gallery by its director Christopher Till in the early part of that decade. The emphasis was on drawing and painting. The most promising key figure to emerge as a painter was Luis Meque, a Mozambican refugee, who having been expelled from the Workshop for a misdemeanour, sought help and support. His successful promotion was the catalyst for the beginning of an African contemporary painting movement around Gallery Delta from the late 1980’s and which included his contemporaries George Churu and Richard Witikani. 

The decade of the 1990’s was active and exciting as these zealous and competitive painters worked and exhibited. Helen expressed her appreciation at the new generation of artists at their limitless creativity as evidenced by their ability to create art using anything at their disposal in the face of financial challenges. 

Helen however narrated pain at the tragedy which struck repeatedly during the decade with the loss of good painters to the deadly HIV scourge. 

New young painters, however, were identified in the likes of Patrick Makumbe, Misheck Masamvu, Freddy Tauro, Virginia Chihota, Gina Maxim and Admire Kamudzengerere.

Helen Lieros believed that Masimba Hwati a young and veteran visual artist and lecturer is the most amazing artist to ever emerge out of the twenty first century.

Amongst the current breed of artists is Shephard Mafute a deaf and dumb artist whose amazing tale of a dream as a rugby player and represent the country in Scotland 1991 was shattered because of his hearing impairment.  However this did not deter him, he turned to art and today he continues to coach rugby and paint professionally. 

Presently (in 2011), the gallery which is running an exhibition called “Still like objects” survives and continues to promote art and artists, and to act as an unofficial charitable institution still operating at a nominal 25% commission on sales, and providing its artists with interest free loans and bridging finance so far as it is able to do so. Gallery Delta from time to time hosts other cultural events: music, theatre and literature in the amphitheatre.

Artists should continue being creative as this is the only key to the viability of the industry”.

Helen Lieros

Gallery Delta continues its work and role in the organization, presentation, exhibition and promotion of Zimbabwean contemporary art as it has done for the past thirty four years, while actively seeking international and other funding.

My deepest condolences to her husband Dereck Huggins, family, fellow colleagues and friends. May her soul rest in peace.


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