Dignity, Grace, and Wonder

»I don’t believe in segregating beliefs and cultural practices. In my opinion the most interesting art comes from the union of seemingly unrelated or polarizing views.« Dananayi Muwanigwa

Dananayi Muwanigwa, who currently holds a web residency through Solitude and ZKM, is a digital painter from Harare/Zimbabwe. Working in the young and emerging digital art scene there, he taught himself the tools for his strong and beautiful Afrofuturistic paintings, mainly showing women of color questioning gender and racial stereotypes and creating new possible narratives for other African futures. With the Internet as his primary source of research and exhibiting works, the Runako project is an exploration of traditional African beauty/aesthetics. The characters’ attire and accessories are inspired by prominent African tribes, juxtaposed with futuristic imagery to challenge Western notions of beauty. Read an interview with the artist and find the project with sketches, images, and gifs here.

Schlosspost: How did you get engaged in digital arts and what is the digital arts scene in Zimbabwe like?

Dananayi Muwanigwa: I went to a multimedia design school in 2012, and was introduced to Adobe Photoshop. Exposure to the online art community motivated me to practice digital painting so that the quality of my work could meet a global standard. Digital art in Zimbabwe is still in its infancy, but growing year by year. There are a few creative studios in the 3D animation and advertising scene. Some of these studios are steadily gaining notoriety in the country, inspiring more young artists to look at digital mediums for their creative solutions.

Schlosspost: The Runako project you’re working on for the web residencies curated by Tegan Bristow is an exploration of traditional African beauty/aesthetics and what it could look like in the future. What are your objectives?

DM: My objectives are to explore a different narrative for Africa by celebrating tribal motifs and merging them with tech and fantasy. The stereotypical imagery of poverty, famine, disease, and stagnation is something I aim to challenge through Runako. Although Africa has problems, I feel that the continent has more to offer through progressive artwork and innovation.

Schlosspost: What traditional African traditions and fashion inspire you?

DM: I’m inspired by the shape language and use of geometric patterns by the Ndebele people in South Africa and Zimbabwe. Their strong and inherent sense of aesthetics has evolved over the years. The use of accessories such as neck rings and loops are an indication of marital status and wealth. Functionality and symbolism are a common trait among traditional African groups.

I love interesting hairstyles such as the eye-catching Amasunzu of the traditional Tutsi people in Rwanda. Their crestlike hair inspires me to think of more creative use of shapes in painting hair. Some African tribes have cultural practices that may appear obscure from a Western point of view, such as nudism, body piercings, and mutilations. I often love bringing these elements into my designs to draw interest and keep them fresh.

Schlosspost: Your work is also influenced by Afrofuturism. How do you define Afrofuturism? And how do you transform the ideas into your digital paintings?

DM: To me, Afrofuturism is Black speculative fiction in any form of art and innovation.

The genre allows me to imagine and remix Afrocentric imagery in my paintings. Initially I didn’t realize that my work was Afrofuturistic. I used to paint Eurocentric figures because that is what I was consuming online. At some point I felt the need to represent my own people without erasing modern influence.

Schlosspost: What is Afrofuturism to the situation of digital arts in Africa? And what do you think about the Western approach to Afrofuturism or how the Western art world gets interested in it now?

DM: Afrofuturism is an African-American concept that dealt with the plight of displaced Africans primarily through slavery. The genre has since been adopted by African creatives around the continent in the forms of fashion, comics, gaming and illustration to name a few.

My thoughts on the Western approach to Afrofuturism is that it shows the world is starting to look at Africa differently.

Afrofuturism is the result of black people using Western tools to reclaim a lost (ghosted) identity. With that in mind I applaud the Western approach to the genre and believe it to be a positive effect of globalization. I don’t believe in segregating beliefs and cultural practices. In my opinion the most interesting art comes from the union of seemingly unrelated or polarizing views.

Schlosspost: Afrofuturist ideas are also at the core of film Black Panther with the fantasy nation Wakanda – a vision of a technologically advanced, alternative African universe. What does this movie mean to you and your work?

DM: Black Panther is a milestone in the entertainment world. The film introduces Afrofuturism into the mainstream and its popularity shows that the world is ready to see Africa from a new perspective. The film inspires me to dig deeper into understanding the diverse cultures in Africa to give my artwork more depth and meaning beyond just looking pretty.

Schlosspost: What other books, comics, films, or artists have inspired your work?

DM: Artists that have inspired my work include Norman Rockwell, John Singer Sargent, Leyendecker, Kim Jung Gi, Anthony Jones, Ross Draws, Marciej Kuciera, Stanley Lau and Warren Louw. Some of the films that have had an impact on me are Lord of the Rings, Pulp Fiction, Ghost in the Shell, Akira, The Good the Bad and the Ugly and The Matrix.

My two favorite novels that may have influenced me are Nervous Conditions by Tsitisi Dangarembwa and Anthills of the Savannah by Chinuha Achebe.

Schlosspost: How do you do research?

DM: My primary source of research is the Internet. The availability of mobile Internet has made it easy to learn anything. I spend a lot of time online looking at African tribes, models, nudes, interesting shapes, fashion, hard-surfaces, sci-fi and fantasy. I sketch out ideas in the form of little thumbnails to explore the shapes and the overall graphic read. When I find I can’t draw or paint something easily and from memory, I investigate and study using reference until I acquire better understanding of the problem.

Schlosspost: One of the main subjects of your digital paintings are beautiful and very strong, powerful women of color. How do you deal with gender and racial stereotypes here?

DM: In most African cultures women are subordinate to men. The patriarchal construct often undermines women. For me there is a mysterious strength and beauty that African women possess. I am interested in bringing out the mythical quality of African women in my artwork. I paint a lot of characters of color as a desire to see my people portrayed in a positive light, with dignity, grace, and wonder.

Schlosspost: How would you describe your specific artistic style and what are your tools?

DM: My artistic style is a hybrid of the different artists I have admired over the years. It leans toward stylized realism. The tools I use are a Wacom Intuos Drawing Tablet and Photoshop.

Schlosspost: You mainly exhibit your work on the Internet. What is your audience online?

DM: My online audience consists of Black Americans, aspiring artists, fashion designers, and random people from across the globe.

Interview by Clara Herrmann