Portia Zvavahera - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Tuesday, October 20, 2020 | Phillips

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  • Overview

    A large swath of blue paint dominates Portia Zvavahera’s Arising from the Unknown, only partially concealing the human silhouette that ascends at its centre. Characteristic of Zvavahera’s otherworldly aesthetic, Arising from the Unknown evokes the transcendental realm of dreams, whereby the artist’s subconscious reveals itself through complex layers of painting. Created on the occasion of her important 2019 show ‘Talitha Cumi’ – signifying ‘Little girl, I say to you, get up!’ in the ancient Semitic language of Aramaic – the present composition embodies the artist’s preoccupation with the spiritual, materialised in compelling portraits of pain and pleasure, isolation and connection, love and loss. ‘Talitha Cumi’, positing as a titular reference to one of three miracles performed by Jesus in the fifth chapter of the Gospel of St. Mark, alludes to the specific moment Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead. Mimicking the biblical episode with delicate lines and atmospheric tones, the present work masterfully depicts the magical levitation of a featureless body, possibly lifted by a superior force. As synthesised by Nkgopoleng Moloi, Zvavahera’s work ‘takes on spiritual significance and becomes an instrument of faith – it presents itself as therapy and prayer’.i

    'For Zvavahera, [dreams] function as an enduring understructure upon which she has built her career-long exploration of spirituality and memory through ceaseless experimentation.' —Nkgopoleng MoloiDevising a language of dreams and mysticism on idiosyncratically palimpsestic surfaces, Zvavahera’s works boast a meditative quality that visually aligns with the ethereal compositions of Gustav Klimt. Born in 1985 in Juru, and currently living and working in Harare, the artist furthermore imparts her work with passages of figuration that have occurred in past and present Zimbabwe. Tessellating such visual references in her uniquely surreal compositions, Zvavahera encloses her painted protagonists in weblike ornamentations that exude lush shades of crimson, purple and blue, and transforms them into lingering visions, akin to textured poetry. A wondrous example of this practice, Arising from the Unknown characteristically weaves ‘intimate moments, carried through by a stillness or more appropriately, a very low frequency of sound and movement’, manifesting ‘a tension between the tangible and intangible.’ii As elucidated by the artist, the image came to her as a response to a specific dream she had, whereby God freed her from a flock of volatile animals by lifting her body away from the ground.


    Image: Bridgeman Images
    Gustav Klimt, Die Hoffnung II, 1907-1908, oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Image: Bridgeman Images. 

    Spirituality and Femininity


    The present work’s portrayal of a transitional moment – capturing the floating presence of a human being between life and death – furthermore materialises in the sense of movement suggested by the picture’s narrative. While the central figure ascends through the force of its biblical reference, the amorphous shape covering its contours girates in circular motion. In Arising from the Unknown, painterly technique transforms into moving form, as Zvavahera ‘layers gesture upon gesture resulting in densely textured works’.iii This sense of movement, in turn, suggests a possibility of meaning located beyond the spiritual, echoing Athi Mongezeleli Joja’s belief that the artist’s compositions usually transcend their referential grounding, and ‘suggest a kind of aggrieved feminine interiority’.iv With its deep colours, lace-like patterns and ghostlike subject matter, Arising from the Unknown alludes to the possibility of bith and re-birth, anchoring its physicality at the intersection of feminity and spirituality. In other words, ‘the figures depicted become archetypal expressions of feminine experiences of faith, relationship and motherhood’.v


    Zvavahera’s Journey


    Following her studies at the BAT Visual Arts Studio under the auspices of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe between 2003 and 2005, Zvavahera obtained a Visual Arts diploma from Harare Polytechnic in 2006. In 2013, at the age of twenty-eight, she was asked to represent Zimbabwe at the Venice Biennale, as part of the exhibition Dudziro: Interrogating the Visions of Religious Beliefs. ‘Her paintings at the Zimbabwean pavilion stood out with both their spiritual focus and their raw and down-to-earth physicality’, wrote Netsayi.vi Developing thoughts into scribbles, and scribbles into paintings, Zvevehara continued refining her painterly idiom, transcending temporal movements and geographic borders. ‘It's part of a mystique she has nurtured since her star began rising’, wrote Percy Mabandu.vii  Indeed, gradual recognition springboarded her to the international stage, and her oeuvre today keeps garnering increasing momentum.


    present work

    i Nkgopoleng Moloi, ‘Sacred Shapes, Transcendent Paint: Portia Zvavahera’s “Talitha Cumi”’, ArtThrob, 30 May 2019, online.
    ii Nkgopoleng Moloi, ‘Sacred Shapes, Transcendent Paint: Portia Zvavahera’s “Talitha Cumi”’, ArtThrob, 30 May 2019, online.
    iii Nkgopoleng Moloi, ‘Sacred Shapes, Transcendent Paint: Portia Zvavahera’s “Talitha Cumi”’, ArtThrob, 30 May 2019, online.
    iv Nkgopoleng Moloi, ‘Sacred Shapes, Transcendent Paint: Portia Zvavahera’s “Talitha Cumi”’, ArtThrob, 30 May 2019, online.
    v Press release for Portia Zvavahera: Wayfinding, 2014, Stevenson, reproduced online
    vi Netasyi, ‘Portia Zvavahera by Netsayi’, BOMB Magazine, 15 December 2015, online.
    vii Percy Mabandu, ‘A haunted brilliance issues from Portia Zvavahera’s paintings’, Times Live, 15 January 2017, online.

    • Provenance

      Stevenson, Johannesburg
      Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Johannesburg, Stevenson, Portia Zvavahera Talitha Cumi, 18 May - 11 July 2019
      New York, Andrew Kreps Gallery, Moshekwa Langa, Viviane Sassen, Portia Zvavahera, 25 October - 21 December 2019


Arising from the Unknown

signed and dated 'Portia Zvavahera 19' lower left
oil-based printing ink and oil bar on canvas
198.8 x 148.9 cm (78 1/4 x 58 5/8 in.)
Executed in 2019.

Full Cataloguing

£40,000 - 60,000 

Sold for £163,800

Contact Specialist

Kate Bryan
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+44 20 7318 4026

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 20 October 2020