People make marks. Shapes and letters, volumes and spaces. We lay lines down on paper to communicate and to inform, to motivate others or ourselves, or simply to have them exist. They can be measured in microns lifting from their substrate or by how deeply they penetrate their grounds; we can analyze how many pixels they occupy, or how much memory they use. It’s much more difficult to study the emotional weight of a line, though, to measure its incorporeal dimensions, or to quantify how much it matters.
The covers of the Shona language works that I selected from Manuscripts and Archives’ Pamphlet Collection are a riot of marks and lines of purpose, each evocative in its own way of the emotional and psychological shift that the generation of Shona people in the 1960s and 70s experienced as the unrecognized African state of Rhodesia moved toward its reconstitution as a republic.Charles Riley continues his exploration of the text of these materials.
“Authors of this generation whose works are featured here include Joyce Simango, the first female Shona novelist (Zviuya Zviri Mberi, ‘Good Things are Ahead’), John Marangwanda (Kumazivandadzoka, ‘Who Goes There Never Comes Back’),
the late poet Mordekai Hamutyinei (Maidei), and Amos Munjanja (Tsumo Nemadimikira, ‘Parables’, and Zvirahwe, ‘Riddles’).
“Ngugi wa’Thiongo, the renowned Kenyan author and literary critic, notes in Decolonising the Mind that the role of the Rhodesia Literature Bureau was to promote works that were not threatening to the colonial power, but even within those limitations there were substantial themes drawn out, including poverty in rural townships and the resultant urban migration.
“Restricted as they were, the works were still powerful enough for many of them to face censorship after Rhodesia’s declared unilateral independence under minority rule in 1965. The cover of one of Amos Munjanja’s works quotes a defiant Shona proverb, Tamba tamba chidembo muswe ndakabata—‘Play your skunk-tail tricks on me, but you will not succeed.’
“One of the figures to be interviewed after the Lancaster House Agreement, Father Emmanuel Ribeiro, had provided shelter in 1975 during Robert Mugabe’s escape into Mozambique from the Rhodesian Security Forces. The work of Father Ribeiro’s that had become part of the standard secondary school curriculum after having claimed the literature bureau’s prize in the mid-1960s examined the Shona view of ancestral spirits. Its cover is shown here, with the title Muchadura (‘You shall confess’).”
There are those who would challenge the significance of our marks, of art, or in understanding its power, attempt to inhibit it. Its purpose, its relevance, and its meaning have all come into question probably for as long as people have been making it. Perhaps it’s not surprising. Even during our epoch of neuroscience and of theoretical and philosophical aesthetics inquiry we still encounter a vociferous debate concerning art’s legitimacy and what role it should play in our lives. Even when science, culture, and art blur and our self-reflection plumbs ever deeper into the essence of humanness, we see censorship and antipathy aimed at art.
But then, art among all other things is here to challenge us. It’s a simultaneous reflection and critique of who we are at specific moment in history, and it’s become wed to our existence. As the authors and illustrators documenting the great change in Southeastern Africa have shown us, even in the face of repression, art thrives. Of course, no one has ever said that life is without its paradoxes.