The opportunity to paint in a Third World jail excited him: all those
It is possible,
Governor Kanengoni said. You know, I have always wanted my portrait
Thats also possible, Cochrane said. He was learning
the way things worked in Zimbabwe.
The Governor sat back in his chair, linked his hands over his pot-belly,
and studied the artist.
Cochrane allowed the Governor to ponder. The florid man was obviously
driven by self-interest. That wasn't a problem for Cochrane, in fact it
suited him. His own motives were not altruistic. He was on a bursary from
the British Council. It had been his final attempt at the grant. Next
year hed be forty too old to qualify as a young artist. This
was a last chance to resuscitate his career. He planned to paint the inmates
and shadows of this prison. What he had in mind was to emulate the portraits
of his fellow Scot, Peter Howson. He would capture these thugs in all
their grim reality. The opportunity to paint in a Third World jail excited
him: all those hardened cons; those brutal black faces.
Friday at two Oclock? Kanengoni asked. Why not? If this
whiteman wanted to give prisoners art lessons, let him. It would be good
Perfect,' Cochrane said. 'But I want volunteers, okay?
When his visitor had gone, Kanengoni rang a cousin who worked for The
Herald. After theyd exchanged jocular greetings, they got down to
horse-trading. The cousin agreed to come to come on Friday and promised
a front-page piece. And yes, he could bring a photographer.
But things are tough these days, he said.
Kanengoni clucked. These days even family wanted kick-back. In veiled
terms the two men negotiated the price of publicity. Then they wished
each other the best of health and prosperity. Kanengoni rang off and called
his Chief of Warders, Muzenda.
Clean one of the huts, he instructed, smarten the place
up. Yes, I know they are full of prisoners. Squeeze them in somewhere.
And select ten men to do this art course.
Kanengoni hung up. He knew Muzenda would sell places to the highest bidders
or those who did the warders particular favours. Everyone needed a little
Cochrane turned up on Friday and was ushered to the freshly painted hut.
Judging by the stench that had assailed his nostrils as he passed through
the prison the rest of the place was nowhere near as sanitary. After almost
an hour the prisoners were delivered, closely guarded by four warders.
Half an hour later the reporter and photographer arrived. Twenty minutes
after that Kanengoni entered, beaming, booming greetings and pumping flesh.
By the time the Governor had had his photo taken with Cochrane and the
reporter had his facts straight it was almost four thirty. Finally Kanengoni
and the men from The Herald left.
Cochrane sighed and surveyed the class. They were a disappointment. Not
one could have been more than twenty-five. There wasnt a lantern-jaw
or scarred cheek among them: no iron muscles, no tattoos, nothing. So
much for hard men, this lot were emaciated and shy. Each wore shorts and
a ragged vest. They didnt return his scrutiny but lowered their
eyes and studied their bare feet. The guards stationed in the corners
looked on impassively. Muzenda entered without knocking. Gaunt, the Chief
of Warders trailed a malignance that made Cochrane shiver. The left sleeve
of his uniform jacket was empty, the cuff pinned to the shoulder. He announced
that time was up. Cochrane begged for five minutes. Finally - though with
evident bad grace - Muzenda conceded and left. Cochrane turned to the
Have any of you painted before?
No one spoke or looked at him.
Have you done any art at all?
Silence. Then a warder barked something in Shona and one of the men raised
I carved stone for tourists, he offered meekly.
Cochrane had seen the artefacts that littered roadside markets across
the country. They were stock designs hippos, elephants, eagles
- hardly what hed call art.
Anyone else? One or two shook their heads.
Well, by next week I want you all to produce something, right?
But Boss, one said, we have no papers and penny-sills.
Its a challenge, Cochrane said. Use whatever medium
er - whatever you can find. But you must make something, understand?
The warder pronounced a single word, obviously a threat, and the prisoners
nodded. Then they were herded out.
Thanks, Cochrane said to the vocal warder, wondering how to
get rid of him on the next visit.
Sah! the man said, coming to attention and saluting. He stayed
that way, eyes fixed on Cochrane. He was almost as shabbily dressed as
the prisoners: his uniform faded and frayed, his boots down-at-heel. Cochrane
felt uncomfortable. Should he say At Ease? Eventually it dawned. He produced
Thank you, Sah.
The following week the prisoners were delivered just fifteen minutes late.
With the aid of a little cash, Cochrane arranged with his friend,
the vocal warder, for just one guard, the youngest and hopefully least
intimidating, to remain.
So what have you got for me? Cochrane asked the class. No
one answered but there was an audible shuffling of feet. You?
he addressed the stone carver. Dont be shy.
Reluctantly the man produced a portion of brick. It had been hewn into
the form of a lion.
Good, Cochrane said. Now tell us what it means to you.
It is lion, Boss.
Going around the group resulted in similar responses. One man had drawn
his house. Three others had pencil sketches of animals. All the drawings
were childishly simple. There was a cartoon car, a crude sunset collage,
and a cut-out crocodile with jaws that opened. The penultimate exhibit
was a wire figure a footballer, its maker claimed. The guard in
the corner dozed off.
The inmates descriptions of their work had something in common.
Apart from the man whod drawn his house, there was no personal connection
between the art and the individual; and there was no hint of prison.
And you? Cochrane asked the last one.
The man unrolled a sketch, obviously a self-portrait, done in blacks and
browns. The portrait ended at shoulder level. The head was bowed and the
eyes closed. The face conveyed anguish. The picture was deliberately smudged
and streaked. Lines flared, suggesting pent-up rage. Bold background strokes
gave the definite impression of confinement. The picture crackled with
an energy that could barely be held on the paper. Cochrane drew breath.
For years hed been a sometime critic. Indeed, he earned more from
commenting on other peoples art than from producing his own. Hed
grown used to looking for contrivance. At a glance he could tell the technique
used to convey a feeling. Hed rubbished more paintings than he cared
to remember - though, of course, he made the right noises about the right
people. But it was years since a work of art had moved him. He hadnt
felt a stirring like this since, as a student, he made a pilgrimage to
the galleries of Europe. It was an awesome feeling, one he hadnt
realised he no longer felt. He cleared his throat.
And what does it mean to you? The artist raised his head and
looked Cochrane straight in the eyes.
It means I have lost my freedom. It means I am beaten.
I see, Cochrane said, tearing his eyes from the picture. So
um - what did you use as paint?
It is the dirt of this place: black from the walls, filth from the
The guard stirred noisily then lapsed back into his slumber.
It is my own dirt too, the young man said.
Whats your name?
Cochrane visited the prison for the next eleven weeks. He was never allowed
to view let alone paint - the more sordid corners. Confined to
his hut, he introduced the class to various techniques and media. The
men enjoyed the sessions not surprising given the alternative was
digging ditches under the blistering sun. Kanengoni hired out the prisoners
While the class worked Cochrane would sketch one of them. He found himself
trying to catch the passion of Absolem Kumalo. The man was easy with any
media. He grasped and enhanced any technique. Artistically he was a natural;
he couldn't put a foot wrong. As a prisoner though, he obviously could.
Hed invariably arrive in class bearing some injury. Hed limp
into the classroom holding his ribcage or his face would be battered.
What happened? Cochrane asked quietly one day. He stood behind
Absolem, watching in awe as the young man produced a charcoal study of
his cell. Six men slept on the floor, crowded together with no blankets.
The perspective was devastating.
I refused to let them use me, Absolem said through swollen
The following week Cochrane brought materials selected for each individual
and gave each a project. For Absolem he bought a sized canvas and oil
I want a portrait, he said. Absolem looked at him. One eye
was closed, bruised purple and red.
We havent much time, so itll have to be impressionistic.
Absolem held the stretched canvas and stared at it as if it were gold.
Or a pardon.
I want you to paint the Governor. Can you do that? But Absolem
had already taken up his brush.
Cochrane spent his time sketching Absolem absorbed, a brush clenched between
his teeth. Halfway through the session Muzenda visited. He motioned Cochrane
to remain seated. The guard woke blearily then snapped to attention. Muzenda
patrolled the room, studying the prisoners handiwork. His presence
made them nervous. The sculptor dropped his chisel and the one who worked
with wire cut himself.
Only Absolem was unperturbed. He laboured with furious intensity. Muzenda
moved to stand behind him. The Chief of Warders looked at the canvas and
Cochrane saw his normally expressionless face contort. Finally disturbed,
Absolem looked up. He and Muzenda stared at each other. The Chief of Warders
turned and walked away. On the way out his empty sleeve snagged on the
doorframe and tore. He didnt halt.
At the end of the session the men were marched out. Cochrane took his
time. He looked in turn at what each had done. He left Absolems
painting until last, but he couldnt keep from glancing at the canvas:
it dominated the room. Eventually, he stood before the painting. But he
kept his eyes cast down, studying paint stains on the floor. Then he lifted
his gaze and saw.
For the last session Cochrane turned up early. The prisoners were delivered
twenty minutes late. They filed in and sat at the worktables. A guard
stationed himself in each corner. Cochrane frowned and surveyed his class.
Wheres Absolem? No one replied. All eyes were directed
away. Cochrane turned to the warder he usually paid-off not to be there.
Attempted to escape, Sah.
There was a small exhibition of the prisoners work in the National
Gallery. Kanengoni made a speech. The British High Commissioner responded,
saying how delighted he was with Cochranes project. The Herald took
pictures. The prisoners were permitted to attend but were removed before
cocktails. Muzenda went with them.
In London, Cochranes exhibition of his Zimbabwean work opened to
extraordinarily favourable reviews. It was compared to Howsons paintings
from the Bosnian war and emerged triumphant. His spare style and dramatic
images were contrasted to the languor of Lucien Freud. The painting that
received most attention was a portrait executed in red, green and bursts
of white. A gross satanic presence dominated. He held strings that stretched
to other figures. Each demonic puppet was engaged in an act of brutality.
In the scene that drew the eye, a one-armed demon sodomised a young man.
The victim held a paintbrush clenched between his teeth.
© Kelvin Mason 2001
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