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Kelvin Mason

The opportunity to paint in a Third World jail excited him: all those hardened cons;

‘It is possible,’ Governor Kanengoni said. ‘You know, I have always wanted my portrait painted.
‘That’s 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 he’d 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 O’clock?’ Kanengoni asked. Why not? If this whiteman wanted to give prisoners art lessons, let him. It would be good publicity.
‘Perfect,' Cochrane said. 'But I want volunteers, okay?’

When his visitor had gone, Kanengoni rang a cousin who worked for The Herald. After they’d 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 pork fat.

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 wasn’t 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 didn’t 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 class.
‘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 his head.
‘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 he’d 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.’
‘It’s 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 twenty-dollars.
‘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. ‘Don’t 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 who’d 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 he’d been a sometime critic. Indeed, he earned more from commenting on other people’s art than from producing his own. He’d grown used to looking for contrivance. At a glance he could tell the technique used to convey a feeling. He’d 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 hadn’t 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 hadn’t 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 corners.’
The guard stirred noisily then lapsed back into his slumber.
‘It is my own dirt too,’ the young man said.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Absolem Kumalo.’

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 as labour.

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. He’d invariably arrive in class bearing some injury. He’d 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 lips.
‘Use you?’
‘The warders.’
The following week Cochrane brought materials selected for each individual and gave each a project. For Absolem he bought a sized canvas and oil paints.
‘I want a portrait,’ he said. Absolem looked at him. One eye was closed, bruised purple and red.
‘We haven’t much time, so it’ll 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 didn’t 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 Absolem’s painting until last, but he couldn’t 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.
‘Where’s 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.’
‘Is he...’
‘Dead, 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 Cochrane’s project. The Herald took pictures. The prisoners were permitted to attend but were removed before cocktails. Muzenda went with them.

In London, Cochrane’s exhibition of his Zimbabwean work opened to extraordinarily favourable reviews. It was compared to Howson’s 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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