By Emmanuel KaNdlovu
Whether you are walking down JMN Nkomo Street or Leopold Takawira Avenue, where these two intersect something is bound to catch your eye. The usually abuzz outer side of The Douslin House, home of the National Gallery in Bulawayo (NGB) is atypically empty. The only people around what has come to be the unspoken official meet up point are those dropping off from ZUPCOs at the adjacent bus stop. The usual denizens are probably locked down safely in their homes trying to maintain the new norm of social distancing.
At second glance, there is more to the scenario. The visibly freshly brightened walls, barricading tape enclosing the historical building, ladders and a handful of men at work, all clad in construction protective gear suggest a different story. The refurbishment of this historical monument is in full swing. This is just but a fraction of the enormous work going on inside the closed doors and with an even bigger significance to the Gallery staffers and affiliates.
The Technical Officer at the NGB, David Nyahanana, who is responsible for all maintenance works, praised the move to renovate saying the dilapidated state of the building was an eyesore, one he is thrilled to see being addressed before his nearing retirement.
“Having worked at the Gallery for 20 years, when I first got here, the building was in a better state, ten years down the line things started to deteriorate. The roofs started leaking, the ceilings were damaged and the paint on the walls started wearing out,” Nyahanana shared.
“When the current Director got here, I brought up the issue that the building was in serious need of a facelift and I am happy he has worked tirelessly to achieve this and now I am going to retire a happy man having seen the renovations materialise, a badge of honour in essence and a most welcome one at that, ” he added.
For one of the longest serving members, Stanley Matengwa, a pensioner who was with the NGB for 37 years and recently called back in to assist in the delicate process of framing artworks and painting, this is a development he long wished for when he was still part of the institution. His personal hopes and those he holds for the Gallery have been refreshed.
Matengwa said, “I started working at the Gallery when I was 28, I literally grew up here and the place has taught me a lot of valuable lessons. One of the treasures I walked away with is how I left as a sculptor even though I had no knowledge whatsoever of the art. This place really means a lot to me and to witness its transformation in this lifetime is a dream come true.”
He also revealed that once the renovations are done, the NGB will be well in place competing in the same standards as some international galleries he has seen on his travels.
Renowned visual artist and an affiliate of the NGB, Fisani Nkomo, expressed how the renovations are going to play a pivotal role in uplifting the spirits of not only the resident artists but more so of the art community at large. For him, the renovations go way beyond the physical improvement of the space but its content as well.
“My role was to assist the photographer to capture images of the art collections and so I was removing them from frames, especially those that were under glass, get them photographed and get them back in their frames. I then had a suggestion that while we are at it, let’s clean the artworks so they are also in a better state,” Nkomo said.
“To me, the art collection is a very important part of any Gallery because it is the core, it is what we look at when we talk about the place’s worth. It is then important to keep these pieces of heritage very safe as they bring out the past, the present and the future; they are a journey really, an art movement journey that outlines how and where we are today with contemporary art. I am in high spirits knowing the renovations have made it possible for the permanent collection to be preserved in an improved state,” he added.
On a recent tour of the premises, Regional Director of the Gallery Butholezwe Nyathi revealed the renovations are now at an advanced stage and are expected to be complete by October.
The makeover is courtesy of the Australian and the Switzerland Embassy who donated US$51,000 and US$50,000 respectively.
“The donation from Switzerland was not entirely for the renovations. They specifically supported the refurbishment of the visiting artists’ accommodation facility, the solar system, storage rails for the permanent collection and air conditioners. The rest of the developments were sponsored by Australia,” Nyathi shared.
Other developments include the ongoing floor sanding process at the Anglo-American and completed floors at the Marshal Barron galleries. The lighting system at the property has been upgraded to an LED lighting system for an improved quality and a more gratifying aesthetic appeal. The galleries have been furnished with sensor lights for energy saving purposes, all in line with a green energy system as 60% of the Gallery is now solar powered.
The small galleries have been touched up from ceiling to the floors. New tiles have been put in different parts of the building. New air conditioners have been installed at the John Knight Cinema and the Permanent Collection room while the fan at the Lecture Theatre has been replaced by an air conditioner to complement the new look of the room in a move to increase the value of the place, the Director noted.
There is a new dry wall, fireproof Ethnography Collection storage facility aimed at preserving the invaluable objects while the Permanent Collection room has been upgraded with a further six new holding rails that have expanded the facility’s capacity to hold more artworks. The two newly installed air conditioners in the space will go a long way in the conservation of the artworks as they require to be kept under regulated temperatures. The ceiling that was rotting away due to roof leakages and the roof itself that covers this area have been replaced.
A new stage adorns the sculpture garden/ courtyard. Events such as the high-flying Friday Late are to move from inside the galleries to the courtyard in preserving the quality of the newly refurbished floors. Food stalls during events such as this will now line up at the staff parking bays which have also had the roof replaced and new lights installed. The economic value of this space has been taken to a whole new level.
With digital arts fast taking centre stage in the world over, a Digital Arts Centre facility aimed at availing space for young creatives has been initiated. The space was used for storage prior the renovations. It has since been cleared and repurposed. Works here have included plastering the walls, tiling the floors and installing a ceiling. Once the area is furnished with tables, chairs and the Wi-Fi range extended, it will be all systems go.
The Accommodation facility for visiting artists has also been touched up with a new ceiling, painted walls, new tiles and improved ablution areas. It now makes for decent habitation.
The renovation waste scattered in the courtyard is indicative of the amount of work that is going on at the NGB. Months of labour-intensive work are fast shaping up. The changes to the colossal building are becoming more and more pleasantly visible by day. It is a series of small things that have definitely made a whole lot of difference.
Nyathi revealed the lockdown has been a silver lining in the NGB clouds.
He said, “We have managed to carry out these renovations with no interference from the public and went on to clean artworks and rearrange them, something we wouldn’t have gotten a chance to do under normal circumstances.”
The Director also shared plans to have the bus stop near the Gallery entrance relocated as it takes away from the ambience associated with galleries. He revealed he has since engaged the city fathers on this matter.
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