Zimbabwean artist Helen Teede’s latest body of work, Unhomed, was triggered by the impending loss of the home where she grew up and still lives in with her parents. The artist began by pouring out her feelings of sadness, loss of identity, fear, confusion, insecurity and uncertainty onto her canvasses. But her personal exploration of the relationship between home, identity and stability gradually grew into a wider investigation of migration and displacement. Teede’s emotional, abstract paintings tell the story of her personal journey of disentangling herself from her safe, secure home; but they also speak about the suffering of the millions of people who have lost their homes, their identity and much more, in Zimbabwe and across the world.
“I grew up in a cottage on a small holding on the outskirts of Harare which has a river running at the bottom and open space around it. All my childhood memories are based in this place and it is a big part of my identity, so uprooting myself from this home is very difficult for me. But I also realise that I am fortunate to have had a home that was a place of comfort and stability. When I looked at what home means to others such as victims of domestic abuse, migrants and exiles, my narrow, idealistic notion of home, and my attempts to come to terms with losing it, grew into an ongoing body of research about the unhomed, in the past and the present,” Teede says.
The artist has borrowed the word ‘unhomed’ from the writings of Homi K. Bhabha, a leading figure in contemporary post-colonial studies. In his book, The Location of Culture, Bhabha has used it to refer to the experience of migrants and post-colonial people who have lost a sense of home because they have physically moved away, or because a familiar place has undergone radical change to become unrecognisable, and even frightening.
“For me, being unhomed is about my home becoming more and more unfamiliar as I am disentangling myself from it while still living there. Although it is a place of comfort, it is also associated with the terror of being forced to leave. In my paintings, I have tried to capture that uncanny, frightening feeling when a seemingly safe and stable place becomes something other, and outside. But in a broader sense, ‘unhomed’ also deals with the idea of displacement and exile, with the hostility towards people who are perceived as strangers, and the misplaced belief that when someone loses their home, they also lose their moral structure. With so many people being unhomed in recent times, these are topics we need to grapple with,” Teede says.
Before starting her paintings, the artist left her canvasses out on the verandah of her house for many months, so that they are all marked by the rain, fixing fleeting moments from that specific place forever onto the background.
In a series titled, Spaces of (Un)belonging, she walked around the property drawing maps of her memories on the rain-drenched canvasses. The maps feature abstracted images, and handwritten notes about things such as the sound of tree frogs at night and the excitement of watching her puppy take its first walk around her home. Juxtaposed with these warm, emotional elements are cold geometric graphics suggesting her changing relationship with the place.
“This whole exhibition is a chronology of my journey. My first rain paintings indicate my emotionally fraught state, reflecting the feeling of chaos and losing control. But later I realised that my home forms my soul structure and even though I am leaving it, it will always be there with me. This is reflected in a series of paintings titled, Soul Structures, where the sadness, and instability are visible, but there is also a sense of calm and acceptance. But losing the stability of my home in an otherwise unstable environment led me to start questioning my identity as a white Zimbabwean and my connection to the land. This is seen in a painting titled Uprooted, which expresses the pain of a tree being pulled out from the ground,” Teede says.
To prepare herself for the move from the countryside to the city of Harare, the artist later painted a series, titled Tactics of Habitat, that explores how people adapt to their habitat, and find ways to survive in it. She also tried to organise her chaotic thoughts and emotions through a series of paintings, titled Shifting Grounds.
“The title reflects the shift in my relationship with my home and the shift in my mental process and attitude, when I started looking beyond myself at what is happening in the world and what home means to other people. I also realised that in the contemporary context, being unhomed is a modern, urban condition of living in a landscape that is changing rapidly, and today, for many people home is simply where their smart phone or laptop is. The many layers in these paintings, which include the rain marks from my home, green washes reflecting the rural landscape, representations of the chaos of the city, and peaceful stretches of white with symbolic belongings carefully organised on them, are a metaphor for my journey from being self-centred and fearing change to looking at the larger picture and rebuilding a new identity,” the artist says.
The final step in the journey is a series, The Intimate Recesses of the Domestic Space Become Sites for History’s Most Intricate Invasions, where Teede has again borrowed a phrase from Bhabha to express the idea that rather than identifying oneself with a certain place with fixed borders, one must learn to live with changing spaces and dynamics.
“This amazing journey has taught me that it does not matter where I am from and where my home is, as long as I create my identity structure in a way that is open and sensitive to others. The most important message of this work is to have empathy towards those who are being unhomed and uprooted from familiar ground. The fact is that Western colonisers in Zimbabwe and other places were intolerant towards people living in their own homeland, and today the intolerance of Westerners is directed towards people, who are being forced to leave their homeland. So it is important to talk about a shared humanity and a commitment to be of a place and of a time that makes genuine tolerance and reconciliation possible,” Teede says.
Unhomed will run at Showcase Gallery, Alserkal Avenue, until May 13.