Nicholas Mukomberanwa startles the viewer with his remarkable work, Blanket of Blessings. In this sculpture, Mukomberanwa utilizes negative space in such a way that one is called upon to wonder which form is most important or significant - that which is there or that which is not? His stone shows the imprint of a man's face in what is most likely (judging from the title) a blanket. The blanket, existing as heavy, solid stone, is wrapped around the human form which exists solely as an impression. In the smooth hollow core we can distinguish the eyes, nose, mouth, so far as their forms manipulate the shape of the blanket.
Techniques incorporating negative space as an active element in the artwork are in many respects more challenging than other approaches. From the artist, great technical expertise and vision are necessary, while creativity in viewing and interpretation are required of the layperson. To wonder why the artist chose such a form to represent an idea is only natural. Which shape, the blanket or the man, does he wish to highlight?
I believe that once a piece of art is created, it exists as an entity separate from the artist. It is therefore subject to independent interpretation. The same piece may speak differently to many people. In a sense, it possesses a life and voice of its own. While discussing a piece and possible interpretations, we must remember this independence. Unless the artist has shared his specific vision, it is impossible to assign an absolute meaning, as intended by the creator, to the work. We can only go so far as to discuss the meaning as we derive from our own personal interpretations.
With this in mind I will share my own thoughts about Mukonberanwa's Blanket of Blessings. As I began to discuss earlier, the usage of negative space causes me to reflect upon the significance of each shape, both the blanket and the face. Which is most important? Is is possible to separate them? And what do they represent?
This last question could no doubt be answered innumerable ways. Having read several examples of Zimbabwean literature concerning the postcolonial state, I find myself returning to one possible interpretation. If we consider the human figure (or the impression thereof) in the sculpture as a native Zimbabwean, we can entertain the notion that the Blanket of Blessings surrounding him is an embodiment of the influences of White culture.
The relationship between native culture in Zimbabwe and the unavoidable infiltrations from White colonization is at the center of many postcolonial works. Most notable to this discusson is Tsitsi Dangarembga's novel, Nervous Conditions. Here we see Tambu struggling to move forward and better herself and her family through education. But the catch is that the education available to her is strained through the colonial systems of white influence. All of Tambu's goals are a result of contact with white society. What is considered "better" is actually just more white. She must struggle to maintain a sense of what is native and true while simultaneously sacrificing that precious identity in the name of economic survival. What is more important? Tambu's native identity or the economic benefits of acculturation into white society? What is more important? The blanket or the wearer?
Mukomberanwa's sculpture, while not necessarily representing this specific issue is important in that the utilization of negative space and the very structure of his work highlights the relationship between the blanket and the figure around which it is wrapped. Similar forms of such a relationship exist elsewhere. Assigning analogous properties to Mukomberanwa's Blanket of Blessings allows us to examine those other relationships from a new vantage point. Mukomberanwa may not have intended for his blanket to represent white culture, but it is a possible interpretation which provides us with a new perspective from which to consider the impact of white colonization upon native society. Is it such that the impact of white culture is now the most substantial element in Zimbabwe's society? Is native culture reduced to a mere imprint?
We will not find absolute answers to such questions, just as we cannot say with absolute certainty that Mukomberanwa intended such an interpretation of his work. But by asking them we are enhancing our own understandings, both of the artistic piece and the greater issue of colonization and its inevitable consequences.