In little over 12 months, mega-gallery David Zwirner has announced representation of no fewer than four influential North American painters: Dana Schutz, Katherine Bernhardt, Steven Shearer, and the estate of minimalist master Robert Ryman, recently won over from Pace Gallery.
Each artist represents a uniquely different brand of their mutually preferred medium and adds to the gallery's already formidable and diverse roster of the giants of contemporary painting, including Kerry James Marshall, Marlene Dumas, Luc Tuymans, Chris Ofili, Mamma Andersson, and Njideka Akunyili Crosby, to name but a few.
Amidst this array of high-profile artists, Zimbabwean painter Portia Zvavahera joined the gallery in April following a small solo presentation at their London gallery last autumn.
Indeed, Zvavahera's rise to mega-gallery stardom has happened somewhat more quietly, though she is now presenting her debut solo exhibition in New York at Zwirner's 19th Street gallery.
The exhibition is titled Ndakaoneswa murima, which translates from Shona to English rather ominously as 'I was made to see the dark side'. It is a fitting title for an artist whose work grapples with the nature of the human condition and spiritual revelations that appear to her through her dreams and nightmares.
The artist's large-scale canvases become a surface against which she records and interprets her disquieting inner visions, in an act of cathartic transformation.
Her paintings feature groupings of spectral human figures, occasionally encircled by otherworldly beasts, loosely rendered in oil stick, often arcing across the upper half of the canvas or plummeting diagonally, against a gestural wash of colour that forms the backdrop of the composition.
The defining feature of Zvavahera's works, however, are the explosive layers of meticulously printed patterns, which the artist gradually builds up using a batik wax-resist printing method.
In some instances, the cascading patterns cover her figures in a lace-like veil, or in others enshrouds them in a vibrant, floral setting, bringing a sense of movement to the otherwise relatively flat appearance of her work.
At 36 years old, Zvavahera is one of the blue-chip gallery's youngest artists. Born and currently based in Harare, she studied at its BAT Visual Arts Studio from 2003 to 2005, before obtaining her Diploma in Visual Arts from Harare Polytechnic in 2006.
It was not until 2014, however, that Zvavahera received her first solo show outside of Zimbabwe, when she was taken on by South Africa's Stevenson gallery, who now co-represent the artist with David Zwirner.
This early seal of approval from the highly respected Cape Town and Johannesburg-based gallery was a sure sign of things to come for Zvavahera.
Beginning with her participation in the Zimbabwe Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013, the artist has had a number of important institutional and biennial appearances. These include group shows at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (2017), Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow (2018), the 10th Berlin Biennale (2018), Pérez Art Museum Miami (2020), and Musée d'Art Moderne, Paris (2021).
Along with these exhibitions have come her first few museum acquisitions, including by the Johannesburg Art Gallery, Minneapolis Institute of Art, National Gallery of Zimbabwe, and Pérez Art Museum Miami, among others.
One might speculate that there were possibly a few other dealers vying for her representation in Europe and the U.S., following group shows at top commercial galleries on both sides of the Atlantic in recent years, including Stephen Friedman Gallery and Modern Art in London, and Andrew Kreps Gallery and David Lewis Gallery in New York.
More recently, secondary market demand appears to have begun for the work, too, with one 2019 painting flipped at Phillips last year selling in excess of double its high estimate.
In some respects, however, despite the growing momentum for her work institutionally and commercially in the last eight years or so, her work was still somewhat under the radar.
As David Zwirner himself commented in Artnews, the fact Zvavahera lives and works in Harare 'puts her outside the traditional centres of gravity of the art world, and that has given only a small group of collectors and curators a chance to see the work in person.' With her New York debut, this is surely about to change. —[O]
Main image: Portia Zvavahera, Zvandakaoneswa (What I was made to see) (2021) (detail). Oil based printing ink and oil bar on linen. Unframed: 209.6 x 297.8 cm; Framed: 210.5 x 301.3 x 7.9 cm. Signed and dated recto. Courtesy David Zwirner.