Chicago Global Artist: Zimbabwean filmmaker and novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga

Dangarembga, whose first novel was published when she was only 25, is considered one of Africa’s greatest writers.

May 6, 2013

Chicago’s rich and lively arts and culture scene is due no doubt to our deep bench of homegrown talents.

However, our city has also been marked in significant ways by artists from around the world.

Many of their contributions have been grandly public. The Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza and Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate are notable for their trajectory from daunting sculptural objects to beloved playground-style icons.

More ephemeral projects include Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s 1969 project to wrap the Museum of Contemporary Art, a move which made art history and elevated the reputation of both the artists and the MCA.

But we can’t always see the ways global artists work in Chicago. Some come for very brief spells. And as artists in residence at small cultural organizations or universities, their opportunities to meet with a broader public can be limited, or fly under the radar.

In an effort to give more visibility to their work and to provide opportunities for you to interact with these artists, we’re launching a new global arts initiative on WBEZ’s international affairs show Worldview. Every few weeks I’ll profile an artist who has made her way to Chicago, for a brief or longer spell.

First up: Tsitsi Dangarembga.

Dangarembga came to Chicago about four years ago, to give a talk at Northwestern University. Based on that appearance, along with raves from some of his graduate students (who said her novels changed their lives), Reginald Gibbons invited her back, as the 2013 Spring Writer in Residence at the Center for the Writing Arts.

Dangarembga’s career can be measured by a number of firsts. Her debut novel Nervous Conditions, published when she was only 25, was also the first novel written in English by a black Zimbabwean woman.

When she moved on to filmmaking she also broke ground. Neria (1992), based on her screenplay, became the highest grossing feature in Zimbabwean history. And when Dangarembga made her own film, Everybody’s Child in 1996, she became the first black Zimbabwean woman to direct a full length feature.

None of this came easy. Nobody in Zimbabwe would publish Dangarembga’s novel, apparently because her coming of age tale, about the treatment of women in a newly independent Zimbabwe, wasn’t deemed representative of African women.

And Dangarembga’s style is challenging.  Take a look at the trailer for her film Kare Kare Zvako (Mother’s Day). The ‘folk tale musical’ is a fantastical tale with a lively soundtrack of an abusive man who attempts to satisfy his greedy soul by consuming his wife.

Still, Dangarembga continued to make art. Nervous Conditions, which is widely considered one of the greatest African novels, proved to be the opening salvo in what is now a trilogy. The second volume The Book of Not was published in 2006 and Dangarembga’s looking for a publisher for the final volume Chronicle of an Indomitable Daughter.

She’s also continued to develop an international presence. Dangarembga gave a Tedx talk in Harare, in which she used her cat’s behavior as an opportunity for an amusing take on the rather depressing state of Zimbabwe - and human nature more generally. And Kare Kare Zvako screened at Sundance in 2005.

But most importantly, she’s done a little institution building in Harare. After forming her own film company Nyerai, she merged it with Women Filmmaker of Zimbabwe to create a platform for women filmmakers. Since 2002, they’ve hosted the International Images Film Festival for Women.

That Dangarembga has been able to do that with the very limited means and opportunities available in Zimbabwe, is instructive as we ponder the role of artists in Chicago, and wonder if we’re creating the conditions which allow art to flourish.

By the way I’d love to hear your suggestions if you know of any global artists who are new to Chicago and working here on a temporary or permanent basis. Email me acuddy@wbez.org

Alison Cuddy is WBEZ’s Arts and Culture reporter. Follow her @wbezacuddy, on Facebook and on Instagram.