“Travel abroad opportunities offer students ‘the bigger picture’; they instill global consciousness,” said Chido Johnson, Fine Arts professor and section chair of Sculpture at the College for Creative Studies. “This is something that can’t be learned sitting inside a classroom; it must be experienced.”
In summer 2016, nine students from CCS travelled to Africa to explore, research and collaborate with 10 artists and designers from Chinhoyi University of Technology (CUT), about 75 miles outside of Harare. The study abroad was led by Johnson, faculty member and alumnus Adam Shirley (’93, Crafts) and award-winning documentary filmmaker Kumbulani Zamuchiya.
“While I’ve led other study abroad courses,” Johnson said, “this particular trip was especially meaningful. I grew up in Zimbabwe and wanted to share my experience of Africa with my students. So many of the art schools in the West are based on an assumed global definition of art and design. This experience gave students the chance to consider critical differences in theory and technology between two cultures — to examine art/design in context to its origin and purpose. Ultimately, our understanding of the complexities of Zimbabwe helped us to understand the complexities we face creating art in Detroit.”
The three-week study abroad grew out of a partnership between CCS and the Zimbabwe Cultural Centre of Detroit (ZCCD). Co-founded by Johnson and Zamuchiya, the centre encourages collaboration between artists of all disciplines from Detroit and Zimbabwe.
“Careful pairing of the students was crucial to the success of this exchange,” explained Zamuchiya, whose films often focus on human rights and social justice issues. “So often, students become comfortable in their own space. Then, there’s a self-realization that happens after college when they start to see the reality of the world. These types of collaborations help artists to realize themselves—to see beyond limits and discover how their work is received from a broader audience. It gives them hope and something more to aspire to through their work.”
Adam Shirley, who teaches welding and sculpture at CCS, describes his visit to the African country as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. “Traveling has taught me a great deal about my own culture and sense of self,” said Shirley. “The opportunity to experience the art being created in Zimbabwe, steeped in tradition and natural materials, has impacted my work immensely both in the studio and in the classroom. It has given me a broader sense of perspective.”
The Detroit–Zimbabwe experience also had powerful effects on the lives and work of CCS and CUT students, who collaborated on projects and, as a result, experienced their own shifts in perspective — on artistic practice and on life.
CCS Fashion Accessories Design major Jonilyn Paige registered for the Detroit-Zimbabwe travel abroad after speaking with department chair Aki Choklat about her visit to Namibia in 2015. Paige missed Africa and was eager to return so she could learn how to use her design skills in a way that helped people facing persecution. For her research, she decided to learn about life a refugee camp.
“While I was at the camp, I heard stories of terror from brewing wars in the Congo and Burundi to past genocides in Rwanda, said Paige. “Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw. You can’t just Google ‘refugee camp images’ and get the full picture. You wouldn’t know that although the Rwandan genocide ended in 1994, there are still thousands of people displaced, floating from one refugee camp to another because their families were murdered while they were children, and they don’t have a home to go back to.
“Once I got to the camp, I found something I was not expecting: the true meaning of happiness.” I saw how people who were on the brink of death cherished every moment that they had. I also discovered their creativity and innovation! The experience made me realize that despite the rigors of living in these camps, there is still a lot I can do as a designer to help them.”
Paige’s interaction with refugees helped shape her concept for a new accessory that functions as a means of food storage. “My goal was to see what the everyday life of a refugee was like. How can I create a product for clients if I don’t know their story? I wanted to see if my product would be a necessity and, if not, what exactly would benefit them? This experience taught me that there is a real need for my idea.”
Growing as an Artist
Fine Arts major Sarah Sandusky decided to pursue the Detroit-Zimbabwe travel abroad experience immediately after returning from another study abroad in Ireland. Recognizing its potential for both personal and creative growth, she seized the opportunity.
“The Zimbabwe study broad experience impacted my work in ways I did not expect. I wanted my project to signify my journey to Zimbabwe. We decided on our topics before we left and, considering my background as a painter, my topic was the production of paint from natural materials.”
CCS students and faculty spent several days at an artist residency located about 15 miles outside Harare called Dzimbanhete Arts Interactions (DAI). At DAI, Sandusky met an herbalist and traditional healer, Samaita, who practiced in a hut behind the residency. Through his herbal practice, Samaita was knowledgeable about local plant life. Sandusky accompanied the healer on hikes, documenting his collection process and the properties of each plant as research for her project.
“After returning from Africa, I read an article that related the art of painting to that of alchemy. Intrigued by this thought, I designed a travelling apothecary cabinet to contain the tools I brought to Zimbabwe to make paint — plastic containers, dropper vials, mortar and pestle, strainer, gloves and my journal. I also created a photo album documenting the plants and process, to show the alchemical aspect of transformation. My experience impacted my work by helping me understand the narratives behind particular things and revealing the interconnectedness between the ritualistic processes of paint production to that of medicine, and in turn, relate the language of painting to that of healing.”
Appreciating One’s Culture
Nyasha Madamombe is a third year student at CUT pursuing a degree in Fine Arts. Madamombe’s background in drawing has given her the foundation to creatively express herself across several mediums. In addition to Stone Sculpture, her major, she is learning digital animation by working with Nafuna TV in Harare. She also was a top finalist in the Zimbabwe Fashion Week Young Designer’s Program and has painted two murals on the Chinhoyi campus.
Because of Madamombe’s specialization in stone sculpture, she was partnered with CCS student Brianna Williams, who has an interest in Shona sculpture. The two collaborated on a number of works, including the pieces that were recently exhibited at the DET-ZIM 2016 show in the U245 Gallery (Detroit) in November.
“This exchange has been amazing for me, and I am most grateful to have been a part of it,” said Madamombe. “Witnessing the team from Detroit experiencing Zimbabwe and my culture actually helped me see things I may not have been aware of and helped me appreciate what I may have been taking for granted in my community, both personally and as an artist.
“Intercultural exchanges like this expand an artist/designer’s creative world. It allows us to grow as artists by challenging our perspectives. How the people of Detroit are successfully managing to create a vibrant art scene, despite the adversities the city is faced with, is inspiring. And artists need to be inspired. This platform has done just that.”
“Hopefully, we will get to visit Detroit. I certainly want to witness firsthand the cultural vibe and art scene of the City of Detroit. And carry on the conversations.”
For more information about the Zimbabwe Cultural Centre of Detroit, visit http://zccd.org.