Every once in a while, I sneak into the AfriKera dressing room, for some banter with the female students during their lunch break. We chuckle about their classes, making light of the intense but progressive days they have to endure.
Typically, you’ll find Shalom Kufakwatenzi- perched on the counter, peeking in the mirror with her headphones in tow, before squeezing in a meal ahead of the next class.
Not one for many words, her glares tell a story of a mind working overtime.
It goes without saying that it was in this same dressing room, where my interview with Shalom took place.
From the onset, Shalom made it clear that she is undefined. “Unlabel me” she said quite frankly, because asking someone to tell you who they are, is a “very difficult” feat.
“In life, I feel like as you grow up, you are discovering yourself, so you can’t actually say, ‘I am…’ because that will be like putting yourself in a box. But, to other people, I am a visual artist, I’m a feminist, I’m a Zimbabwean black woman who is in the gay society, so I may not be that kind of person who comes up front and says ‘this is who I am,’ because I am actually discovering myself.” says Shalom
As we continue our conversation, Shalom slips between who she was and who she is, further reiterating that definitions are fickle at best and limiting at the core. She is on a journey to self-discovery.
As a child, Shalom, now 24, was reserved.
“Nowadays it’s better than it used to be, [I] still am, but [with] more confidence. I feel like I’m a peaceful person, I don’t like a lot of noise, I don’t like being around a lot of people.” she says.
Growing up with her two siblings and being a middle child amongst boys, was “cool, but also annoying and frustrating,” because they did not understand her. However, to her relief, her parents did not differentiate along gender lines in raising them. Chores around the house were not distributed according to what are traditionally female or male ‘duties’.
“I always say to myself, my parents raised three boys and three girls,” she giggles.
Shalom’s parents are pastors, and her mother is a teacher by profession who spends time dressmaking, a creative streak that rubbed off on her.
“She would show me some of the things, I always wanted to be a fashion designer. I did fashion and fabrics in school. I just fell in love with art.”
In 2015, Shalom enrolled at the National Gallery School of Visual Arts and Design (NGSVAD) with the intention of studying Fashion Design and decided to study visual art first, as a “steppingstone.”
“On the way, I actually discovered that this was something I loved, so I pursued it.”
Visual art would go on to set a significant tone for everything she pursued later in life.
After graduating from the NGSVAD in 2017, Shalom entered the cutthroat arts industry, starting off with a photography internship at Enthuse Magazine, and thereafter doubled as an intern at Tsoko Gallery while creating art from her home studio.
As she continued to grow her portfolio working at Tsoko Gallery for another year, she felt it was time to tick another goal off her list within the arts, and attending a performance at AfriKera, kickstarted her journey.
“I’ve always wanted to do performance art, so I came here [ to AfriKera] for a show. I was like ‘I need to come here’, because I saw what I wanted to do.”
Shalom missed the official auditions for the September 2018 student intake at AfriKera while attending an exhibition in South Africa but made sure to visit the hub on her return, and asked Director Marie-Laure “Soukaina” Edom to join the current cohort.
“I asked Soukaina if I can come through, and she put me on a trial for a month, that’s how I got here.”
Now, Shalom is one of only four female dancers at AfriKera, a dynamic mirrored generally in the local dance industry.
“I feel like it’s a society thing, they feel like girls who dance are wild. People in Zimbabwe don’t take dance as a profession, they take it as a hobby, actually, the art industry in general, they are still trying to understand it.”
Coming from a household of parents who are pastors, being a child who does not necessarily fit the ‘mold’ and choosing a path often shunned, worsens the load. It took not going to church, for Shalom to find herself and solidify her life path.
“I was tired, the whole thing where you have to please people just so they can think that you are what you’re not, you have to set an example, you’re a pastor’s daughter, you’re the only girl, you have to lead, it just got too much for me, I just couldn’t do it anymore and I was like ‘this is not me, this is not what I want’ .”
Her exhibition piece “Ndiri Mwenje,” which translates to “I am the light” a chandelier installation, personifies this journey and experience:
“With commitment comes responsibility, having to carry so many lives on your shoulder like a chandelier. As a person who grew up in a Christian family, a Christian is supposed to be the light of the world. So as a pastor’s daughter I am supposed to be an example. But it is not always easy to shine your light upon people, especially when you have a different perspective in life.”
Shalom draws a lot of inspiration from art, visual art, music, dance, design and fashion, especially fashion.
“It’s something I work with, but I wouldn’t want to limit myself. In the art industry, there’s a lot of competition, and I wanted to come with a strategy that’s actually quite different.”
That strategy involves linking dance to performance art.
In future, Shalom aspires to travel and experience different art industries.
“I’ve always loved working with children, with non-governmental organisations, giving back to the community, those kinds of things.”
Her art is testament to her life story, a case of art imitating life, tackling issues of identity, religion, feminism and sexuality.
“I like challenging things, especially identity, religion, and then you get to talk about it with other people. I feel like people decide things for us, they decided for us [that] ‘you are a Christian, you must get married, people must pay lobola, you are supposed to get five O-levels or more.’ It’s practical yes, but what If I don’t want all these things?”
She eloquently portrays this perspective in her installation “Ini Ndimi,”
“When we go out there, people read or study us and they see what other people would have imparted in us and they see it as who we are, but they don’t see the real you, because of the mask of identification that has been put upon us by every person who has tried to groom us in their own way, because they would be trying to do the right thing, and I quote “black is white and white is black” which means sometimes the right thing is not really the best thing to do.“Ini Ndimi”, I am you or I am who you want me to be depending on what you see in me.”
Now, Shalom simply says she is “free.”