Young Artists in Zimbabwe – Painter Nonny Mathe

Despite the hardship suffered in Zimbabwe, the country is fertile breeding ground for young talented artists. In this short blog-series, I will introduce you to the stories of some of Zim’s top-talents as a platform to share their art.


Unlike her expressive and colorful artwork, Nonhlanhla (Nonny) herself is a humble presence. She answers my questions matter-of-factly, all the while carrying a serene facial expression. In the course of her career, she has created her own painting style, using mielie meal to add structure. In her work, Nonny asks attention for important societal themes such as gender-equality and the deprivations of rural life. She grew up in a village, built a reputation in the city of Bulawayo and has even showcased her work in Denmark.


Nonny has a family background that is in many ways typical for the struggle for survival in rural areas. Her father left the family when she was young, her mother worked in Bulawayo and Nonny and her sister lived with their grandmother in the village of Lupane. Once her mother could afford it, she wanted her daughters to come to the city to be educated there. But her grandmother wouldn’t let them go, because she didn’t want to be alone. Her mother came and took Nonny away, but her sister stayed behind. Reflecting on this, she says: “The levels in schooling are so different in the village and city. I had to work really hard to catch up in school when I moved to the city. My sister had to work even harder when she later followed. It all felt very unfair.”


© Nonny Mathe


Village-life is a central theme in her work. She wants to show people what it’s like to live and work in rural areas. “I did it all,” she says. “I carried clay pots on my head. I even herded goats!” But she also finds inspiration in broader societal themes. “For example, I observed that there are many women who remain unmarried, while all men get married. Sometimes, men marry multiple wives and have a girlfriend on top of that. It was the inspiration for a big piece with a lot of women on it, called “man shortage”.” She giggles: “That one sold very fast! The message resonated with people.”


© Nonny Mathe


The person who inspired Nonny to become an artist was a retired Canadian lady by the name of Mary Davies. She used to visit Nonny’s high school to teach art classes and would take her and her classmates to visit art galleries. When she finished school, Nonny’s batik-art took off and she simply followed its success. She ended up working with her former teacher Mary in a studio behind the National Gallery. The economic tides were favorable, there were still a great number of tourists and they made a lot of money. “Batik was selling so everyone started doing it. Like when tomatoes are selling, everyone sits in the streets selling tomatoes.” But Nonny slowly became bored and wanted to move on.



She started working on her own technique. “Batik is more craft than art. If you teach someone it is easy to do it, even if that person can’t draw. I have talent for drawing so that is why I started experimenting to develop my own style.” Ultimately, she left traditional batik behind and moved on to watercolor painting, with a batik-twist. “I introduced the batik process to painting, using mielie meal to create a beautiful texture on the paintings.” Nonny proudly declares: “Everything started happening for me after I created my own technique and style.  In 2012, I had my first solo exhibition in the National Gallery.” Still, it took some time for the general public to start appreciating her work and buying it. “But patience pays,” she says with that ever-serene expression.


© Nonny Mathe


Asked what it’s like to be an artist in Zimbabwe, Nonny says: “Partly it’s great, because Zimbabwe is a good country, despite all its problems. I’ve been to most surrounding countries and I still think Zimbabwe is really cool.” On the other hand, there are obviously big financial constraints. Even if you find funding as an artist, it is usually not much. The only way to survive as an artist is to work hard and make good pieces. Women artists have a particularly hard time. Nonny explains: “There are some very good female artists who just sit at home, because they got married, have to take care of the family and because of the economic problems their artworks are not selling. So, they think there is no use in continuing. But I want to keep on pushing and fighting. I want to show that women can also be great artists.”


© Nonny Mathe


Nonny’s biggest wish for the future is to bring her work to a larger audience. “In Zimbabwe now it’s difficult to think of the future. But I would like to do more exhibitions abroad, especially in European countries. I would like my work and personal style to be known by more people. It’s not for financial reasons, although it obviously counts. But mostly I just seek recognition for hard work.”


Nonny at work in het studio behind the National Gallery in Bulawayo.


Nonny’s facebook page.

Some of her works can be bought online through Harmattan Handmade.