Bruce Ndlovu, Sunday Life Reporter
WHEN Butholezwe Kgosi Nyathi was appointed the regional director of the National Art Gallery of Zimbabwe in Bulawayo, a few eyebrows were raised.

Some questioned how a 33-year-old could handle the pressure of heading an institution that is supposed to be the nerve centre of the arts in the City of Kings. How would he fare in the hot seat, taking over from the seasoned and assured Voti Thebe?

Thebe was the artiste’s artiste, a man who, because of his capabilities as a visual artiste, could be looked at by fellow creatives as one of their own. And previously, the late celebrated writer Yvonne Vera had occupied that seat. Would Nyathi, perhaps viewed as an outsider by some, be able to command the same kind of respect?

“I also sometimes wonder why those who appointed me did. I was 33 when I assumed office and it’s rare for a person that young to be given a regional gallery to run,” Nyathi told Sunday Life as he reflected on a full year in office.

“Being a young person in a public institution to me the expectations were always clear. There was excitement among young people when I took office and I didn’t take that for granted. I knew that my level of performance has a bearing because it strengthens the idea that young people need to be given opportunities. For now, from what we have done over a short space of time it lends credence to even more young people being given responsibility.”

The enthusiasm that has followed his appointment has surprised even him.

“It’s been a stellar year. When we did our first interview last year, I would not have imagined we would have done the things that we have done. For me it has been about being at the right place at the right time and being prepared, projecting a positive outlook and acting out on the things that I wanted to do when I took office. Luckily, I also found a team that was ready for transformation,” he said.

The last year has seen rapid changes at the art gallery. In a few months, the centre once again became the beating heart of the arts in Bulawayo. Berita Khumalo gave a spellbinding performance in a space that was usually not associated with music gigs in the past while various other launches and performances were held at the gallery. South Africa-based award winning Bekezela had a stellar show, and the world travelled all female a capella group Nobuntu has also performed at the gallery. Rather than a place where precious pieces of art decorate its walls and rooms, the art gallery became a vibrant space where live art found a place it could call home.

“We became a de facto go to place for events in the city, particularly for music and performance arts which, to us, sort of addressed our aspirations to be a vibrant place. We don’t want the gallery to become a mortuary but we want the gallery to become a vibrant place. It took the various events we hosted last year, beyond our own events, for that to happen,” he said.

When Nyathi took over at the gallery, it became clear that the building itself was in need of urgent attention. The walls were cracking and they also looked like they were thirsty for more than a lick of paint. The ceiling was also a clear and present danger to anyone who walked through the gallery’s doors. It is what prompted Nyathi to send out an SOS (save our souls) to anyone who was interested in seeing the gallery restored to its former glory.

“The highlights for me so far are the renovations that are happening courtesy of the embassies of Australia and Switzerland. One of the things that I flagged prominently was the poor state of the gallery and I’m happy to say that we have been able to unlock value through these investments . . . it’s going to take a long time but the art gallery will become a beautiful place again,” he said.

Despite the renovations made so far, more is still yet to be done.

“With the Australian grant we are installing a disability ramp so we can be accessible to people living with disabilities. We are fixing the ceiling on the outside which had become a huge turn off. We are repairing the car park and we will also replace the roof and ceiling in the lecture theatre and permanent collection areas stretching right up to the staff kitchen.

“So that’s a huge milestone within the scope of works that are still outstanding. We hope that in the next few months it will be done. The Swiss also came through and helped us expand the holding capacity of our permanent collection. We are also installing a solar system that will wean off 75 percent of the gallery from regular electricity supply. There’s still a lot to do and we are short of resources but it’s been an exciting period considering that it’s been exactly a year since I issued a plea for help,” he said.

When Nyathi introduced virtual tours last year, more eyebrows were raised as some questioned a strategy that seemed to be at odds with the traditional workings of the art gallery. With Covid-19 forcing the arts to go digital, that bit of innovation now seems prophetic.

“When I introduced virtual tours there were many questions about its viability. I’m happy that Covid-19 has all but accelerated the need for digitisation. We did the initial virtual tour last year and we also did another this year. Now, with developments that we have seen globally we will be taking the concept a step higher . . . there’s now internal and external consensus that digitising is the future. Digitising also does not mean we do away with the traditional means of artistic expression,” he said.

Covid-19 has closed the art gallery’s doors and Nyathi has been counting many missed opportunities. When the world goes back to normal, he wants to continue on the promising journey that began last year.

“The month of May was supposed to be the month when we introduced the gallery’s first ever full-scale digital arts exhibition which we would have done with British Council in Southern Africa and Arebyte Gallery in London but we have postponed it to tentatively October.

“That was when we were supposed to demonstrate what we mean when we say digital art. We were also meant to send three resident artistes to South Africa for a residency exchange programme but that is also now again on hold. In that very week when the lockdown started, we were meant to start hosting a visiting curator . . . certainly we have delayed the value that we could have had from these various interventions,” he said.