Preserving memories with Tanaka Mazivanhanga

Zimbabwean born, London based artist Tanaka Mazivanhanga documents the surfaces, textures, marks and fragments of overlooked and forgotten relics of the urban landscape. Primarily a printmaker, she also works with installation and found objects, which allows her to add an interactive element to her pieces, as well as to translate her prints into something tangible.

Tanaka holds a BA in Architecture from Kingston School of Art, and an MA in Printmaking from Camberwell College of Art, and her work was recently awarded the StART MMG Emerging Art Prize. 

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure to talk with Tanaka about her shift from Architecture to Visual Art, the importance of preserving memories of what one day may be lost, and why it is important to stay true to your artistic vision and practice, despite the rejections that may accompany your way.

By Nina Seidel

(Untitled III) Pastel Islands Series, 2021
Monotype, African Fabric, 45 x 89 cm


Hello Tanaka, thank you for taking your time to speak with me today. To start with, I wanted to go back in time to find out how you got into visual art. You have a BA in Architecture and then you did a MA in Visual Arts on Printmaking. How did that happen?

I have always had an interest in making since school. During my foundation course, l was introduced to printmaking and specialised in that and 3D design, but I progressed to architecture because of perceived career prospects. I enjoyed the architecture despite its challenges, but l really struggled in my final year. I was reintroduced to printmaking by my third-year design studio tutor as a way of representing my ideas, and l fell in love again. I found it easy to communicate my design through printmaking. After graduating, l decided to pursue printmaking. I spent three years in the Kingston School of Art print room experimenting with different techniques before deciding to apply for an MA in Printmaking. For my portfolio, l used experimental prints and work from my BA. I applied to UAL: Camberwell as it was highly recommended for Printmaking.

At the beginning of your artist statement, you write: “Preserving memories of spaces and surfaces that one day may be lost is the essence of my practice.” Could you comment a bit on that?

When l transitioned from architecture to printmaking – it took a while for me to figure out what l wanted to say, and l think l am still figuring it out. Architecture still informs my practice. My MA in printmaking was instrumental in helping me clarify my ideas and find my voice through the medium of print. My thesis project explored London as an ever-changing city. It is a continuous building site, and whether this is documented or not, once those spaces, surfaces, and textures are gone, the memories go with the sites. This condition is exasperated by the favour for digital over tactile things.

Recently, l have been thinking about my childhood in Zimbabwe and how I can no longer visit significant spaces of my childhood. All that is left are memories; the only thing I can refer to is my memory and maybe sometimes what my family can tell me. The need to document and preserve all those spaces and memories is important to my practice.

Ndini Ani_ (Who Am I_), 2022
Photo Transfer, 53 x 71 cm

You work with different techniques such as prints, installations, found objects, and I also saw collages on your website- what fascinates you about each of these techniques and is there any that you’re drawn to more than others?

I’m primarily a Printmaker. I love that printmaking is a labour of love, and I embrace the element of surprise. This works well for me as my process of making is very experimental; l like that each print is different. It allows me to push myself. I enjoy the endless possibilities of printmaking.

I also work with installations as part of my practice. They are interactive, especially the big pieces such as the Utopia Series. It allows the viewer to be taken on a journey of discovery and practise the act of looking – with intention. I like that they can be quite performative as the viewer interacts with the piece, discovering new elements as they experience the work.

Sometimes even I can discover new elements because when I’m working on the big pieces, I do it in sections, so I don’t get to see them in their entirety until the work is complete. So, there is something very pleasant about visiting an installation piece and discovering or recalling a particular section. Once the work is installed, it’s entirely different to what I see in the making process, when I am working on a tabletop and looking down at the work. I also like how these installations responds to the architecture of the space, every space receives the work differently and the work is equally as affected by its situation.

Objects are tangible translations of my prints inspired by my architectural background. I like how the objects, both made and found, embody particular histories. I am also interested in exploring the relationship between objects held in unison or juxtaposition to each other.

Collages are more experimental; l repurpose unsuccessful pieces to test out ideas.

My preferred mediums are print, installations, and objects, but they’re all linked and it also depends on what I’m trying to communicate. If I’m trying to communicate something about texture or materiality, I would probably go to objects, and if it’s more about interaction and space, I’d go to installation.

(Untitled I) Tsoka Hadzina Maziso Series, 2019-2020
Monotype, Collage, 70 x 100 cm
(Untitled II) Tsoka Hadzina Maziso Series, 2018-2020
Monotype, 59.4 x 84.1 cm

When I went through the category “print” on your website, the drop-down menu and pieces shown in each category reminded me of an archive and for a moment I felt that your work was the work of an archivist. At the same time, your work evokes great nostalgy in me. How do you feel about your work and practice? 

My practice is a visual documentation of my journey as an artist. It is also an archive of my thoughts, questions about my identity as part of an African Diaspora, and interactions with my surroundings. In effect, my work is a conversation rather than a conclusion. It is essential that there is a continuous dialogue between the work and the viewer, and l welcome the different interpretations of my work, because there are different perspectives about the themes l explore within my practice. Some of these conversations and interactions have been enriching for me and my practice.

Zviri mandiri (It is within me), 2022
Latex, Screenprint, Thread, Goldleaf, 80 x 90 cm

A more practical question now, could you please share some of your creative process with me?

My creative process is just me thinking of an idea (laughs). I sketch to understand very complex ideas. Making in studio is also important to my process – it is how I work through ideas. My process is very much experimental and very process driven. If it’s a technically complex idea, I will sketch it out or write down what I want to achieve and then refer to that as l start experimenting. Depending on what l want to achieve, l explore different processes to see which is most suitable.

While doing the research for this interview, I went through several of your projects. One that I’m especially interested in is “I dream of freedom X Amistad”? Could you please talk a bit more about it?

In 2016, I visited Ghana with friends and two tours to Elmina Castle and Cape Coast Castle, former slave forts on the coast of Ghana had a profound impact on me. I remember being intrigued in making work that responded to what I experienced and those spaces. I didn’t know how to do it because the memory of the transatlantic slave trade is traumatic and sensitive. I wanted to make work that responded appropriately to the spaces and my experiences there.

In 2019, I returned to Ghana and undertook a month long, self-directed residency, which involved visits several former slave forts – Osu, Elmina, and Cape Coast, and thinking about how to respond to those spaces. I think by then, I had also progressed as an artist, my visual vocabulary had expanded. Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing was also an influential in how I came to think about these spaces. I reflected on the painful processes of the transatlantic slave trade; how enslaved people would have been made you walk for days and weeks on end, to then arrive at one of these brutal forts, kept dungeons in unimaginable conditions, and then shipped away, stolen and disconnected from their home.

These thoughts were so present as I visited these forts. I remembered a passage in Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, where she writes about the things that slaves would say, for example, “Let us out!”, or talking about how they might be feeling. Some of these phrases are inscribed in parts of the La-Gehena, a latex work exploring this subject.

La-Gehena is a journey; its layout is informed by one of the dungeons at  Elmina Castle. The work explores how the spaces were carved out and the carving of the enslaved people’s presence and their voices on the walls of the dungeon. I choose to use latex as it references the skin – the phrases are not only carved on the walls of the spaces but also on our skin; they become a part of who we are.

Trapped Histories explores about the layers of history embedded in the spaces of the forts I visited. When you go into the dungeons, the floor is thick with the remnants of excrement and other bodily fluids built up over the years.

This was also explored in Wenches Remnants. I remember during a tour of one of the castles, the tour guide talked about one of the dungeons, which was mainly for women. They commented on the dire conditions the women endured, such as the blood from their menstrual cycle and other bodily fluids.

Wenches explores a common practice that took place in these forts – enslaved women were lined up in the courtyards, and the slave masters would choose who they would rape that night.

A Taste of freedom inspired by the layout of a dungeon from Cape Coast Castle. There is a slight opening at the top of the room, which was the source of light and air, which the enslaved people held here in captivity would have perceived as a bit of freedom.

I Dream of Freedom is like one of the rooms before they are led out to the ships. It has these little windows where you can look outside – imagine looking at your past life and thinking, okay, maybe I could be going home. How traumatising is that?

Doors of no return once again, is false hope for the enslaved people. Thinking they could be returning home, they would instead be taken these doors and there was to be no return. They were shipped off – to the unknown.

Thrown into the Atlantic explores the act of suicide as an act of defiance and rebellion. Some enslaved people who couldn’t bear the trauma anymore and decided to take their lives. You can imagine how many bodies are in the oceans.

Amistad is a poem by Amma Ofosu, a good friend and poet based in London and Accra. The poem response to the works in this series. The poem explores the journeys of the enslaved from different parts of West Africa to the slave forts until they are shipped out to the Americas.

La Gehana (The Devil’s World), 2021
Latex, Thread, Watercolour, 29 x 29 cm
Picture credit: Agne Rita Kucinskaite
Wenches Remnants, 2021
Carborundum, Photo Transfer
Picture credit: Agne Rita Kucinskaite

Would you like to share what you’re currently working on or any upcoming project?

I would like to focus on projects that I have begun but haven’t finished. I feel that this idea of Freedom and Amistad is not finished; I’d like to go back to the journeys and stories of the enslaved people before they were stolen and journeyed to these forts. I look forward to my collaboration with Amma in depending this work. Most importantly, l would like to think about how to push my practice forward by exploring different ways of making and expanding on my research.  

Accra’s Streets III, 2022
Blind embossing, Photo Transfer, 30 x 30 cm

What would be your advice for fellow emerging artists, especially for those at the start of their career?

Staying true to your vision is good because it can be quite challenging when you’re applying for grants or programmes without much success, it can be stressful and challenging. The continuous rejections start taking a toll on you, but staying true to your practice is absolutely essential. Don’t try to change your practice to suit certain platforms or spaces.

When I was in the studio, I had discussions with other artists I’ve been studying with and some who are more experienced in the field than me. They expressed their frustration of not being able to get anything, and they were contemplating if they should be changing their practice, which is quite sad.

I think that if I’m not successfully getting into a specific exhibition or space, it’s not necessarily an issue with my practice; I just might not fit their vision, which is fine. About two years ago, I applied to an open call and I didn’t get in, which was disappointing but an email from the curator letting me know that it wasn’t about my work but rather its fit with the rest of that particular exhibition, was very reassuring! I think that’s what my advice for artists at the start of their careers: if you don’t get in, don’t despair; find spaces that understand and appreciate your vision.

And last question, what are your hopes for the future?

I hope to celebrate my achievements a bit more. I’m quite introverted so I would like to get to that stage of being confident in talking about my practice. I would dream of visiting and working in Japan and I’m on the lookout for residences that can facilitate this aspiration. I also need to get much better and more precise about documenting my progress!

Get in touch
with Tanaka:
Instagram: tanaka.archiprints

All Photographs courtesy of
Tanaka Mazivanhanga
Written & edited by Tanaka Mazivanhanga and Nina Seidel

© Copyright 2023 Suboart Magazine
All rights reserved

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