In the face of adversity

Optimism reigns in Zimbabwean's work

The current exhibition of Works on Canvas by Lovemore Kambudzi at Kubatana Moderne presents a marked stylistic contrast to the vernacular African art recently on view at Clark Atlanta University Galleries. Not unlike the urban Congolese artists who graphically depicted the life and death of political leader Patrice Lumumba, the Zimbabwean translates a charismatic cultural profile into art.

It might seem improbable that an African painter would realize paintings that hold the monumental intensity of Georges Seurat's "Un dimanche apres-midi a l'Ile de la Grande Jatte," but Kambudzi comes surprisingly close. With paint daubs much larger than the French painter's fine dots of color, the 24-year-old artist creates mural-sized scenes of life in his hometown.

Where Seurat represented the leisure hours of a refined European bourgeoisie, Kumbudzi takes the measure of a densely populated, largely poverty-stricken community. A sunny day inspires the French scenario from 1884, when well-dressed loungers embellished with parasols, lovely hats, bustled skirts and morning coats posed serenely before the artist's easel. Their surroundings are a green grassy park at the edge of clear blue water sparkling with sailboats and skiffs. In modern-day Harare, Kumbudzi captures the collective spirit of his people through everyday scenarios in housing projects, at bus and train stations and on city streets crowded with humanity.

In contrast to Seurat's cheerful palette of pastels, deep violet, clear greens and red hues, Kumbudzi's paintings are studies in camouflage. Army green, dark blue, earthy reds, fleshy oranges and muddy browns define both setting and figures in a way that communicates the artist's conviction that a community is a place in which people and their environment are inseparable.

Kumbudzi is amazingly adept at projecting depth and distance in his mottled compositions. "Bulawayo Railway" depicts a sea of travelers coming and going under the iron framework of the train station, a reminder of the country's colonial past. Babies tied to their mothers' backs blend in with a myriad of other travelers and workmen. Kambudzi caricatures his dark-skinned subjects, giving them wide noses, thick lips and closed eyes, as though he's depicting a mass of blissful sleepwalkers.

Waking life floods into the wall-sized picture of "Political Unrest," in which nearly every passerby is harassed by a man in military uniform with a stick. It provides high contrast to the sense of togetherness pictured in the smaller scale "Before Service." In that vignette, a group of men push a disabled car toward the hope of repair.

Mopeds, cars and busses crowd a wide city street lined with multi-level buildings, shops and eateries in "Harare Nightlife." Here, the artist adds spots of yellowish white for lights in the windows, for car headlights and their reflections in the tiny fragment of street surface not covered up with pedestrians and vehicles.

In this work, Kambudzi, who must scrape together the money to buy paint, shows that he is emblematic of his own tenacious culture. The harsh realities of his country — the political instability, the high unemployment, the widespread affliction of AIDS — fail to subdue the energy and general optimism in his complex perspective on life in troubled Zimbabwe.

Works on Canvas by Lovemore Kambudzi through April 6 at Kubatana Moderne, 1831 Peachtree Road. 404-355-5764. www.kubatana.com.??