Brian Hara the humanist: A tribute

One day in 2001 during one of my visits to the late Brian Hara’s house in Chilomoni, I asked for his opinion on abstract art. I was in college then and was, therefore, experimenting with all the exciting artistic styles in art history textbooks.

To my dismay, Hara thought that abstract art was inferior compared to other art forms. He said it lacked substance and demanded relatively little skill from the artist.

For him art was defined by its content, and skill mattered a great deal if one was to be respected as an artist worth their salt. Since I was an impressionable young student excited by this new art form, I regarded Hara with deep suspicion.

Although I respected him as my teacher, I thought he was just another old-fashioned artist wary of revolutionary ideas. Abstract art represented innovation.

For me it was the pinnacle of intellectual progress in the visual arts.

I no longer believe in abstract art the way I did then, but that is besides the point. The issue is that it has taken me some years and thought to appreciate Hara’s perspective. It is only through sustained study of his art that I have arrived at a clear understanding of his philosophy. Hara had a profound love for humanity.

Throughout his career as a visual artist, he was dedicated to documenting and representing ordinary life. Whether in his paintings, illustrations or cartoons, Hara always endeavoured to present a faithful depiction of “the Malawian character”.

Even when portraying men and women in their daily struggles, his pictures always possessed the charm and beauty of ordinary rural and townsfolk. It was this love for the exuberant life of ordinary folk that was at the heart of his artistic practice.

For decades Hara kept us enthralled and enlightened by his enchanting cartoons and paintings, some of which have been exhibited at the French Cultural Centre and La Caverna Art Gallery in Blantyre. His enduring love for life manifested itself in educative but also memorable characters such as the incorrigible Pewani, and Zabweka the scandalous casanova. It was also reflected in his Timve and Tsala illustrations of lovely school going siblings, imaginary characters whom most of us now remember vividly, not as flat drawings in textbooks, but as living personages.

All these characters were rendered with an unequalled mastery that delivered a convincing realism.

Abstract art, which attempts to purge all references to life and promotes the idea of “art for its own sake”, could not be an appropriate channel for Hara’s ideals.

His love for humanity was not only expressed through his art, but also in his lifestyle.

He once revealed to me his plans to establish a community library in his home village in Mzimba. As a voracious reader, Hara had a huge library containing books on a diverse range of subjects from literature to philosophy, architecture to politics.

I was particularly amazed by his vast collection of the National Geographic Magazine which, he told me, he could not live without.

He also had a variety of international comics which were an artistic inspiration for his own drawings.

A life-learner, Hara tried to encourage me to become a gargantuan of books. He believed that reading was one of the best ways to make oneself a good artist.

Not only did his library introduce me to a wide list of visual artists, including the British David Shepherd and the Swedish Anders Zorn (whom Hara admired greatly), it also exposed me to classical authors such as the French Guy de Maupassant, Americans Ernest Hemingway, Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Jack London before I even entered university.

Today, I am not sure whether Hara’s dream for a village library materialised. Nevertheless, his contribution to Malawian culture is so immense that his achievements should be celebrated and his name remembered among this country’s true heroes.

-The author is a visual artist, art teacher and critic.

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