Building a gallery during wartime in Zimbabwe

The couple, who ran the Gallery for 46 years, died a week apart in Harare. But their legacy lives on.

During the four decades they stewarded the Gallery, they were involved with the curation and organization of 500 exhibitions, as well as the presentation, promotion, and presentation of these. In Zimbabwe, their art magazine was distributed in schools and became a valuable resource for art historians and artists.

Love story

Huggins was born in Kent and moved to Rhodesia at the age of 19 to join British South Africa Police. In his 2004 book The Stained Earth, he writes about his experiences. Lieros was born to Greek parents in Gweru, Zimbabwe. She was a teacher.

They met in a police station, where Huggins worked. Lieros had been hired as a composite painter to draw images of suspects. They married in July 1966 after their romance flourished. Together, they expanded their influence and amplified all they had achieved.

They were the first people I met in early 2000 when I was working as a publishing associate at Weaver Press in Harare. Their enterprise Gallery Delta has been a popular venue for book launch in the city. The people would gather there to listen to authors read, and also for the free wine.

In 2018, as an academic researcher, I found a collection of letters between Huggins and the celebrated writer Yvonne Vera deposited at Amazwi South African Museum of Literature. For the past three years we have been exchanging emails, or if I am in Harare, drinking and bonding over tea while we discussed this book of letters I am editing.

Helen Lieros, left, with her husband Derek Huggins, in the 2020 documentary Art for Art’s Sake. Screengrab/Granadilla Films

The First Act

Gallery Delta’s formative years were at Strachan’s building in Manica Road (now Robert Mugabe Road) in downtown Salisbury (now Harare). It was a new, radical space in a city whose art world revolved around the National Gallery of Rhodesia (now the National Gallery of Zimbabwe) under Frank McEwen, who was at the time invested in promoting the country’s Shona stone sculpture tradition while neglecting other art forms. There were small art organizations and societies but no art schools or other exhibition galleries to talk about.

Huggins said of the time: “Consequently, we looked for young, talented and aspiring Africans who would rather be painters than sculptors. They were almost non-existent. There were few facilities for serious art study. It meant commencing at the beginning to encourage and promote a new movement in painting. One of the ways in which we undertook this was to promote a Young Artists exhibition at the beginning of every year but nonetheless few, if any, good African painters emerged at this time.”

For Huggins and Lieros, building a community was at the core of their work. Before opening the Gallery they had been members of The Circle – a radical group of 12 painters. The group was responding to the political chaos of the decade – as Zimbabweans were fighting a liberation war against white minority rule – but it also became a collective means to deal with the unrest. It was this spirit the new Gallery Delta fostered.

From its inception The Gallery also served as an alternative venue for art exhibitions, multiracial theatre and jazz performances during this tense environment prior to independence in 1980. But when the owners of the Strachan building decided to sell, they were forced out and had to look for a new home.

The Second Act

In 1991, Colette Wiles, daughter of the painter Robert Paul, offered Gallery Delta the old, dilapidated house at 110 Livingstone Avenue in Harare, which had been his home for nearly 40 years until his death. Built in 1894, it lays claim to being one of the oldest surviving buildings in Harare. From 1991 to 1993, Gallery Delta – with the help of architect Peter Jackson, and many others – repaired and restored the house to its original appearance, and built an adjoining amphitheatre.

Gallery Delta today. Screengrab/Granadilla Films

Besides teaching, mentoring, and supporting the production of new art, Gallery Delta also produced and published a visual art magazine under the title Gallery. This was a 32 page, glossy quarterly publication, edited by art critic Barbara Murray, and for a short time by the publisher Murray McCartney, which ran to 31 issues. Each edition of the magazine had a print run of 1,000 copies.

Copies of Gallery were distributed free to schools and libraries, and it has become a vital research tool for students and collectors interested in the development of contemporary painting in Zimbabwe in the 1990s. The magazine is fully digitized and freely available.

Several contemporary Zimbabwean artists have passed through Gallery Delta as students or exhibitors. These include Berry Bickle, Andy Roberts, Greg Shaw, Lovemore Kambudzi, Cosmas Shiridzinonwa, Gina Maxim, Misheck Masamvu, Chiko Chazunguza, Masimba Hwati, Hilary Kashiri, Portia Zvavahera, Rashid Jogee, Admire Kamudzengerere, Richard Mudariki and many others.

The Third Act

What does the future hold for Gallery Delta? In 2008, in response to the dire economic situation in Zimbabwe at the time, the privately owned Gallery was given over by deed of donation into trust to create the Gallery Delta Foundation for Art and the Humanities, governed by an independent board of trustees.

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