Zimbabwe gets back an iconic art collection, after over 70 years.

In the 1940s, the Cyrene Mission School was the first school in Rhodesia to teach art for Black students. Their paintings were bold and vivid in line and color, showing the students’ own lives. Dancing, chores, and wildlife, set in the new world of railways and electric lights. They mix the African folklore that filled the students’ worlds with the Bible stories they learned in school.

In 1947, British King George VI visited the school. He was charmed by the art, and arranged for a large selection of those paintings to be sent abroad. They were shown in London, Paris, and New York. Many were sold, though it was fortunate that the money made was sent back to Cyrene School.

When the fad had faded, the paintings were stored in a London church, and forgotten. In the meantime, Rhodesia became Zimbabwe. Eventually, the church was deconsecrated and by chance, a Zimbabwean was helping to empty the basement, and recognized the name of the historic school. A true treasure was found. And at last, sent home.

The remaining paintings have been assembled into an exhibition titled “The Stars are Bright,” to be displayed at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe. As many as possible are shown with photos of the schoolboys who painted them.

“It was a very difficult time in the 1940s. It was the height of World War II and it was the height of colonialism in Zimbabwe,” Lisa Masterson, curator of the exhibition, said. “For a white Anglican priest to empower young black students with new skills and belief in themselves was completely revolutionary in those days,” she said, referring to Edward Paterson, founder of the Cyrene school.

“Paterson was a true believer that art could unite people. And that no matter what people saw in an artwork, it didn’t matter what color you were, or where you came from or what tribe you were from, art was a unifying factor,” said Masterson.

Photo: JonathanJonesCreate / Shutterstock