by GRACE MUTANDWA | Zimbabwe
As I walked into her studio cum music room, I was struck by the sheer magnificence of the life-like portraits adorning one section of the large airy room.
When I set up an appointment to interview Rene Swanepoel-Hale soon to be Dolphin, I expected to hear more about her life as a musician. The array of guitars hung on the other side of the room – the section dedicated to rehearsals – bore testimony of her love for music.
But Rene is much more than a musician. A former Arundel school and Zimbabwe Masters hockey player, she is also an accomplished fine artist specialising in animal and human form. A work in progress on her easel was half a face of a rhinoceros – part of a set of the big five. She has an eye for detail that comes through all the work she has on display. The complete set will only feature half of each animal’s face.
“I never really studied art. I just sat for the final A ‘Level art examination without prior studying and earned an A. As a teenager my sketching and guitar playing got me through life. I also made my own clothes. I started painting seriously again at the encouragement of my friend, the renowned artist, Fraser McKay,” says Rene.
She was at a low point in life, going through a divorce , painting helped her deal with stress and also paid the bills. At the time she focused on wild animals. She did this for a while and then stopped but a few years later Fraser who was now mostly working in charcoal nudged her back into the world of painting. Her partner Brian Dolphin also encouraged her to take out her paint brushes.
The mother of four describes herself as an inventive cook, free spirit and lover of life. She speaks passionately about her painting and explains that she has reluctantly moved from portraits to focus on animals.
“How I read the mood and emotions of my human subject and translate them into a work of art might not always be pleasing to the eye of the subject. As people there are some things about our noses, mouths or ears that we are not happy about and we want our portraits to be flattering. Animals on the other hand are silent subjects that artists can paint to their heart’s content. I’m particularly entranced by the eyes of the animal,” she adds.
In her other life, Rene is a much sought after musician. Her first band the Turrets played rock music but she has now moved to jazz. She has recorded with the gifted musician and music producer Mono Mukundu. She is a vocalists and plays an electric acoustic guitar.
Her current band Rhythmic Pulse have played at Alliance Francaise’s ultimate jazz place Chez Zandi, diplomatic gatherings and private parties and at Rock down Harare. Twice she was the opening act during the Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA). She was also a curtain raiser for South African PJ Powers’ show. During Harare City Library’s Magitare (Guitars) show she did a solo performance.
The versatile musician has worked with various regional and local musicians including the late mbira queen, Chiwoniso Maraire. She has performed in pubs in the United Kingdom and Mozambique’s exotic islands.
Rene has led an exciting life. At the age of 18 she left Zimbabwe for the UK to play hockey. She not only played for the Great Britain squad but landed a job as administrator and coach with three times Olympic gold medallist Steve Bachelor. She worked alongside another great hockey player Bran van Hasselt.
Her dream to play competitive hockey for Great Britain was dashed when she fell pregnant and had to leave both work and the squad and journey into motherhood. She moved onto a dairy farm and learnt yet another skill – working the milking machines.
In between milking the cows and raising her daughter she wrote poetry and perfected her guitar playing skills. She returned to Zimbabwe and in 2006 and started the Turrets.
“We recorded an album but split in 2010. They were the best band in the world. They were awesome people and I regarded them as my brothers. I loved those guys,” her face lights up as she reminisces.
As if her life was not busy enough already, Rene will soon be playing a police woman in an upcoming Duncan Frost film, The Telling Room.
She is a woman who refuses to allow her mobile phone to run her life. Rene is a woman of many beliefs too. “I believe in the power of positive energy. What you think holds incredible power – power to unleash your greatness. I also believe that in the life we lead today, if you don’t have a cyber footprint you will become something people fear – an enigma, but you would have truly experienced life instead of squandering your life on your mobile phone, laptop or tablet.”
But what keeps this woman with a gloriously infectious laugh sane?
“My children keep me sane. I love them and find that each child is different and it takes a lot of energy to unlock what makes each one of them tick. I want my children to grow up to be loving, well mannered, aware of the world around them and to be useful members of society.
“My children and I love animals. We have a cat, a kitten and three dogs. We have also created an animal sanctuary for more animals at the back of the house. We spend a lot of time there,” she adds with a mischievous smile.
Her life is packed but Rene believes there is always time and space for more in life. She always makes time for reading up on her favourite subject, psychology.
She explains her fascination with science of the mind and mental processes; “I love life. I like to understand more about people so I will read anything to do with psychology because it helps me understand others, maintain good relationships and it has enabled me to unpack the consciousness inside us – be able to dissect and appreciate the issues about ego and jealousy.”
Rene is memories away from the young girl born and raised in Masvingo who tinkered with cars, spent most of her time in the mountains learning to do 20-metre free climbing and abseiling but she is still a fearless, fun-loving bundle of paint-stained guitar strumming musician. In between the music, the painting and inventive cooking and poetry writing, she will soon be tying the knot and become Rene Dolphin.