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Thursday, 12 April 2018

Don’t worry be happy – Kopeka’s "art populaire"

By Andrew Mulenga

(First published in the Bulletin & Record Magazine, Zambia in 2013)

A week before the much hyped 20th UNWTO (2013) general assembly artists and craftsmen – both government and self-sponsored – from all across the country thronged Livingstone and worked around the clock anticipating the estimated 5,000 (five thousand) delegates between the twin venues of Victoria Falls Town in Zimbabwe and Livingstone in Zambia to disembark from aeroplanes with sack loads of money to buy every trinket that they had to offer.

Bernard Kopeka, Don't Worry Be Happy, 2013
However, not everyone was excited at the rumoured prospects. Bernard Kopeka, a 49-year-old artist who is one of five that run the Mosi-Oa-Tunya Art Centre could not be bothered by neither the panic nor hysteria brought about by this international event, for him, it was business as usual.

“Yes I am looking forward to the UNWTO, but what I know is that we have been artists all along even before the UNWTO we were artists. Yes maybe they (delegates and tourists) will buy our work but the idea is just to work as we usually do, if we get sales then that will be a bonus,” says Kopeka as he applies some final coats of PVA house paint to the portrait of an elephant. He uses this kind of paint because unlike the professional paints used by contemporary artists, it is inexpensive and also easier to come by. Of course this does make his work lower in price, not to say that the influential American abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock used house paints straight from the tin but his works cost a fortune even before his death, but such is the irony of art.

Bernard Kopeka, 30 years of marriage, 2013
Kopeka paints on large format, stretched canvases making his works that average two metres in height visible from the main road, the Mosi-Oa-Tunya highway, these along with some anatomically inaccurate sculptures – that are so unattractive one wishes there was a law against such art – easily catch the eyes of passers-by, luring them into the art centre.
Nevertheless, Kopeka is not responsible for the unsightly statues; it is one of the four friends with whom he runs the centre. He is a painter through and through having picked up the trade from a cousin as a young boy in his home village in Mpulungu District in the early 1970s just before he dropped out of school in Grade 7. In his early days, he started out drawing cartoon strips on any paper he could lay his hands on but later developed his skill into painting when he migrated to the Copperbelt.

In 1987 I left the village and went to Ndola, there I found an artist who started coaching me in Chifubu Township near Fibobe Primary School, that’s when I met Mr Rodgers Mushinki who was an artist with ZCBC departmental stores,” he explains.

Bernard Kopeka, Akalindula, 2013
Kopeka would work under Mushinki’s apprenticeship for the next five years until the road beckoned once again and he decided to migrate to Zambia’s tourist capital in 1992 after a lot of encouragement from folks who saw his work and advised him that Livingstone is where the money is because of the many art and crafts collecting tourists that visit the city.

But when he got to Livingstone, the beginning was not as smooth as he anticipated. Sales were slow and the fact that he married shortly after demanded for a larger income compelling him to seek employment as a ‘Chigayo Boy’ or hammer mill operator.

However, Kopeka did not last long at the hammer mill, his creative vocation continued to call and he found himself quitting work to take up painting as a full time occupation once again. This time he was even able to make his former monthly earnings in two days.

The open studio of Mosi-oa-tunya art centre in Livingstone
“Ever since I got married there is nothing else that I do. It is just art, sometimes I don’t sell anything for a month and we end up doing some sign writing  jobs here and there, or even the small wall hangings keep us going because they only cost K50 (fifty Kwacha),” explains the artist who now has four children, the first born being an eighteen year old.
He openly cherishes the support that he now gets from his wife who has set up a small cross boarder trading business that allows her to operate a market stall whenever she returns from Zimbabwe to order goods.

But, although in 1992 Kopeka spent time learning new techniques with the acclaimed painter Vincent Maonde who was running an art club at the Livingstone Museum at the time, Kopeka’s work is still considered art populaire (folk art) as the Congolese would call it. 

Mr Kopeka uses water-based PVA paints
Not only because it is sold like a commodity in the open air which qualifies it to be called Jua Kali (hot sun) as the Swahilis will say, referring to the place where it is manufactured but because of the seemingly repetitive and almost identical subject matter the work possesses.
Artists such as Maonde with their Evelyn Hone training in the 1970’s and further exposure in the United Kingdom and the United States practice contemporary art in the western idiom, producing what is often termed as “high art” because it is sold mainly in galleries and on commission.

“I have come to learn in my years as an artist, that even the environment in which we sell our art determines the final price of our work,” says Kopeka “Someone will look around our ‘gallery’ and say ‘no reduce the price, I can’t buy it for this price’, even when he likes the work,” his large paintings go for anything between K1,000 (one thousand kwacha) to K2,000 (two thousand kwacha).

As the UNWTO drew to a close, sales at the Mosi-Oa-Tunya Art Centre were still very low but Kopeka could not be bothered, he was still in the jovial spirit that is reflected in the colourful outbursts reflected in the caricatures of carefree, dancing villagers in his paintings with aptly titled labels as Don’t Worry Be Happy and Good Times. It is business as usual.

Bernard Kopeka, Good Times II, 2013

Mosi-Oa-Tunya Art Centre  in Livingstone

Monday, 5 March 2018

Publications, art criticism, research may help ascribe value as demand for contemporary African art increases

By Andrew Mulenga

With what can be identified as an increasing demand for modern and contemporary African art on the world stage, South African artist and educator Annette Loubser suggests that if the continent is to benefit more from this wave, there is need to intensify research  and writing on individual artists.

This was while addressing the audience during the opening of Signs of The Times, a group exhibition at Galerie NOKO in Port Elizabeth that opened on 28 February and features photography, sculpture, painting and ceramics by Monique Willfen Rorke, Qhama Maswana, Chantall Berise Martin, Mziwoxolo Makalima, Brunn Kramer, Christian Arnold, Dorothy Barnes, Lee Hensberg and Suyabonga Ngaki.  

Loubser -- formerly a senior educator of the Iziko art collections at the National Gallery in Cape Town stated that while South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Morocco are essentially seen as the countries with the best infrastructure for the growing art market; it is still important that more research and writing is encouraged as she pointed out a few indicators that were necessary to harness this global demand as well as continue to ascribe financial value to the works of artists.

“There is a demand that has come from Europe, particularly from Bonham’s because people are buying not only the work of emerging young Africans but also more traditional and older artists that have passed on like Irma Stern. Therefore, what are the indicators, how do you ascribe value to artworks from this market,” she asked. “You have an artist that might be a street artist, an artist who uses found objects and an artist who has PhDs and things; or International exposure or one who is more interested in Voodoo or something like that. Now how do you ascribe value?” 

Loubser suggested that there are three indicators that have been looked at by some contemporary art galleries. The first being publications, the second being the amount of art criticism and research that has been done around a particular artist, and the third thing is whether the artist has been given a one-person exhibition in a gallery or an art museum. Concerning the issue of research, she suggested this was of the utmost importance, and that it really needed to be encouraged pointing out collections such as The Contemporary South African Black Art Collection or the The De Beers Centenary Collection at the University of Fort Hare, the oldest black university in the country, founded in 1916. These collections which include works of icons such as George Pemba, Gerald Sekoto and Dumile Feni also house a wide range of disciplines such as etchings, woodcuts, wood blocks, linocuts, serigraphs, drawings, paintings and sculpture representing more than 170 artists most of whom have not been researched on in depth. Also within the Eastern Cape, she made mention of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum, which houses work by Gladys Mgudlandlu whose solo exhibition in Johannesburg in the early 1960s was reported as the first for a black African woman during the apartheid era. Loubser stated not enough has been written about Mgudlandlu and the work by others in the museum and that there is much that upcoming researchers could work with despite the sometimes restrictive nature of these institutions in terms of their archive accessibility more so the Fort Hare collection. 

Asked how she thought countries such as Zambia which may not have the infrastructure of the countries she earlier mentioned would benefit from a piece of the global pie concerning the demand for contemporary African art, she suggested partnerships in terms of exhibitions and research projects within the SADC region would be beneficial to start with.

This unprecedented demand for modern and contemporary art from Africa is reflected not only by the likes of Bonham’s as Loubser points out in May last year Sotheby’s London held an inaugural sale for its Modern and Contemporary African Art department, with 115 works selling for a total of  $3.6 million. This year a long-lost Nigerian masterpiece by Ben Enwonu that was found in a London apartment set a record for Bonham’s at $1.67 million during Africa Now, the first-ever evening sale of contemporary African art at the auction house and collectors are also discovering works through ever growing fairs such as 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, in London, New York and Marrakech.
Annette Loubser graduated from Rhodes University in Grahamstown, receiving a B.F.A. in painting in 1974. She later went on to receive her M.F.A in painting, her B.A. Honors in Art History, and a postgraduate diploma in Mural Painting and Stained Glass from various institutions. She last showed her own artwork in Johannesburg three years ago, but has not been engaged with her personal art practice since then. See:

Galerie NOKO is housed in a landmark building that has recently been renovated to contemporary values on one of Port Elizabeth’s main route, Russell road.  A uniquely positioned building, it is bordered on the back by Campbell street as it faces Russell road and on either sides by Bain and Moffat  streets. See:

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Of Makishi Mona Lisas and Last Suppers

By Andrew Mulenga

(This article was first published in the Bulletin & Record Magazine - 2014 - under a different title)

In 2011, a young artist, Ignatius Sampa created ripples on the Zambian art scene when he daringly introduced the public to radical images of characters from the Makishi masquerades and Mukanda initiation rites in caricatured portrayals and renderings of not only everyday life but of famous paintings by Leonardo Da Vinci like it had never seen before.

Ignatius Sampa, 2013, Mwana Pwo,
oil on canvas
In fact, his Makishi Last Supper (after Leonardo Da Vinci) was bought by the Lechwe Art Trust, making him the youngest artist to have work included in the prestigious collection of Zambian art overseen by Cynthia Zukas at the age of 20. 

A time honoured, sacred custom the initiations rites of the top-secret Mukanda society and its masked characters are revered by the Luvale, Chokwe, Luchazi and Mbunda people of North Western and Western provinces of Zambia as custodians of male initiation.

But about a year after his witty entrance onto the scene, Sampa vanished, casting aside his brushes and canvases falling completely off the visual arts radar. The rumours that he had quit art for good and either taken to the bottle or opened his own liquor retail business at the height of the infamous Tujili jili (bootleg spirit sachets) period were tossed here and there, and the young rogue artist was hard to trace having switched several mobile phone numbers.

Ignatius Sampa, 2014, Culture and religion,
oil on canvas
Last year, however, Sampa bounced back reappearing at the Art Academy Without Walls (AAWW) in the Lusaka Showgrounds where he had previously made friends. He set up studio space and started to work once again, all the more with a somewhat renewed enthusiasm.

But again he became inconsistent sometimes disappearing for a week or longer as he had now landed a job as the resident graphic designer at the Food Lover’s Market in Levy Junction Mall. Even amidst these brash disappearing maneuvers, the artist remained busy in the background.

Sampa now has a huge body of work that could easily be ready for a solo exhibition, but he is in no hurry to show it.

Ignatius Sampa, 2013, Makishi Last Supper, oil on canvas
“Now I’m just painting because art is what I love doing. I’m not painting to sell at all, maybe later but not know, yes I will put a work in an exhibition now and then but I’m not really thirsty to sell. Sometimes people will offer me money for a work but I won’t sell it because I want to be looking at it myself”, he recently said with a slight air of narcissism.
Surely if you visit the one room space he has converted into living quarters in the Lusaka Showgrounds, just behind Riflemen -- the army run civilian’s pub -- you will find stacks of fascinating Makishi themed paintings regrettably hidden from public view and enjoyment.

Ignatius Sampa, 2014, Culture lessons, oil on canvas
It is here you will find paintings such as Mwana Pwo, one of the most celebrated among the masked characters that represent the “ideal young woman” or “purest maiden”. Sampa portrays Mwana Pwo as the Mona Lisa. But the similarities between Sampa’s and Leonardo’s depiction of Lisa Del Giaconda ends at the posture, enigmatic smile and partially, the outer garment.

He does not mimic the eerie background of the Italian master that depicts some imaginary landscape with glacial mountains, winding paths, and a bridge. In his version, the background undoubtedly shows the Mosi-Oa- Tunya (Victoria Falls) and a few shrubs. Most likely, the artist was trying to further “Zambianize” the portrait by giving it this backdrop.

Ignatius Sampa, 2014, Dinner, oil on canvas
By many western schools of artistic thought, the Mona Lisa is considered Da Vinci’s greatest work and a symbol of picture-perfect beauty, likewise, Mwana Pwo in the Makishi culture represents the ideal maiden and Sampa appears to be toying with this concept. 

Another clever painting is Culture and Religion. It shows the Pope in a brotherly embrace with a Likishi, with one arm across the shoulder of the other, they face their backs towards the viewer while waving at a multitude from a balcony.

As the title and the picture suggests, Sampa is proposing that “foreign” religion and “local” traditions should work hand in hand, one beside the other.

Ignatius Sampa, 2014, Exchanging culture, oil on canvas
In Dinner, he portrays a Likishi couple at a table having a western style candlelight dinner complete with a bottle of red wine and tall stemmed wine glasses. The candlelight bounces off the wall of the traditional mud hut in which the couple is dining providing a dramatic visual effect of stark contrast between the dark and light areas of the painting.

Exchanging Culture is a wedding scene. The blond, blue-eyed bride of European extraction is veiled in a frilly white wedding dress as per western tradition – or indeed the surrogate custom borrowed in present day Africa -- and the groom is the kind who’s mask faces the sky. The couple is being wed before a large crowd of Makishi and before the crowd is a large three tier wedding cake on the groom’s side while on the bride's side there appears to be a large batch of the Zambian polony-like vegetarian delicacy Chikanda .

Ignatius Sampa, 2014, Expression of Dance,
oil on canvas
This the clever and often quirky way that Sampa plays around with clashing cultures and dissimilar traditions, and as far as never being short of surprises goes, he does not disappoint.

Sampa’s choice of concept has not always sat well with everyone though. He once alluded to being harassed by artists whose traditional homeland is North Western province and regarded him as an outsider who has no right to dabble in the Luvale, Chokwe, Luchazi and Mbunda people’s sacred customs himself being a Northerner.

Sampa confesses that this intimidation is what partially led to him quitting the scene for a while, but then he remembered that he has the entire artistic license and every right as the next man to refer to use Makishi culture as reference material to inform his artwork.
His ethos can be summed up in what he once said of his Makishi Last Supper, "All the last supper paintings I've seen have 'white' people in them, so I thought I should make one that is more African, in fact, more Zambian, and for me there is nothing that represents Zambia more strongly than the Makishi".

Ignatius Sampa, 2014, National team, oil on canvas
The paintings mentioned here are just a handful of what he currently has in stock both at home and at the cubicle he used to occupy at the Art Academy Without Walls AAWW, so if his type of work tickles your fancy and you can find him in the right mood, he just might be able to let go of some of these fascinating paintings for a reasonable price while he still ponders what next to do with them.

Apart from a residency at the AAW in 2010 when he joined the Visual Arts Council of Zambia (VAC) and the August Studio workshops for up-coming artists held in the Lusaka show grounds Sampa has had no formal training in art.

Ignatius Sampa, 2014, Moving culture to another level
(oil on canvas)
He first started experimenting with art when he observed his brothers and sisters working on their art projects for final secondary school examinations at their home in Chunga and during his early teens he received some guidance from Dominic Yombwe. He looks up to another young painter, Caleb Chisha, who showed him the ropes when he just joined the AAW but he says his use of colours is inspired by the palette of Lawrence Yombwe of Wayi Wayi Art Studio and Gallery in Livingstone.

At 23 Sampa’s talent puts him in good stead; we can only hope he begins to treat art with the seriousness and commitment that deserves, hoping he can assume a more professional and less pastime type of approach. His potential is boundless. - ENDS

Ignatius Sampa, 2014, Family Portrait, oil on canvas

Ignatius Sampa