Search This Blog

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Lwando’s demystifying of tribal sculptures yields peculiar results

By Andrew Mulenga

Another painting from Lwando’s
Stereotyped IDs shows a figurine
adorned with multi-coloured beeds
‘Afrocentric’, the two-man exhibition by Chilyapa 'Danny' Lwando and Nezias 'Neziland' Nyirenda that has been running at the Henry Tayali Gallery in the Lusaka showgrounds yielded some interesting results last week, particularly on the part of Lwando.
Two weeks ago, Lwando revealed that the "Stereotyped IDs" series  of his paintings for this exhibition were inspired by viewers' squeamish reactions to classical anthropomorphic African wood carvings and masks, the kind that unenlightened Europeans or the global west used to refer to as 'fetishes'.
"The reason why I went into this is because of the different reactions people had when I was doing a photographic documentary on these objects. (African) people are generally scared of them because they are believed to be used for magic, but honestly, some were just used by chiefs as ornamental objects. But people, especially black Zambians are still scared of them," explained Lwando. "They were actually small sculptures, collected by a white man, from different parts of Zambia and Congo, but mostly congo.”
If Lwando's supposedly innocent motive is true and that his intention was to observe viewers’ reactions, then he must have been more pleased than surprised when he ended up capturing the attention of a "non-intended' audience of European extraction who bought every single piece from his "Stereotyped ID" series, handpicking them out of the paintings that were themed differently.
Nevertheless,  as Lwando alluded, it is not surprising that Africans may cringe at the sight of traditional wood carvings because of the functional usage of these objects in the cultural systems from which they are derived. The figures may be used for anything ranging from simple medicinal functions to oath-taking, invoking of ancestral spirits and sorcery among other things, but for most, their functions remain a mystery.
It may not just be the spiritual aspect but also the physical aspect of the objects that Africans are unable to stomach, many feel a sense of genetic attachment to the ancient spirits of the 'ancestors' that may inhabit such objects and fear to be associated with them.
The objects that inspired Lwando's paintings such as the small wooden figurines from North Western Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo  (DRC) are habitually ghastly in appearance owing to the random metal spikes that they have protruding from them or the human hair, finger nails and animal skins that are fitted on them as magical ingredients.
A painting from Lwando’s Stereotyped IDs shows the side
view of a sculpture with nails protruding from its back
Ironically, the elements that seem to ward off local art lovers do not seem to bother Western collectors. They have no issue with them and have remained voracious collectors of these items for centuries.
Augustine Chisenga, a craftsman from Ndola's Twapia township on the Copperbelt who collects and sells the objects once explained that the 'fetishes' are defused of their mystical powers by traditional healers and are then made ready for sale in the art market. This does not seem to bother collectors at all. "These antiques are treasured by whites (western tourists) when they visit my stall they buy my antiques without complaining about prices," said Chisenga (Weekend Post, Friday February 12, 2004).
Lwando's attempt to 'aestheticize' the 'fetish' image by painting it may have a two pronged result for him as a painter. First, if he becomes charmed by the geometric rendering of the human body as can be seen in these carvings, he is bound to continue on this trajectory of experiment which will in the long run have an effect on his style, that might be a good thing. Second, if he sees the paintings of these images as a money-spinner, owing to the enthusiasm of the Caucasian collector, he again is bound to continue but risks falling into the trap of producing production-line, or airport art, that could be a bad thing.
All this said, there is no harm in borrowing from the aesthetics of African sculpture. Did it not influence European artists who were key in the development of modern art, art in the western paradigm. In their paintings, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse with their Parisian friends copied the geometric treatment of the human form that is prevalent in African sculptures, they blended this with the styles extracted from  Cézanne and Gauguin post-Impressionist works. The outcome was a graphic flatness, and fractured geometric shapes that helped to define Cubism. Obviously, these artists knew nothing of the original, ritual use and function of these carvings but were fascinated by their composition and plagarised these qualities to their own advantage to transcend the naturalism that was the essence of Western art since the Renaissance.
Lwando's "Stereotype IDs" reminds us of the otherworldly lure that classical African cultures, or tribal art as it were, has always had on the West from the first time they encountered it. From Picasso to Lwando the painter and Chisenga the craftsman's collectors, to those who have used it as a touchstone for art historical research the images continue to be hypnotic. Why is this so, you may ask. That will probably remain a mystery deeper than that harboured by these very objects of marvel.


  1. Dear Andrew,
    I thank you for all comments you made for those paintings; It helps me understand the background of fine arts in zambia ; we have got the same perception to those arts due to their physical aspects: they remind us sorcery, fetishes and mystery from traditional societies. I take this opportunity to congratulate you for your skills as art critic: let's go ahead by improving your research.
    Best regards
    Theodore / DRCONGO.

  2. This blog is really helpful for me as I was looking for high quality Barneo tribal art. Thanks for sharing it.
    Sell tribal scupture then you can surely visit them.