By Andrew Mulenga
Sitting down to reflect on the Arts Council of the African Studies Association 15th Triennial Symposium on African art (ACASA 2011)held on the UCLA campus in Los Angeles recently, a tsunami of memories comes gushing through the mind's door.
Sifting through the debris brings about a series of wistful smiles to the lips as well as a sequence of head-scratching.
Among the memories, are how, in LA's little Ethiopia, an area filled with Ethiopian businesses and restaurants, a waitress would walk up to your dinner table after noticing your empty wine glass and ask "may I get you another cab sir?". Before you can answer, she turns round, disappears into the kitchen and returns with a full glass of wine. Then it dawns that the "cab" in question is not a taxi, it is short for "Cabernet sauvignon", the French red grape varietal. Surely a Zambian washing down an Ethiopian dish of ‘Injera’ (the nemesis of Zambian nsima) in metropolitan LA with wine from a French grape grown in California provides something of a cultural melting pot.
A melting pot that can be likened to ACASA 2011 which saw traditional and contemporary African art being boiled in the same calabash through the many conference paper presentations, discussions, museum and gallery exhibition visits. Artists, curators, art historians, art academicians and archaeologists came together for four days of intense intellectual discourse that examined the current status of Africa's cultural resources and the influence - for good or ill - of market forces both inside and outside the continent.
Still reflecting, another memory pops up in the form of a question. What was the deputy editor of the Education Post by day - and art journalist by night - doing presenting a conference paper amongst the likes of John Picton from the University of London, Sydney L. Kasfir of Emory University, Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie of the University of California Santa Barbara and other demigods in the pantheon of Western-based African art historians and academics? Simple - Zambia has no art historians and the closest thing we have had to a regular art journal in the past eight years has been this very column, "Andrew Mulenga's Hole In The Wall" and therefore the closest excuse for a Zambian art historian is the author 'yours truly'. But what has really aggravated such a scenario of lacking in the area of a art historian is the fact that Zambia's academic elite have continued to look down upon the arts from their glass ceiling. As such, the University of Zambia still has no room for the creative arts as a discipline.
Fortunately about two years ago the Zambia Open University introduced a BA in Fine Arts, a faculty that is under the tutelage of William Miko. Luckily Miko, an artist turned academic, was also present to save Zambia's face at ACASA 2011 where he literally 'stood and sang for Zambia proud and free' as per lyrics of the national anthem, subliminally playing the role of 'arts and culture minister' a derelict portfolio which Zambia does not seem to have the political will for.
Nevertheless, Miko, in his own reflections of ACASA 2011 says attending the symposium "felt like taking part in the World Cup dialogue of the African arts - from traditional forms (tribal) to new genres in contemporary art discourse."
Miko says to him the papers presented, the discussions and gallery visits unravelled past, present and future artistic paradigms.
"What inspired me most was to share the podium and interact with world renown authorities on the African arts who ranged from art funders like the Getty Foundation staff, researchers, artists to academicians and curators of international repute," he explains. "The Zambian delegation comprising Andrew Mulenga from the Post Newspaper and myself from the Zambian Open University, managed to indemnify contemporary Zambian art and inscribe it on the minds of most delegates".
He says as a result, a number of museum, gallery experts and PhD research candidates have already expressed their intents and wishes to come and research on Zambian art. More importantly, a lot of experts met wished to establish collaborative projects and offered literature on the arts and expertise to the Zambian delegation.
As Miko asserts, the gallery visits were among the most intriguing aspects of ACASA 2011. Apart from getting to see works by Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Yinka Shonibare and South Africa's Zwilethu Mtetwa, chats with the likes of Chrisrine Kim, associate curator of contemporary art at the LA County Museum Of Art (LACMA) and Lauri Firstenberg director and curator at Laxart gallery in south LA revealed some interesting aspects of the role of curators in the contemporary art world.
While Kim is from a big budget, and more mainstream gallery system and Firstenberg is from a smaller and sort of anti-establishment backdrop, both resolved the fact that a curator is in fact an artist except his or her palette does not hold paints, but the works of artists. And instead of canvases or blocks of marble, they use galleries or exhibition spaces as a platform for expression. This in turn means curating an exhibition is not just a matter of hanging paintings on the wall.
The African arts symposium is sponsored by ACASA which was established in 1982 as an independent non-profit association affiliated with the African Studies Association.
The next gathering is slated for New York, followed by the first one on the African continent to be held in Ghana.
While most members of ACASA are US or Western-based, a record 15 delegates from the African continent were sponsored by the Getty Foundation for this year’s event.