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Monday, 19 September 2011

Makishi in a new light

In Makishi Last Supper  (oil), Ignatius Sampa is bending
new corners by exploring the fertile fusion of western
and African tradition, spirituality and culture

By Andrew Mulenga

Little known Lusaka artist Ignatius Sampa might easily be ignored as just another brick in the wall of upcoming Zambian artists, and may not even warrant space in this column if the red tape within the creative fraternity were to be adhered to.
However, the 20-year-old painter seems to have a deep-rooted interest in Makishi masquerades and with it he delivers a quirky yet unique amalgam of Western and Zambian culture provoking a deeper inquiry into contemporary Zambian painting in general and the visual culture of North Western Province in particular.
Interplay of cultures:
Makishi Horse Rider
Of course it is common knowledge that the Makishi mask characters of the Lunda, Luvale, Lwena, Luchazi, Mbunda and Chokwe people represent a pantheon of ancestral spirits that traditionally play a crucial role during the "Mukanda" initiation process of young men into adulthood, the enthronement of chiefs and other lesser sociopolitical or indeed tourist events, and it is therefore not surprising to see them in photographs and paintings. But to see 13 of these characters depicted sitting around a table in the manner of Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper as seen in Sampa's Makishis Last Supper strangely offers the viewer a visual treat if anything else.
Wether intentional or subliminal, depicting the Makishi characters in this manner somewhat strips them of their spiritual and sacred dimensions in an African context as they assume the positions of the men by whose faith Christendom was founded, the men who form the very cornerstone of Western faith, Jesus of Nazareth and his 12 disciples.
Speaking of which, if this was medieval Europe, Sampa would have surely been burnt alive at the stake for heresy as was the fate met by many an individual whose beliefs, scientific and creative expressions was interpreted wrongly by overseers of the church and state in those days.
This also brings to mind Catholic-raised, Jamaican-American artist and political activist Renée Cox's 1996 nude self portrait as Christ in Yo Mama's Last Supper which was also modelled around Da Vinci's. At the time, Cox claimed the work intended to explore the idea that all humans are created in God's image even a "marginalised black American woman". Rudolf Giuliani the mayor of New York at the time called the work "anti Catholic" and "obscene" and threatened to form a "decency commission" for the museum in which the work was hanging.
Anyhow, back to Sampa, as he continues to toy with his witty portrayals of the Makishi in an interplay of cultures such as in Makishi Horse Rider, his work appears to possess a whimsical, yet intelligent play of sarcasm. Of course the makishi never ride horses, worse still, white ones complete with seed-shaker ankle bracelets similar to the ones worn by traditional dancers to provide percussion while they dance to the beat of drums.
Another work entitled Young Dancers, depicts three nubile dancers who appear to be initiates showing their faces, they too wear, yes, you guessed right, makishi masks  over the faces. The young painter is clearly on a roll establishing a new idiom in which the Makishi is taking up multiple roles and characters.
Nevertheless, looking at his content at face value, particularly Makishi Last Supper, one can safely argue that Sampa is desecrating both sides of the veil western and African. But at any rate, this young artist with a very humble academic background is bending new corners by exploring the high-yielding fusion of western and African tradition, spirituality and culture. He is surely a breath of fresh air as of late originality appears to have stagnated with regards artistic content. Zambia has not really adapted too well to the so called conceptual movement and new media art that uses new materials such as video and sound, the current ethos of contemporary art, and some may argue that the local art scene is left behind. But the "new" or "contemporary" should not be defined merely by what materials and concepts are being used in art. Instead they should be defined by artists being daring enough to follow their creative calling and challenge the mundane, or the run-of-the-mill as it were. Is it not Picasso himself, the best-known figure in 20th century art who said "People want to find a meaning in everything and everyone. That's the disease of our age, an age that is anything but practical but believes itself to be more practical than any other". Therefore, anyone thinking outside the creative box must be welcomed and encouraged, even if he is a young, inexperienced artist raised in Lusaka's Chunga who does not feel too comfortable talking about his academic background. But as to who's role it is in the artistic dominion, one cannot tell.
Sampa was one of the participants at this years August Studio workshops for up-coming artists held in the Lusaka show grounds and his works can be seen in a forthcoming exhibition slated for early October.
He took up art seriously in 2005 when he was 14 years old after being advised to join the Visual Arts Council of Zambia by Dominic Yombwe. He says he has received much guidance and encouragement from Caleb Chisha, another young painter, only 5 years his senior, although he draws inspiration from Livingstone based artist Lawrence Yombwe with regards colour palette and technique.
Of his Makishi Last Supper, Sampa says, "All the last supper paintings I've seen have 'white' people in them, so I thought I should make one more African, in fact more Zambian, and for me there is nothing that represents Zambia more strongly than the Makishi".

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