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Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Yombwe interrogates corruption, love, homosexuality in latest show

Yombwe (far right) with fellow artists Stary Mwaba
(centre) and William Miko (left)

By Andrew Mulenga
Lawrence Yombwe’s good-natured persona should not disguise the fact that he has always been a painter with a radical outlook. In 1990, he was instrumental in initiating “Artists For Change” a group exhibition held at the then Ridgeway Hotel and now Holiday Inn to raise money to support multi-party politics in Zambia.
Corruption Iyoo
(Acrylic on hessian)
Judging from his just ended solo exhibition “Love Affairs” at the Alliance Francaise in Lusaka, about 22 years after “Artists for Change”, he is still a bit of a rabble-rouser as he interrogates locally spiky issues such as corruption on various facets as well as homosexuality.
His work suggests that corruption is still very alive in Zambian society despite calls and claims of the vice being contained by authorities.
“Corruption is still there, everywhere around us, but we tend to look the other way and pretend it doesn’t exist”, he says.
“And if you look at elderly people, it’s not every one of them who is capable of guiding a people just because they are advanced in years. Some leaders are respected just because they are old with grey hair but they are irresponsible and incapable of leadership”, he says pointing to a large painting entitled ‘Corruption Iyoo (toilet)’.
This particular painting depicts two grey haired men urinating facing cisterns in opposite directions. One of them crouches, peering into the toilet bowl for a better aim. The other urinates nonchalantly facing upwards and sprinkling all over the floor as a result. As Yombwe explains, the picture depicts both a careless as well as cautious senior citizen in leadership positions.
In most of his work, Yombwe borrows symbols from the Mbusa initiation rites practiced by the Bemba tribe of Northern Province. According to tradition, the symbols objectives are aimed at helping to mould young men and women into responsible citizens.  
In ‘Corruption Iyoo (toilet)’, Yombwe borrows the symbols once again. The floor in this ‘’gents room” that is being sprinkled by the careless elder is tiled in a typical Mbusa motif of shaded triangles that symbolizes anything from hygiene to patience. The painting’s background is adorned in little “C-like” symbols that represent “pamo” meaning unity, togetherness or company. The ones behind the careless elder are scattered in every direction whereas the ones behind the crouching elder are well organised in rows and columns.
In “Corruption (Homo & Heterogeneous)” Yombwe grapples with homosexuality and sees himself as the male in the heterosexual couple in the middle of the painting, flanked by a homosexual male couple to the left and a lesbian couple to the right.
“I don’t know how they (gay people) feel, I don’t know whether they are born like that or are just fooling around, I really don’t know”, says Yombwe, a father of two “when I look at how other countries have accepted this, I ask how it has affected their development? We need to learn; maybe it’s no big deal, someone will look at the painting and explain it to me”.

Bashi & Bana Mpundu

It is obvious that homosexuality is secretly practiced in Zambia, with prisons, colleges, tourist hotspots and certain nightclubs being among the main arenas; society does not take kind to it. In fact, Same-sex sexual activity is proscribed by Cap. 87, Sections 155 through 157 of Zambia's penal code, homosexual or "carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature" is a felony punishable by imprisonment for 14 years. All the same, Yombwe is playing a fundamental role as an artist by putting his head under the guillotine by cross-examining this subject.
Meanwhile, Yombwe remains one of Zambia’s most emulated and plagiarised artists with “Sunday market” painters being among the major culprits in copying his style.
“I was invited to dinner by a collector who confessed that she had a painting that was an imitation of mine and has been hoping to buy an original,” he explains. “At one time I found the guys responsible at Arcades Sunday market, but then I probably can’t blame Arcades because I’m sure they don’t have an art expert to consult and advise them against copyright issues.  It’s not fair; it takes years to develop your own style”.
He says notifying the Visual Arts Council, the National Arts Council and other authorities on the matter has born nothing. In a similar vein, he complains that a general lack of engagement with the arts at the highest levels of Zambian society and the academic elite has not helped.
“We also have to really look at our education system; if you look at some of our graduates they are so behind in terms of art appreciation. You find someone with a masters degree is still an infant when it comes to reading art, this results in a society that is rigid and uncreative in all that they do,” he says.
Anyhow, Yombwe has continued to develop his technique, over the years working with rudimentary materials such as sackcloth (hessian) that he uses for both economy and identity giving his work a subtle yet sophisticated finish.
Mother & Child
“When I look at African art or the Mbusa symbols, the materials used are very simple, it’s pointless for me to use expensive material.  With simple materials, I can feel the texture, shape and form all working well, I am looking for a simpler way to convey my message, after all African art is functional and not materialistic,” he explains.
Considering a profile spanning 30 years, his latest show may have not been well publicised prior to its opening and most of his fans and collectors possibly missed out.
While the venue may have been more accessible to the public, one feels staging it at a high profile hotel could have been more suited in terms of capturing revenues as well as a new audience. This is not to say sales were reasonable probably owing to some literally pocket-sized works that could fit almost everyone’s pocket financially too including that of this author. The ones that particularly sold out were the series of tiny paintings, that could easily fit in a jacket pocket going for as little as K350,000 (three hundred thousand kwacha).
In contrast, we had huge life size paintings such “And They Danced” a colossal work costing  K40,000,000 (forty million Kwacha) this particular painting was literally aching for a hotel lobby, conference centre, or executive’s office as a flagship piece, it unfortunately never sold.
In addition, unlike his last show that featured a well-designed booklet edited by Professor Stewart Crehan and lecturer fine arts William Miko, both of the Zambia Open University his latest one had nothing.
This however was compensated by some photocopied handouts of his profile, an artist's statement, and most interestingly a single copy of poems by the artist. The poems are married to some old paintings while some are paired to new ones; Yombwe has not yet decided whether to publish this material as a booklet.
Nevertheless, he has had over 12 solo exhibitions locally and abroad. He studied for art at the Africa Literature Centre in Kitwe in 1980, Croydon College in the UK in 1987, Evelyn Hone College in 1990, went on to teach at Matero boys and subsequently proceeded to Botswana where he taught for 10 years alongside his wife and fellow artist Agness Buya.

Corruption Iyoo (Hetero & Homosexual)

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