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Monday, 14 May 2012

Government, art patrons have lost the plot

By Andrew Mulenga
Perhaps the demands of a lifelong career as a graphic designer in the Zambia Information Services (ZIS) have not permitted Livingstone-based Benjamin Mibenge to become a household name on the gallery scene.
Mibenge - government is not
doing much for the arts
However, being a student of Zambian contemporary art legends Akwila Simpasa (who provided Bemba lyrics on Eddy Grant’s song Africa) and Henry Tayali has obviously left an indelible mark on him. This coupled with his own phenomenal talent and experience places him securely among the country’s most important artists of all time.
Clearly disappointed by current public and private art patronage, in an interview, the 67-year-old retiree looks back at the Zambian art scene in retrospect and does not like what he sees.
“If we try to go back, as far as the 60s things were better than they are today. Artists were respected professionals. This is the time when we had the late Akwila Simpasa and Henry Tayali, we also had Billy Nkunika who is now at the Zambia Open University and Gabriel Ellison who designed the flag and coat of arms”, he says.
He adds that not only did government take the arts seriously, but so did indigenous Zambian collectors and patrons, except in recent years both seem to have lost the plot.
“We had Tom Mtine, the Zukas’, the Musakanyas and even Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe (first vice-president of Zambia from 1967 to 1970 and later Minister of Culture) himself was a very big supporter and collector of the visual arts. That is why even today you find this young lady, the Kapwepwe who is chairperson for National Arts Council is still involved in the arts she must have taken after her father”.
Elephant (2006) ink on paper,
by Ben Mibenge
 “But it’s not only the private collectors. My government too is not doing much for the arts as far as I am concerned. Government should immediately employ or assign people to specifically acquire and decorate our embassies with Zambian art; it used to be done in the 60s and 70s, why not now?”
He misses the days when government used to sponsor exhibitions and the state-owned mines would run competitions in schools as he drifts further into the past by talking about his career.
“I went to Evelyn Hone College in 1971 and graduated in 1974. I studied art but went into graphic art, and in 1975 I joined ZIS. The same year I was sent to Mozambique and Iran to design Zambian exhibition spaces for trade fairs, I was on a trip abroad at least once a year, merely as a graphic designer”, he remembers. “At ZIS I worked with Aquila Simpasa, my former lecturer as well as Mr Maunga, a brilliant illustrator with work in a lot of Zambian books. I rose from Graphic Designer to Manager Information and retired in 2002”.
After retirement, he was approached to redesign the interiors of the Livingstone and Moto Moto Museum in Mbala along with long time friend Pythias Mbewe, formerly curator of the Copperbelt Museum. In fact, Mbewe is another unsung hero whom while just a student at the Evelyn Hone College in the early 70s designed the campus’ Church Road entrance. Here, one can just marvel at the sheer irony in the fact that for decades students have used this entrance without realising it was designed by an alumni.
Rhino (1977) ink on paper, by Ben Mibenge
Nevertheless, while he is not impressed with the status quo of the arts in the country, Mibenge still has a lot of confidence and pride in the artists themselves.
“I am happy with how hard artists have continued to work even among little or no support. It is not easy. Look at my drawings; I have nowhere to reproduce them in Zambia because no one has the capacity. So I have to send them to South Africa for reproduction”, he explains, “You can imagine how much they will cost after all this? So instead, I have to reproduce them cheaply and at least, sell them. I do have a wife and grand children to support”.
Mibenge’s meticulously executed drawings sell for K300, 000 at the Livingstone museum. It is indeed sad to see such high quality work being sold at Sunday market prices.
He draws wildlife like nothing you have seen before, where the image of an elephant is made up of a tapestry of intertwined lizards, snakes, lions, monkeys, and mice almost like a decorative tattoo. In fact, at a glance his work looks like decorative pen and ink drawings but It is when you draw closer that you can see the complexity of his detail.
For the elephant, he explains that according to many African cultures, the animal’s meat is said to contain the combined flavours and meats of every animal in the forest. An elephant’s leg may taste like buffalo, its trunk like warthog, its ears like antelope and so on, which is why his illustration of the animal is a combination of all.
An avid environmentalist, Mibenge is Wildlife and Environment Conservation Society of Zambia Livingstone branch chairman. 

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