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Sunday, 27 May 2012

Last kicks of a dying mouse and monkey

By Andrew Mulenga

A mouse stands casually with his legs crossed in a “4”. His reading glasses show he is educated, his smart, one button jacket and black shoes radiate class and the four bottles of beer in his hands mean he has just been paid.

A penniless monkey pleads for alcohol from an
indifferent mousein typical Ngoni-Bemba
‘Chimbuya’ style by an unknown
1980s artist in Lusaka’s Mtendere township
His thirsty friend, the monkey walks up to him, empty hands humbly clasped together in a pleading position with his tail between his legs. A symbol of assumed humility. The t-shirt, torn trousers and gumboots show he is poor, a humble labourer, or squandered all his money and is forced downgrade his wardrobe.  

Such a narrative is typical of post-independence Zambian tavern art. And according to residents of Mtendere township in Lusaka, the rare specimen mentioned here dates back to the 80s.

The slightly damaged and heavily discoloured painting is in Drunkards Pub, a time honoured opaque beer tavern at the So Chabe complex that has obviously changed names over the years.
Luckily, unlike many of its kind in taverns across the country, the wall that bears it has not received a new coat of paint in decades. As a result, the work is quite well preserved, although chipped and bearing a splash of graffiti or two here and there.

This type of painting was commonplace in the 70s, 80s and perhaps early 90s. Not only did they serve a decorative purpose but would also light heartedly teach patrons of the taverns to share when they have surplus. In the case of this mouse and monkey scenario, the latter had a tendency of switching taverns and disappearing when he has money, only to return to beg when he is broke.

But, why the use of a mouse and monkey in this allegory you might ask? Without pretending to be an ethnologist one would say; in the concept of chimbuya or ‘tribal cousinship’ - a playful form of, ‘ethnic sparring’ enjoyed between Zambian tribes that were at war at least a century ago; a mouse represents the Ngoni from the east whereas a monkey represents the Bemba from the north.

It is not clear why, but the mouse may symbolize the Ngoni because they consider it a culinary delight and the monkey are supposed to be a delicacy to the Bemba.

But enough of the symbolism. Although this type of artwork is disappearing in urban Zambia, it used to be commonplace and it harkens back to colonial times. Times when Zambia was still Northern Rhodesia and taverns or beer halls were not only places where hundreds of natives would gather for beer in the evenings but would also engage in social and political debate.

Arts expert and Secretary of the Lechwe Art Trust Committee in Lusaka, Roy Kausa grew up on the copperbelt and shares his take on the evolution of Zambian tavern art and how it possibly produced one of Zambia’s greatest artists, a man to whom the design of the country’s most famous monument, the Freedom Statue is attributed, Akwila Simpasa himself.

In the late 50s, when he was still in Chamboli (mine township), in Kitwe, Akwila, used to draw social commentaries on tavern walls in charcoal. The commentaries were based on the moment, hardships that people would undergo,” he says.

Being in the colonial era, this of course would have been an outrageous crime attracting severe punishment.

He couldn’t get arrested because the community enjoyed what he was doing and when they hear that the Mine Police are coming they would raise an alarm, quickly help erase the charcoal  drawings and hide the artist”. Says Kausa.

So in essence, if Kausa’s remarks are anything to go by, tavern art started out as graffiti to the authorities although it was beloved by the township dwellers, who could relate to it because it belonged to them. It was their art, art for the people by the people. In addition, the artist was therefore a folk hero of sorts. Art came to them in the township; they did not have to follow it to a white-walled gallery in the city, for them every day was an exhibition opening.

In its own way, this site-specific art challenged the innocence of space much like what conceptual art is doing today; artists such as Akwila are therefore passive or unacknowledged pioneers of contemporary conceptual art without even knowing it.

Back to our beloved mouse and monkey. It is sad to see that they have failed to adapt to the present and are no longer there to instil values to tavern patrons because the walls have been painted over with cell phone company advertisements. Sad to see that the two characters have failed to find themselves on the canvas of a gallery artist although this was achieved by Stephen Kappata who died five years ago at 68.

In its golden age, Zambian tavern art did not just depict the monkey and mouse, but also kalulu the hare, ‘Dona Fish’ (mermaids), famous musicians of the time such as Congolese singer Franco and a hairy and clawed biblical King Nebuchadnezzar that taught against pride.

One can only hope we are not witnessing the death of a genre, the last kicks of a dying mouse and monkey, something truly Zambian.

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