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Monday, 16 July 2012

University schooling essential in contemporary art world - Machona

By Andrew Mulenga
Outspoken Lusaka artist, arts consultant and fine arts lecturer in the school of Media and Performing Arts at the privately owned Zambia Open University, William Miko is often considered a dreamer by many in the Zambian art scene with his continuous advocacy for the introduction of fine arts at bachelor degree level at the University of Zambia persistently falling on deaf ears.
I Am My Doll (Detail), colour photographic print
by Phiwokule Khumalo (3rd year student)
Whenever given the opportunity at public forums he never hesitates to make it a point to advocate for his cause of “correcting the national anomaly” as he puts it.
“The University of Zambia has been producing aesthetically blind graduates at BA, masters and postgraduate level, that’s why they have failed to make a school of art in the past almost 50 years. It is a national anomaly” he recently said addressing at least 300 art teachers from Lusaka province at the launch of the Zambia schools art exhibition held at Nkwazi School.
“We (ZAOU) may not have the resources and infrastructure, but I intend for as many artists as possible to have degrees so that they can go into schools and become headmasters or head of departments. I believe this is a revolution that I call the ‘national anomaly’ or ‘correcting the national anomaly’”.
Collaborative printmedia project based on
the Dada Exquisite Corpse, Linocut
prints by 2nd year students
Kiara Waterrmeyer, Sarah Juckes,
Callan Grecia and Jennifer Ball
Miko who has a Masters Degree in Fine Art (1999) from Middlesex University, London, UK and has lectured in Nigeria, France, Switzerland, Sweden and the USA dreams of a day when all the 67 fine arts students currently studying for their degrees at ZOAU will possess MA too.
But perhaps there is method to Miko’s madness and persistent rambling rabble-rousing. Maybe artists do need to possess degrees in drawing, painting and photography and merely possessing the natural skill or ability to create is not enough?
As such, the display at Rhodes University’s Annual Student Exhibition that is held during the country’s National Arts Festival in Grahamestown may be testament to the importance of institutionalised art training at degree level.
Comprising a variety of traditional and contemporary media and spanning a broad range of conceptual and thematic concerns, the undergraduate art students reflect innovative and bold layers of discourse that reveal an almost frightening energy and can only be attributed to them undergoing rigorous theoretical and technical tutoring.
Untitled, oil and tape on board,
by Sarah Juckes (2nd year student)
Untitled, oil on canvas, by Francis Spangenberg
(4th year student)
“Like any other profession, if you go through an institutionalised process of learning it has its advantages, depending on how you apply it. It is easier for you to also fit into the bigger and more lucrative realm of global contemporary art and not fall into the economy of the craft market” says second-year MA fine arts student Gerald Machona who wasn’t part of the exhibition this year but was instead in Making A Way, a 16 man exhibition of critically acclaimed artists from China and South Africa whose theme was based on “forging new pathways physically, socially and conceptually” and was curated by Ruth Simbao who is Associate Professor of Art & Visual Culture and  has a PhD in African Art History from Harvard University.
“Studying art at degree or institutional level, you get to produce a body of work over the study period which can become an investigation into the human condition, or even identity politics. Look at this black child with a white doll for example”, he says pointing at a photograph of a dark skinned African child alongside a red-haired Caucasian doll in series of photographs entitled I Am My Doll by third-year student Phiwokule Khumalo “As much as there is innocence in it, it is important to question such things. With Institutional training you learn to create something critical that pushes the boundary. But you also benefit by gaining immense technical and theoretical skills, and also learn the importance of networking and not working in isolation.”
Certainly, the issue of dark skinned dolls is universal, even here in Zambia any parent with a girl child will know how difficult or literally impossible it is to get dolls with a darker skin hue in all the major toy and department stores, causing some culturally conscious parents to opt for Teddy bears or Mickey Mouse characters that bare no racial credentials.
Grandmothers favorite, charcoal on fabriano
by Mirra Berridge (2nd year)
Machona who did his undergraduate studies at the prestigious University of Cape Town adds that the current trend in international conferences and artist’s residencies too demand for a minimum of a BA in fine art for you to attend, and that it is becoming increasingly competitive.
“But don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t mean that artists who haven’t been through institutional training must be written off. Because similarly, the institutionally trained artist can tend to be boxed in”, he counter claims “They often tend to start making similar works, to feed into a certain category of the contemporary art world. They end up structuring their work around the western gallery system forgetting what might truly be patterning on the ground with in terms of the consumption of art.”
He also suggests that academically trained artists are at times very extreme in terms of pushing the boundaries and at times may step on people’s toes. He cites The Spear, a painting by South African artist Brett Murray that depicts President Jacob Zuma in a pose reminiscent of Lenin, with genitals exposed as an example of how liberated artists at a higher conceptual level can be. The painting has since triggered a law suit by the ANC.
Nevertheless, back to Miko and his solving of the ‘national anomaly’, his first set of graduates are set to be churned out next year. He also bemoans the distant learning system that he has had to engage because art is in itself a hand on discipline and cannot be studied by correspondence. The students are only in residency twice a year for two week intervals. Right now, ZAOU remains the sole provider of a BA in fine art in Zambia as art remains of no consequence at UNZA. But as Machona and Miko rightfully observe with changing times the art world demands artists to be academically trained

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