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Sunday, 18 November 2012

Is race a determining factor in art sales?

By Andrew Mulenga

In a short space of time, basically since 2010, when he caught the public’s eye at the age of 24 with “… and the dream came true” a painting of President Obama with Martin Luther King exhibited at the Heroes and Heroines exhibition during the Black History Month at the Lusaka National Museum, Caleb Chisha has rapidly established himself as one of Zambia’s most gifted young painters.

If Wishes Were Horses, 84 x 90cm,
(oil on canvas) by Caleb Chisha
His work at that exhibition was just a sign of things to come:  an affectionate engagement with the time-consuming process of painting and strict precision coupled with bold intensity of colour that he is now fusing with a deep imagination, giving him an extraordinarily unique visual style. His latest works, now showing alongside an artist simply named Fifo at the Zebra Crossing Café on Addis Ababa Drive in Lusaka suggest Chisha’s potential of being the country’s ‘next big painter’, an assumption that even Serena Ansley, the Café owner and art enthusiast agrees with.

Chisha, who left for Denmark on Thursday on a privately sponsored, three-month working tour whose details he was not too enthusiastic in disclosing, shared a few insights on his latest work speaking from his small studio space at the Arts Academy Without Walls, a makeshift artists workspace and popular hangout for established as well as upcoming painters and sculptors alike.

“I can say I have improved big time. Because since we last talked I never even had my own touch, but now, I can safely say I am becoming confident and developing my own touch. I think I have improved a lot,” said the Ndola-bred painter who migrated to Lusaka in pursuit of better prospects in art, a more positive twist to the infamous ‘Zimandola’ nickname given to the scores of sharp-witted, Bemba-speaking youths that migrated to the capital in swarms to hustle for a living as homeless youths, pickpockets, bus conductors, thugs and ladies of the night when the Copperbelt experienced a long-standing economic downturn shortly after the privatisation of the mines.

 “Last year I had a lot of commissioned works but this year I’ve been turning some of them down because I’ve been working for exhibitions, I’ve spent most of my time on exhibition work,” said the painter whose new found style, is an expressive language that is quite distinctive and is characterised by an aesthetic that mimics cut and torn canvases rendering layered meanings.

Incest, 85cm x 115cm, (oil on canvas),
by Caleb Chisha
“That’s my new touch, I am trying to reveal the hidden truths, and things people want to ignore and pretend are not there. So I paint a torn canvas to reveal the real world, things that people do not want to be seen,” said a self-assured Chisha.

A good example of his new work is If Wishes Were Horses. It is the image of young girl seated on the floor having her hair plaited in the manner that township girls do. She is deeply absorbed in thought with a pensive expression on her face, because in actual fact, she is not having her hair plaited. The person plating her hair is imaginary and appears as phantom-like figure under a canvas that has come to life. In the sides of the picture, the artist imitates the wooden inner mounting of the actual painting.

“For an African child it is believed beauty is in the hair, but as a poor girl she cannot afford to be taken to the hair salon, she can only wish to go there, so that is why when she is deep in her imagination there is that figure coming out of the canvas and plating her hair”, explained the artist of this particular work.

But as captivating as his work might be, it is a week since the opening and Chisha still has not sold a single of his 20 or so paintings whereas Fifo on the other hand has managed to sell about seven although their price tags are of relatively similar value. Formerly based in Malawi, the little known Fifo, has been working as a full time artist for only three years and this was her very first exhibition in Zambia meaning she did quite well for a virtually unknown, Mukushi-based artist who has suddenly attracted collectors in Lusaka, unless of course she travelled with them from Mkushi.

“It’s not easy when you are exhibiting with a white person; you know those guys (people of European decent) support each other. Even the people who bought Fifo’s works approached me and told me how much they liked my work but they never bought anything. But Anyway, it’s a one month exhibition, I am sure I will sell something before the end of the show, “explained Chisha of his sales predicament.

Chisha is probably the first artist on record to openly speak out on a dilemma that artists have been murmuring about for some time, except they never get the nerve to say so in the press, probably for fear of losing potential buyers. Race is pretty much a determinant in the purchasing of works and we often ignore to confront the issue of marginalisation of works by Zambians who are not of European decent when shown in an exhibition that attracts or involves the latter.

In simpler words, it is the colour of the artist’s skin and not his or her pallete that determines the sales in an exhibition, of course one cannot really put a finger on it, but it cannot be entirely ruled out.

I can do it, 53 x 67cm (oil on canvas)
by Caleb Chisha
Racial fragmentation, a topic that is tackled head-on in countries such as South Africa and Zimbabwe where identity politics is very much a part of their visual and verbal discourse in comedy, theatre, and the visual arts, is avoided as much as possible here in Zambia, including in the media. This very newspaper’s mission statement for instance is quite sensitive when it comes to referring to individuals by their racial heritage, one cannot be addressed as a ‘black’, ‘white’ or other.

Anyhow, Chisha may have a point, in February at the same venue, a relatively playful exhibition of paintings by artists virtually unknown on the Zambian circuit, Helen Gray, Storm Treger, Antoinette du Rand and Linda Castle literally sold out. Similarly, London-based Emily Kirby, who habitually visits her Zambian-based parents had extraordinary sales in May this year, so did Nicole Sanderson and Katrina Ring during the same period. Quentin Allen’s show as absorbing as it was goes without saying.

But these ‘European decent’ sales are not restricted to this venue alone. The Alliance Francaise in Lusaka too has had quite a few shows with a similar pattern, the latest being ‘Dreaming’ a delightful solo exhibition by Carol Aslin.

Chisha’s observation in any case can be interpreted as a cry, a cry if not to ‘his kind’ to start purchasing art; it is the cry for support from a technically unemployed youth who is managing to earn a living by means of his creative talents.

He has had no training beyond completing grade 12 at Kansenshi Secondary school in 2006 and in his last interview he was in a dilemma as whether to enrol for a Diploma in art the Evelyn Hone College or a BA in Fine Art at the Zambian Open University. Of course it does not automatically mean that qualifications from any of the two will help him earn a better living as much as it will help strengthen his academic status.

Is Chisha not an embodiment of the youths that deputy labour minister Rayford Mbulu said needed support at a youth conference which was held under the theme ‘Finding space for youth in trade unions and creating decent job opportunities amidst a global financial crisis’ in Livingstone recently?.

The grass is alway greener, (oil on acrylic
background on canvas) by Fifo
According to a recent story by The Post’s Brina Manenga-Siwale, Mbulu said addressing the challenges of youth unemployment needed the concerted efforts of the government, private sector and trade unions. “We need to join hands in implementing proactive measures to address the challenges of youth unemployment. Our collective effort should focus on tackling unemployment to fight poverty. We need to invest in higher education and vocational skills training and create more decent jobs for young people.”

Chisha is just one of several young artists who spend long, late hours at the Arts Academy Without Walls in the showgrounds and other spaces across the country yet later struggle to sell their work. These youths are doing their part; it does not take a genius to see who is not doing theirs. All in all, it is a crying shame for artists that there seems to be no antidote for an aesthetically challenged audience.
Chisha and Fifo’s exhibition runs until the end of November. Fifo has some fascinating paintings of landscapes and farm animals, mostly cattle on display and employs an interesting use of dead white space on her canvases.
Chisha has a few experimental works on display that one wishes he could have left in the studio as well as a loose end from the art being displayed at My Choice, a décor shop at Manda Hill Mall in Lusaka, painting entitled What’s for Me that had been hanging in the shop for some time.


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  2. Is race a determining factor in art sales? Good question begging answers.if you asked me my answer is a categorical "YES".but one may ask," Which race out-numbers the other? Issues of skin colour are rather gingerly,but the truth is the truth whether black or white.
    Caleb is certainly a talented young Zambian. Those who have had an encounter with oils know too well what it means to achieve such a texture. Hats off to Mr Chisha for a job well done. The young man deserves a pat on the back for such candour with paint and brush.Standard Bank in South Africa just awarded Mary Sibande the prestigious young artist of the year award,will our business houses be doing too much if they had such an award?
    On the question of sales, the bitter truth is that few black Zambians collect art period. A typical opening night at Ababa House is a white affair. You will see a black Lusakan or two but between you and me these are not your collectors. Perhaps the question of subject, style and themes come to the fore here.Some subjects,styles and themes are colour sensitive. Supposing the few black art lovers were collectors, would they go for paintings of white women under some subtle theme no matter how good they are? In a fragile market and economy like ours,to paint with your collector in mind limits creativity but perhaps worth trying. Some subjects and themes have a universal appeal. I have always admired Mulenga Chafilwa's style. The sold piece "Trade Roots" at the last fundraiser at Tayali had viewers teeming around it, not because they saw the price tag and the red sticker but because of the style.

    1. Sujects,style,theme and color yes but my quetion is should we now paint to impress or express?

    2. That's a tricky one Chembo Kalumba. It takes us back to:

  3. A very thought provoking article. I wonder how much of the other artists' success can be attributed to their personal networks. You and I both know how vital networks are to getting projects off the ground and to help build a brand.

    If a little known painter from Mkushi has her support network when she ventures into Lusaka she's likely to do quite well because the people that know her are rooting for her versus the equally talented little known painter from Ndola who doesn't have that support and is essentially building from his brand and support from the ground up.

    I will endeavour to share this information about Caleb's work with the people I know because from what you've shown above, he's a remarkable talent and deserves the accompanying success.