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Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Geoffrey Phiri discovers ‘Cownosourous’



By Andrew Mulenga
Pelvis ya cownosourous, marble by Geoffrey Phiri
A year since his last exhibition in Lusaka, South African-based painter Geoffrey Phiri has returned on what seems to be a voyage of self-discovery, and in the process he has unearthed the “remains” of a curious, pre-historic creature he named Cownosourous.
Phiri is not known for his sculptures but on this visit, he has been experimenting with marble and has just finished a piece he calls “Pelvis ya cownosourous”, loosely translated as “the pelvis of a cownosourus”. Carved completely out of flawless white marble, the sculpture does appear to resemble the remains of an animal that once lived long ago.
There is nothing really exceptional about the sculpture which can clearly be categorised to have been done in the manner of top Zambian sculptor Flinto Chandia, and has flowing, organic lines that hint towards the work of David Chirwa, two artists whose work Phiri openly admires and emulates.
What is interesting however is Phiri’s effort to take up the challenge of implementing something that he says he has kept bottled inside for a very long time, and looking at the final product of this creative tantrum, he can only be encouraged to continue exploring this path.
Phiri’s Cownosourous is delicately carved into thin parts in some areas and it is surprising how he managed to pull it off without cracking the stone in wrong places. One of the sculptures central features is a sphere and a horn carved from black marble.  Smoothed out on one side, the other side of the sculpture is left with a rough edge just for effect to show where the stone is coming from and how it has been transformed into something that is inviting to touch.
Phiri reveals that Cownosorous is in fact the first of many sculptures to come and that after a two year period he might even consider having an exhibition of sculptures without paintings.
“I want to do a lot of work in Zambia and part of my plans is to set up a graphics company here in Lusaka. But for the times when I don’t have any jobs or business, I will be engaged in creating sculptures. It is something I have wanted to do for a very long time, I have just been keeping it inside. But I think now is the time,” he says.
Areas behind our parliament, 2003, acrylic on canvas (Lechwe Trust Collection)
Phiri is currently using the Roots of Expression Sculpture Studio in Chilenge, a makeshift space where like-minded young sculptors have been working and sharing ideas for a couple of years now, among them have been the likes of Tom and Bisalom Phiri, Kilarenz Albert, Othiniel Lingwabo and Paris-based Zimbabwean Agnew Masango.
“In South Africa I will continue with my painting but here I will concentrate on sculpture. In Lusaka marble isn’t difficult to find but its just moving it from the quarry that is cumbersome. Another gamble is removing the stone from the ground because at times we use blasting or explosives so you find that the stone may have cracks in it which might render it useless when you get it back to the studio. Half way through your work the whole thing may fall to pieces,” he says.
He does not have any immediate plans for his recently finished sculpture but says he will contact one of his local patrons to hold on to the piece for safe keeping.
It will be interesting to see how far he will go with his new found passion and to what extent he will be able to apply the satirical wit that his paintings have been popular for, as can be seen in his 2003 work Areas Behind Our Parliament which is now part of the esteemed Lechwe Art Trust Collection.
This semi-abstract painting depicts one youth urinating on a heap of discarded opaque beer containers while another is busy collecting the same items possibly for re-use. Behind them are two more consuming the beer in the comfort of a shade behind a house.
Here, Phiri is poking fun at the politicians who are busy discussing issues in parliament while the youth whom their parliamentary sittings are supposed to benefit are immersed in squalor, the everyday struggle of unemployment, poverty and the abuse of cheap alcohol. It would be interesting to see Phiri borrow the militant line of thought in his paintings and apply them to his sculptures.
 At 38, Phiri remains one of the most emulated contemporary Zambian artists of his generation, and his influence can be clearly seen in the works of quite a number of up-coming artists.
 In South Africa, Phiri has been affiliated to three galleries; the Gill Alderman Gallery, the Association For Visual Arts (AVA) Gallery and the iArt Gallery on Loop Street although he works from a converted gallery space at home.
As a personal inspiration, he says he has always admired Lawrence Yombwe and was at one time taunted by his peers for his early works bearing too much of a resemblance in style to the senior artist.
Phiri was born in, Livingstone, after completing school he qualified to study architecture at the Copperbelt University in Kitwe but instead opted to study art. In 1997 he graduated with an Art Teachers' Diploma from the Evelyn Hone College of Applied Arts and Commerce.
Between 1998 and 2003, he helped as a coordinator and researcher for the publication and production of one of the first books on visual arts in Zambia, Art in Zambia. He has also attended a number of study tours in Norway, Sweden and Holland.

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