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Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Canadian scholar applauds Zambian artists

By Andrew Mulenga

Accomplished Canadian visual artist and academic Wendy Dobereiner, a visiting professor in the Zambia Open University (ZAOU) Fine Arts department said she was thoroughly impressed at the quality of work by Zambian visual artists.
Dobereiner, applauded Zambian artists while delivering a lecture on different aspects and periods of her work as a practicing artist at the Henry Tayali Gallery in the Lusaka show grounds recently.
Artist, Kampeshi (white shirt)
engages Wendy Dobereiner
at the Henry Tayali gallery
in Lusaka
“One of the good things about an artist is that what you are responding to is your own personal reality in relation to the culture that you are in or the gender that you are in,” said the artist, predominantly a printmaker who taught at the University of British Columbia for 21 years.
She introduced the audience to a broad range of etchings, drawing and mixed media posters of her past works, some inspired by personal experience and some a manifestation of her political edge. The beginning of her presentation however, a series of prints made from girdles, corsets, bras and every manner of female underwear revealed that she was a very strong advocate of the feminist movement.
“When I first started making art I fell in love with etching and for me it was all about the change of the female body, this in a way was at the beginning of the feminist movement which at that time was a monolithic concept, but nowadays it is splintered up into many groups, like separatist feminist, Marxist, liberal feminism,” she said. For the uninitiated, the feminist movement is the production of overtly feminist artworks that dates from the late 1960s onwards. It involved a whole range of issues including a re-examination of history from a feminist viewpoint, a reversal of the historical bias against crafts as opposed to high art, and the creation of women’s art groups, institutions and galleries, well that is according to the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Art Terms.
“I started thinking about the way that women change their bodies and curl or straighten their hair. But then I went out of that field of discussing female issues and what sort of constraints had been placed by wardrobe,” said Dobereiner as she changed her slides to a series of large scale pencil drawings that she made during her time in Paris at Cite des Arts while on a scholarship from the Royal College of Art in London where she was studying for Masters in Fine Art in the late 1970s. This series of drawings was in fact a combination of work from Paris and London, whereas the Paris drawings are more light-hearted, the latter works are more politically inclined, in them are images of early and late 1970s politicians such as Nixon, Carter and Thatcher.
“But after I got a scholarship to Paris, there was no etching facility, so I started to think of a pencil like a computer or like a simple tool you can carry anywhere. I started drawing very realistic work. I really wanted to defame the camera and to be able to make things look realistic,” she said.
“You can imagine how pain staking it is to draw anything realistically,” she added pointing at a skilfully executed, multifaceted drawing of former US President Jimmy Carter whom she said she admired dearly because he is “the only US president in a very long time where America was never involved in a war”, her words and work on Nixon and Thatcher were however not too kind. And one of her drawings critical of British white supremacist party, the National Front that reached the peak of its popularity in the 1970s depicts the Union Jack (British flag) being sucked down the drain along with prominent members of the party.
She also explained how the media, particularly newspapers, had a large impact on her work while she was in the UK.  
A work from her poster series inspired by the time she
was attached by two men on a motorcycle in Rome
“We didn’t have too many good newspapers in Vancouver so I got fascinated by the news, not the content so much but the way things were imaged like Jimmy Carter was always imaged with a smile… I really liked the surface quality of the way newspapers work,” she explained and pointed at a work she did on Thatcher.
“This one is called Margaret Thatcher the Milk Snatcher because the first thing that she did when she came into power was, she took away the milk subsidy that had been in place for poor kids since the 1700s, and she just took it away.”
She explained that the last drawing in this series was so realistic and it was all about being able to read the news or watch it on a plasma TV in the comfort of your home. Something she found very disturbing in a sense that one can read about it (bad news) and feel it but then how close is one really to it?
“You can’t imagine what luxury it is to be able to sit and watch that on TV, so I just thought its too easy and I got frustrated and just could not do it anymore” she said. “I moved to Edmonton, Alberta (in Canada) where it is 40 degrees below, so I got interested in the Laundromat as a social site where you bring in your dirty clothes get them washed. So the Laundromat is like a social space so I did a lot of etchings and holographs, then it developed into an entire series, into a home maintenance series”
Dobereiner’s seeking for social solace in a Laundromat back home in Canada after she left the UK with its popular ‘pubs’ where people go to discuss everything from politics to scientific discoveries over a pint of beer is not unique to her part of the world.
In a number of areas in rural Zambian, it is said that women are shunning the hand-pumped boreholes sunk at the centre of their villages because they would rather walk a few kilometres to a stream as this is the only time they can discuss social issues away from their husbands and men. An outing to draw water at the river is their social space; here they can discuss their women’s secrets freely.
Nevertheless, Dobereiner’s images from the Laundromat developed into a domestic care series with huge mixed media works composed of reclaimed domestic objects, paints and Plexiglas with titles such as Washing the dishes, Smitten Oven Mittens and The Seven Maids Swept for Seven Years. Most of these works have vivid colours and frantic brush strokes in stark contrast to her London-Paris pencil drawings. Some of the works have actual ironing boards and mops screwed onto them.
These works were shown in New York and were well received except Dobereiner observed a few things about the way viewers behave in a gallery and the way present day portraiture has evolving.
Dr Wendy Dobereiner from Vancouver University 
addressing artists at the Henry Tayali Gallery in Lusaka
“I sat there and it was really an epiphany in terms of teaching, you have some people when they walk into a gallery they look around, but don’t actually ‘look’, and if you are not looking then you are not understanding, somehow. People want tightly edited MTV type viewing and just take photos,” she explained as she pointed out the slide of a man who was not really looking at her work in a New York gallery as he seemed to be facing the wall, almost in the posture of a man urinating against it.
“This one is the universal woman, it is extraordinary how I’m finding with social media like Facebook for instance that its not about portraiture anymore its about self-imaging, you don’t put a picture of yourself up like a portrait anymore… its interesting,” she said showing the last of her slides in this series which is a version of Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous Vitruvian Man, or in this case Vitruvian Woman.  Again here, she does have a point with Facebook. Anyone on this social network has seen the popular ‘mirror shot’ photos, in which mostly young girls and occasionally older women point their mobile phones into a mirror after returning from a beauty salon or while wearing clothes that leave nothing to the imagination. Clothes they would not dare wear in public. These are mostly taken in bedrooms and nightclub toilets and then posted as their Facebook display photos. Similarly young men will take photos of their ‘six-packs’ showing-off their abdomens after several gym sessions. It is almost impossible to find a passport-type portrait on Facebook, and like Dobereiner puts it, it is all about self-imaging.
Dobereiner also discussed her poster series, much of which was inspired during her one year sabbatical leave in Italy after she was mugged by two men on a motorcycle. The vision of the two men staring at her became a recurring theme in some of her poster work. She would buy posters and manipulate them with other media eventually producing a vast body of work.
At the end of the presentation she had a question and answer session with the artists and a lot of interesting interrogations popped up. Here you had old-timers like seasoned painter David Chibwe, active since the 1960s engaging in debate alongside youngsters such as Ngoma Award nominee Mulenga Mulenga, a prolific young painter barely in her early twenties, who is slated to be the next big thing among female Zambian artists alongside her contemporary Gladys Kalichini with whom she was a finalist for the Julia Malunga Award last year.
Chibwe asked Dobereiner for her take on why artists turn to abstract art from the realistic presentation. The Canadian professor answered the question from her own perspective and personal experience.
“You are not the same person through time. I think that its when one changes environment, viewing my own reality, I think that’s why I changed I moved continents and had different exposure I think a lot of artists can change, it’s because they want to grow,” she responded.
Mulenga on the other hand raised a concern from an apparently persecuted stand point and innocently shared with the professor and the audience that as an upcoming artist she is often questioned when she renders her work in an abstract format. But William Miko, professor at ZAOU and coordinator of the talk too came in with a response to the now open discussion. He likened the progression from realistic to abstract art to that of biological development in the human body and that when the time comes for one to change their style it comes naturally.
Dobereiner has returned to Canada but should be back in Lusaka at ZAOU for a longer period. Her discourse at the Henry Tayali reaffirmed Zambian visual artists’ enthusiasm to engage in theoretical debate outside studio work, such as could be observed at the Arts Academy without Walls (Lusaka show grounds) in its formative days, bringing together trained and self-taught artists alike. For some reason, these debates are no more.

Apart from the University of Columbia, Dobereiner has also taught at the University of Alberta and the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, she has also been the recipient of at least five academic awards and has numerous transcontinental gallery exhibitions.  


  1. woowwww manakjubkan,, Zambian artist is cool content course he gets the credit

  2. Thank you for this excellent essay on Wendy Dobereiner's teaching and thoughts.

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