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Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Chisha’s Danish escapade

By Andrew Mulenga

Caleb Chisha in the improvised work space he was
given at Dansekapellet in Copenhagen
Umwana ashenda atasha nina ukunaya” which loosely translates “The child that does not travel thinks its mother is the best cook” is the old Chi Bemba proverb that young painter Caleb Chisha borrows upon returning from a three month visit to Denmark.
Chisha was recently in the capital, Copenhagen on a social visit whose details the painter would rather keep hush-hush but close friends suggest was facilitated by a Danish lady friend and possible sweetheart who is also a contemporary dancer. It turns out he was able to hold a spur-of-the-moment exhibition at a dance venue called Dansekapellet, the first solo of his fledgling career and he feels delighted because according to him, all went well.

The artist, who was last in the press when he voiced out a concern during an exhibition in Lusaka where he felt Zambian’s of European decent only buy art from “their own kind” before he left for Europe appeared visibly motivated by his recent trip when found working on several new works at a go in his small studio space at the Art Academy Without Walls in the Lusaka show grounds.
“Even though I was exhibiting at an unusual venue I think I did quite well. I did a total of 12 paintings while in Europe and I managed to sell four, which I think is not bad,” he says “And what was quite encouraging is the fact that I could sell a painting at up to four times of the price I sell in Zambia”.

A dancer from the Dansekapellet centre
in Copenhagen by Caleb Chisha
Chisha’s work averages at K3, 000 (new currency) per painting here in Zambia, so you can do the mathematics on how much he possibly made in the brief period abroad, besides, he says that he did not work for the entire three months he was there and only put in about a month’s effort, working in a small, improvised studio space that was lent to him at Dansekapellet. Dansekapellet was designed in 1908 and is formerly  a final resting place for the deceased but has now been transformed into a dance venue, it is backed by Copenhagen City Council, Nordeafonden (Danish foundation) and The Danish Foundation for Culture and Sport Facilities.
Chisha’s exact exhibition space was in a rotunda with a high-roofed dome, and judging by the video footage from a mobile phone, the opening evening was well attended with a sizeable crowd and free flowing wines and snacks.

Contemporary dancer
Stephanie Thomasen
by Caleb Chisha
And although he claims that his short stay in Denmark and the visits to galleries and museums have had no influence on his work, it clearly does. Some of the work features the dancers he would mingle with during his stay. His pallet too features gloomy colours in contrast to the vibrant hues he uses when in Zambia, whether this is due to the fact that he was there during a continuously overcast, and snowy Scandinavian winter, is up for speculation.
During his stay the 26-year-old discovered that Europeans can be notoriously reclusive and that it was not easy to meet other artists, which again is not a surprise considering he did not go there on an organised, mainstream gallery residency or a not-so-social cultural exchange programme.

“They are very private even the few artists that allowed me into their studios, it’s because they heard I’m from Africa. It’s not the way we operate in Zambia where we steal each other’s ideas in the studio. That side they can sue you,” he says “But from my short experience, they (Danish artists) are also good at sharing buyers not the way it is here where some artists will not even allow you to talk to their collector thinking that you will rob them of sales”.
He observed that in Denmark, most artists create to express themselves and not necessarily to sell and put food on the table and that as such, they are free to come up with bold and sometimes provocative work.

“So now I’ve been inspired to paint my ideas. Ideas should come first and money later because you know here tupentela indalama (we paint for money). Whenever you start a painting you have to think about who is going to buy it first, otherwise you will just paint it for yourself” he says.

He also condemned artists whom he believed would go to Europe for short instances and return with what he described as “all sorts of funny ideas” in the effort to try and keep up with modern artistic trends.

“I’ve seen a lot of Zambian artists who return from Europe and start sticking pieces of paper and all sorts of funny things like plastic and garbage into their work claiming this is 21st century art, but I won’t do that, its nonsense,” he boasts.

While in Denmark, he was also fascinated by the fact that the country’s monarch Queen Margrethe II is in fact an artist. Although she is educated in prehistoric archeology, political science and economics, and has had no formal schooling in the arts, the queen held an exhibition of one hundred and thirty-five works in a show entitled The Essence of Colour during the celebration of her 40 year reign last year.
But it is not only the fact that art is practiced in the higher echelons of Danish society that impressed Chisha, but also the immense media coverage that the field is given in the press.

“That side they have serious art critics and journalists who are not afraid to criticize your work because they are afraid that you (the artist) will hate them and stop talking to them like here in Zambia. That side if your work is rubbish, they will tell you that its rubbish,” says Chisha.

As much as the upcoming artist’s observation is valid, he might be a bit too inexperienced to understand the dynamics of art criticism in a small, emerging space like Zambia where a seriously critical article meant to construct rather than destroy can be easily misinterpreted.

Zambian art critics such as Roy Kausa and this writer have somehow ended up creating unforgiving,  mortal enemies from the lowest to the highest ranking circles of visual arts practice and administration in this country.

Nevertheless, back to Chisha, his Danish escapade although a private affair, serves himself and Zambia well. Although one would have hoped for it to be more mainstream and organised, whichever way you look at it, he was flying the Zambian flag if not in his own little way, the Danish know we exist.

Chisha remains one of the country’s most promising young painters with a deep imagination and matching creative aptitude as well as an exceptional painter’s hand. He is certainly one to watch, however, one can only hope that he ponders on applying his potential to an academic path while he is still young as this may further brush up his already sharp artistic wit. Of course not every artist has to go the academic route, but then we cannot all be  Jean-Michel Basquiat, can we?


  1. Where can I meet Mr Caleb Chisha ?

    1. In the Lusaka showgrounds at the Art Academy Without Wall