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Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Dutch give Lechwe goodbye present

Market Place, by Mikiti
By Andrew Mulenga

Patrick Mumba, Eddie Mumba, Flinto Chandia and Lutanda Mwamba  are just a few of Zambia’s most influential painters and sculptors that will have their works on display at Twaya Art-Zambia Gallery, Intercontinental Hotel Lusaka on  Tuesday, 16 April at 18:00hrs next week, in what can only be described as a small, but prestigious exhibition.

Visual arts audiences can expect a rare treat when these local artistic masters' works as well as those of Stary Mwaba, Laurey Nevers-Chandia, Angela Chipanda-Ninda, Baba Jakeh, Mikiti and late Paul Kabwe open to the public for two weeks.
Wood Sculpture (detail), by Eddie Mumba
However, collectors should leave their cheque books and wallets at home since none of the 16 works on display will be on sale because they are all part of what used to be the Embassy of the Kingdom of Netherlands collection of contemporary Zambian art that has now been donated to Lechwe Trust as part of its vast collection.

The work has been collected over a period of time during the Netherlands years of operation in Zambia, and according to a report by Lechwe Trust Vice-Chairperson William Miko; the donation of the artworks was prompted by the Embassy’s proposed closure of its Mission in Zambia.

And Dutch foreign minister Uri Rosenthal recently announced the closure of four embassies in African countries including Zambia as part of an effort to modernise embassy services and re-focus the priorities for Dutch foreign policy.

Miko states that before outgoing Ambassador Harry Molinaar left Zambia, he had been an avid admirer of Lechwe Trust’s art collection and its commitment towards supporting arts activities. Molinaar met with Lechwe chairperson Cynthia Zukas MBE to whom he indicated his willingness to support the trust in one way or another.

Street Children by Mc Donald Nkhoma
Molinaar later wrote to The Hague suggesting the donation of the mission’s collection to Lechwe Trust and the headquarters responded in the affirmative. As of Friday last week, all the works were taken down from the former Netherlands Embassy offices and hauled for some minor restoration activities in readiness for Tuesday’s exhibition. The suggestion of an exhibition itself was advanced by current Head of Mission/Development Co-operation Ardi Stoios-Braken and it will serve as a public hand-over event with invited guests and a guest of honour, most likely a senior government official, Tourism and Arts Minister Sylvia Masebo is a likely bet.

For followers of Zambian art, this small collection does hold some historic significance. Take the sculptures for instance; they are a good example of the period in sculpture before power tools as well as the current power tools era.

 A small Janus-type, untitled hardwood sculpture by Paul Kabwe shows a good sample of a 1980s sculpture that was carved using in many cases homemade chisels and mallets, similar works were done by the likes of the higher-ranking Tubayi Dube and his long string of protégés.

The other sculptures in the collection by Chandia, Mumba, Chipanda-Ninda and Baba Jakeh represent the power tool era. Obviously tools such as electric grinders became more easily accessible from the early 1990s onwards.


An early work by Stary Mwaba shows a totally different
style from what the artist employs today
Also interesting is a relatively early painting by prolific young painter Stary Mwaba which depicts a scene where vegetable marketeers have set out to order their daily stocks. The painting’s chalk-like haziness is nothing like the much collected works he is churning out today, in fact, in style it is reflective of  a period when he was Lutanda Mwamba’s studio apprentice, just after the time he was ‘discovered’ in Northern Province.

 Speaking of Lutanda, as he is fondly called, his two works in the collection, Lifeline and Giving Life, go back to a time when the overall aesthetics of his work was merely a series of very thin lines in no more than two colours. Those close to the artist attest that he stuck to this style for quite some time after he survived a shooting while attending an artist’s residency in Johannesburg. He has since changed his style many times over, but he still bears bullet wounds, and according to legend, he still has one or two bullets lodged in his chest, somewhere. The Commonwealth Foundation Fellowship laureate has flown the Zambian flag all over the world including the UK and Jamaica and has his works are scattered in collections across the globe.

Nevertheless, the choice of Lechwe Trust by the Dutch could not have been any better, under the passionate leadership of Zukas MBE the Trust has for a long time collected Zambian art in an effort to keep it within her borders and at a very high cost if one might add. The works will definitely be at home among the hundreds of others collected by Lechwe over the years even if their home is still a 40 foot container.

It does however raise some thoughts. Why would the Dutch opt to leave the works in the hands of a private trust that is going to box them away because it is yet to commence the construction of a gallery? Why not donate them to the government of the day for them to beautify their spaces of choice, government offices or parliament maybe? Why not ship them to The Hague as a memento from Zambia?

Although unofficial, the answer to these three questions is simple. As much as Zambia may have an arts ministry, from the lowest to the highest echelons of our society we are still too aesthetically blind to appreciate art, period, and shamefully so. No matter what levels of education we attain we remain artistically illiterate, probably even our Paleolithic ancestors, the prehistoric cavemen had a better use for art than we do, so yes, why not give the works to someone who will lock them away for safer keeping until a time when they will be appreciated, probably thousands of years from now as we currently marvel when we gaze upon the prehistoric rock paintings of Kalemba in Chadiza, Chifubwa Stream in Solwezi or Mwela Rocks in Kasama, someone will one day appreciate what is today Zambian contemporary art.

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