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Monday, 6 May 2013

3 portraits of a president

By Andrew Mulenga

London-based portrait artist Oenone Acheson might not be a familiar name on the Zambian visual arts scene, but she certainly has a very special spot in the country’s art history. She may possibly be the last artist to have been commissioned to paint Dr. Kenneth Kaunda in the last months of his 27 year reign.

Dr Kenneth Kaunda portrait I, oil on
canvas, 1990 by Oenone Acheson
In 1990, just before Zambia’s transition to a multi-party state, Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM) commissioned her to paint a portrait of the then president and board chairman for their new boardroom. It turns out when Dr. Kaunda attended the opening of the building and the unveiling of the portrait, he liked the painting so much that he took it back to State House and she was called the very next day to paint two more portraits just to be on the safe side.

 It is not clear where the paintings, three pieces of Zambia’s heritage are today, which in itself is worrisome because when Frederick Chiluba took office the year after they were commissioned, he made it a point to tear down and destroy everything ‘Kaunda’. This is a period when Saddam Hussein Boulevard in Lusaka was renamed Los Angeles Boulevard, and a monument bearing Kaunda’s image opposite the High Court in Ndola was officially defaced among other things. So probably the three remarkable paintings in question may have been destroyed.
 
Dr Kenneth Kaunda portrait II,
oil on canvas, 1990 by Oenone Acheson
The paintings show a greying, but vibrant Kaunda clad in his trademark neo-Maoist tunics or safari suits, as some call them, posing in a variety of seated positions. They are in different shades and he bears a warm, fatherly smile in all of them. And in each painting, the artist blends the subject softly into a hazy background.

 “I remember finding it a little tricky trying to make each one distinctive and different from the others. But I did enjoy it enormously - he (Kaunda) had such a marvelous face to paint. Still has, as a matter of fact,” says Oenone pronounced ee-no-nee, who is named after a poem by Tennyson that her mother read and loved so much. Oenone or Noni as she is fondly called says it is also the name of the Greek Goddess of wine.

 Anyway, writing about Noni is difficult. And it is difficult in several angles. If you focus on the art itself, you rob the article of highlighting her animated personality. Then there is her sidesplittingly critical world view of contemporary art, it is easy to get lost in that too. So here goes nothing.

 
Dr Kenneth Kaunda portrait III, oil on canvas,
1990 by Oenone Acheson
“I was born in South Africa, left at the age of eight and grew up in Northern Rhodesia, leaving it as Zambia in 1974. During this time, I met and married my husband of 52 years, Denis, who was born in Chipata (then known as Fort Jameson) and our two daughters were born in Lusaka,” she tells the Saturday Post “Very happy years indeed, which we look back on with great nostalgia. My husband was very involved in Liberal politics before Independence, which is how he met KK, whom he got to know well. We both regard him with great admiration and affection, and he has visited us in our London home on more than one occasion over the years”.

 She says Dennis worked in mining and this took them to London for 2 and a half years and then Connecticut in the United States for another 2 and half years. And while she enjoyed their stay in London, she was never too happy in the US because she could never fit in to the repetitiveness of life there.

 “I cried all the time. I had never been so miserable in my life. Everyone had two cars, they all went to tennis clinics, PTA meetings, church fete suppers it was all so not me! 99 per cent of them had never even heard of Zambia, they just didn't do far-flung countries. As a result, my wonderfully accommodating husband accepted a marvelous mining job in Chile, where we spent the next blissful 5 years.”

 
Oenone Acheson in her London studio
Noni recalls that apart from anything else, it was a wonderful opportunity for her to travel and gather material for her paintings. Not only did she get to travel all over South America, but also India, Thailand, Burma, Japan, and a few other places. She found this exciting as an artist because it was almost impossible to settle down to painting your ordinary man-in-the-street in London with its grey skies and black umbrellas when the couple finally settled there. Luckily she amassed an enormous archive of photos and sketches which will last her for a long time; she still draws from it all the time.

 Noni’s portraits bare a very serene and more or less spiritual aura. When asked whether she is a spiritual person she comes up with a delightfully peculiar and somewhat cagey answer.

 “Spiritual, Serenity? Two words no one who knows me would ever apply to me. I can hear my husband laughing his head off, and he'd be right, especially about the serenity. But somehow, once I start painting all the wonderful people I do, I get drawn into it on a completely different level, and it takes its own direction,” she explains  “I really just go with the flow, because any other way usually ends in what I consider a disaster. Hard to explain, really, maybe what I'm saying is - I need to get the mood right or at least the mood as I feel it. Good God, maybe I am spiritual and serene after all. If so, I have hidden it well.”

 As for her creative process, she says there is something about going up to her studio at the crack of dawn, closing the door on the rest of the world, and simply immersing herself in what she does. She underlines that it is a very solitary profession, leaving one to one’s own thoughts with no intrusions or illusions.

 “Who knows, maybe I become a different person? Or the person I really am underneath it all? Lord, there’s a thought to ponder. I may have to go and pour myself a drink after this,” she says.

 Prod her to comment on contemporary art, and the likes of Damien Hirst the most prominent member of a group known as the Young British Artists  (YBAs), who shot to fame by incorporating dead animals such as sharks and cows into his art, making him one of the wealthiest artists alive just before the global credit crunch in 2008, and you will not get the kindest sentiments. In 2009, the Sunday Times Rich List projected Hirst’s wealth at £235 million.

 “I'm totally unqualified to comment on the Damien Hirst and people-of-his-ilk school of art. Mostly because I utterly hate it and think it's the greatest scam ever, I'm thinking "The Emperor's Clothes" - ever heard that fairy story? You may be too young, but look it up if you haven't, and you'll get the allusion,” she says. In fact, as early as 1991, advertising tycoon and one time voracious art collector, Charles Saatchi commissioned Hirst to create The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living an artwork that consists of a shark preserved in chemicals. Saatchi is said to have later sold the work in excess of $8 million dollars.

 “It's ugly, untalented, well-marketed, and - for me - everything art shouldn't be. And he (Hirst) doesn't even do it all himself. And don't get me started on Tracey Emin… unmade beds, for God's sake. I could churn one out every day, except I make mine - and that takes talent, let me tell you” she says.

 Tracey Emin, one of the YBA’s exhibited My Bed at the celebrated Tate Gallery in London and it was shortlisted for the Turner Prize. It comprised her bed with personal objects scattered around it. Saatchi later bought it for £150,000 and displayed it in his gallery.

 “So, Charles Saatchi may not be banging on my door. I'm not his style. But I can't begin to describe the pleasure it gives me when someone falls in love with one of my paintings. Especially someone who wouldn't normally buy one. I had a workman in my studio not long ago repairing something, and found him gazing at my paintings,” she explains.

 “He asked about one or two, and three months later came back, cash in hand, bought one, and left with a huge smile on his face. Now that touches me, and I can't think of a better reason for doing what I do. He wasn't buying it as an investment; he was buying it because he loved it. Means a lot to me. YBAs? I wish them luck, but I have my niche, and it's one I like.”

 As for academic training on her part, she explains that in her day if you are "Good at Art" at school, it translated and in those days, meant that if you painted - say- a boat, and it looked like a boat, you were "good at art" and that is  how things were, a long time ago.

 Beyond art, Noni says she enjoys reading, cooking and making long distance calls to her daughters who live overseas. She does not admit being a slave to fashion, but confesses to a fancy for chic, high heeled shoes.

 “Yes, I read, and I simply refuse to tell you any titles, because they're all crime novels, and I will lose some charisma, what little I have, by doing so. It's called escapism, I think. And I cook - actually, I'm pretty good at it, even though I say so myself, ask anyone,” she boasts.

 “Both daughters live in Spain. One has her own Internet company in Madrid; she's her father's daughter that way. And the other is a movie make-up artist of renown in Barcelona.

I’m not a fashionista. I like what I like, including ‘killer heels’ and anything with sequins”.

The trendy grandmother, with pink dyed hair hates being told what she should or should not be wearing at her age, and ignores all such advisers completely.

“Clothes are clothes, right? And who are these people making the rules?” she says.

Nevertheless, as much as we can remember her for three portraits of a president, Zambia has not heard the last of Noni yet. She has a pending commission to paint the Zambian Speaker Patrick Matibini from the National Assembly.

“I'll keep you posted on that, if you like. I can't start it until I've finished an on-going portrait. And finally dear Andrew, I am so ill-equipped to impart anything at all to younger artists, since I'm never quite sure of how I get to where I get with my paintings. But I would plead with them not to embalm any cows. Any undertaker can do that,” says Noni in obvious reference to the YBAs.

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