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Saturday, 25 May 2013

Masebo’s absence at ‘Africa Day’ exhibition worries VAC

By Andrew Mulenga

Government organised a spur-of-the-moment art exhibition through Cabinet Office and the Ministry Of Tourism and Arts at the Henry Tayali Gallery in the Lusaka show grounds last Sunday.

Entitled Africa My Africa, probably after late liberation hero Mpundu Mutale’s independence song, the display is part of the week-long activities arranged to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the African Union as well as Africa Freedom Day. 

Umunwe Pakanwa, by Ng'andwe Mwaba
“I must say it was quit short notice and a daunting task to find works that fit in the theme. But just because it is a Freedom Day exhibition,  doesn’t mean all the works have to depict freedom from colonial powers so we have quite a variety”, said Visual Arts Council (VAC) Vice-chairman Zenzele Chulu at the Henry Tayali Gallery on Tuesday.

VAC was directly instructed by Cabinet Office to put the show together without going through the usual channel of engaging its mother body, the National Arts Council (NAC). Chulu explained that this may have been due to the short notice.

“But even at short notice we were able to respond. When we finally got the resources for logistics, we managed to put everything up in three days. But I think it was a worthwhile effort. We didn’t even manage to send out invitation cards so we used text messages, and a few e-mails”.

For years the gallery has been lagging behind in terms of art studio equipment, digital documentation equipment and high-speed internet.

“As you might know the exhibition was one of the first in a series of events, the whole of this week I believe there will be all types of activities to celebrate 50 years of the African Union and Africa Freedom Day,” he said.

Chulu said he was happy with the attendance during opening night which included some high level government officials and members of the diplomatic community as well as Lusaka Province Minister Freedom Sikazwe as guest of honour. He was however saddened that the group of officials was missing probably the most important person in his opinion, the Arts Minister, Sylvia Masebo.

“She hasn’t been coming to exhibitions; she doesn’t have to come to all of them, but at least the important ones. When we invited her for the independence exhibition it was understood because she was on duty in the Far East,” he said.

Don't Kubeba, by Mapopa Manda
“But on Sunday obviously she was around. She never misses music events, even if you called her to an agricultural event in Chongwe she would definitely go, but to come to an exhibition, no”.

Chulu said as much as he was happy with the presence of other officials from her ministry, he was worried about their level of art appreciation as they were visibly in very new territory and were clearly learning all through the exhibition, which again was not a bad thing.

“Okay we don’t know where she is, but at least she understands art more than the people who were present, maybe she would have even bought something. Also the artists were here in numbers hoping to see their minister, but she was nowhere to be seen” he said.

He complained that ever since she took office she has never been to the Henry Tayali gallery to familiarize herself, first hand with the operations of VAC, despite the numerous invitations that had been sent to her office.

“We need her. We were excited when the president appointed her, we still are, but we just need to feel her presence sometimes” he concluded.

Nevertheless, there is not really much to talk about in the on-going exhibition, conceivably owing to the short notice the curators had to prepare.

But a few upcoming artists have some interesting works on display. N’gandwe Mwaba’s Umunwe Pakanwa (put your finger on your mouth) is one particular case in point. It depicts a gagged, wide-eyed young lady facing meditatively to the floor with a vacant expression. She wears a small map of Zambia around her neck and a map of Africa as an ear ring. The muzzle on her mouth is screwd into the wall behind her with string, all the same revealing a Monalisa smile, the type you only notice when you look twice.

This pen and ink drawing is loaded with metaphor. What is it saying? Is it telling us not to speak, to keep silent and just observe what is happening in the country today amidst the removal of fuel and maize subsidies followed by rioting university and college students countrywide?.  Or again seeing that the subject is gagged, maybe she is not silent by choice and is therefore being muzzled. Her necklace represents Zambia and her ear ring Africa, is it saying Zambia is a microcosm of the African continent and it is still not free to speak its mind? Well dear reader, as you can see this paragraph has already exceeded its question mark limit.

But young Mapopa Manda’s mixed media painting Donchi kubeba (don’t tell them or ‘don’t ask don’t tell’) is just as thought provoking. Particularly during this period of the on-going subsidies debate. A heated debate that can be seen manifest in television talk shows such as Costa Mwansa’s assignment on Muvi TV where the public saw a seemingly ill-prepared but usually astute Deputy Commerce Minister Miles Sampa torn to shreds by a shrewd and persuasive opponent in the Movement for Multi Party democracies  Mohabi Lungu.

Donchi kubeba has a richly dense composition with overlapping figures and newspaper cuttings, most of which speak of campaign promises.

“For me I think the president and the PF have fulfilled their campaign promises. Well, that is speaking as an artist. I think they have met all artists’ needs according to the manifesto which I have read”, said the young painter on Tuesday.

As much as Manda says he is pleased with the status quo. His painting can be read either way by the viewer, like Mwaba’s it is loaded with metaphor.

It appears to be the front page of a newspaper, as are all his paintings. It has a masthead that reads Times of Zambia and has small cuttings from The Post.

“I use the Times because it represents Zambia’s political history over the years and then I used The Post because I think it did a great deal to support president sata and frankly speaking, he wouldn’t be president without the post” he explained.

The central figure in Manda’s  Donchi kubeba president Sata portrayed with his finger against his lips in his trademark presidential campaign “Donchi kubeba” posture. Strangely, the president appears to be wearing a general’s uniform, which gives him somewhat the air of a dictator. He is flanked by president Mugabe of Zimbabwe and a police officer to the left while a nurse showing her cleavage in a red bra and unbuttoned uniform holds president Sata’s shoulder to the right. This again interestingly reminds us of the liberties of artistic licence, only an artist can depict the president in such a manner and get away with it.

Anyway, as earlier observed, Africa My Africa is not much of an exhibition to talk about in terms of content but we can forgive VAC because they obviously did it in a hurry. But it is hard to forgive VAC for exaggerating government’s contribution to the exhibition and to the arts in general. Even if it was government that sponsored the exhibition there was no need to have “Under the Auspices of The Republic of Zambia and with Direct Support from Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Tourism & Arts” right on top of the electronic invitation card. “Direct support”, so what? It is the government’s duty in any nation to support the arts, and no one should go patting it on the back for carrying out its obligation. To quote the manifesto of Contemporary Fine Art International (Cfai), “For as long as mankind has played a role in this world, artists have recorded that role. Historians and archaeologists study art to learn about past civilizations and the individuals within them. Every era in our history has been recorded, defined, refined, and enhanced by its artists… and today is no exception.” Therefore the government owes artists its allegiance.
It is one thing to sponsor an exhibition, but it is another thing to show support by the purchase of works. As of Tuesday this week only one of about forty artworks had been sold.


  1. Good review, Andrew. Will make time to see this exhibition.

  2. Thanks Anna, you really should, but I'm not sure how long it will be up, the should be pulling it down by the end of this week

  3. Very informative and nice design. I really like your posts and your style.