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Monday, 13 May 2013

Zambia through the eyes of a pointilist

By Andrew Mulenga
Getting an artist to speak, particularly to talk about themselves, their inspiration and even their work in an interview is never a simple task. A warden at the US’s Guantanamo Bay is likely to get more out of a detainee, than a writer can get out of an artist, and that is even without the use of waterboarding.

Mungongo (acrylic)
Most artists are generally reclusive when the questions become personal, one particular example would be Firoz Patel, ask the Zambian of Asian descent about his upbringing or family background and he withdraws, even to someone he has known for over five years such as the author. But again like most artists, he speaks through his work, and as a matter of fact, Firoz does it very loud indeed. Because his speech is a burst of colourful dots
And anyway, who needs to know too much about Firoz. Like all artists is his duty not merely that of creatively making a statement about the world, commenting on the nature of human existence or indeed entertaining humankind? Afterall, artists are not on this planet to speak about themselves, their duty is to embellish the planet. Is it not Picasso himself who told us that "Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life"? So, less words more art.

Nevertheless, Firoz appears to have developed and perfected his own brand of pointillism over the past five years. But to cut a long story short, for the less enlightened, pointillism is the term derived from the French art critic Felix Feneon’s phrase peinture au point (painting in dots) used in 1886 to describe George Seurat’s masterpiece La Grande Jatte.  Well, that’s according to the trusty old Oxford Concise Dictionary of Art Terms. But anyway, this is not a lesson in western art history, but like Seurat, Firoz’s work has a charmingly luminous quality and true to pointillism, his paintings are composed entirely of dots. Only when one draws closer to them can one appreciate the painstaking effort that went into them, appear a bit like seed mosaics, except done with paint.
Of course, he is not the first Zambian to dabble in pointillism. It has been used by others, more notably the colour virtuoso Patrick Mumba in works such as his 2007 Tribal Mask (Lechwe Trust Collection) as well as fellow Livingston resident Agness Buya Yombwe in her monumental 1993 masterpiece Our Totems an intricate work donated to Lechwe Trust by Betty Wilkinson and Jodam Allingam.

Vanishing Rhino (acrylic)
But where Mumba’s pointillism has the texture of paint that has been dripped and dribbled directly on to a flattened canvas, almost in the manner of Pollock, and Yombwe’s has the feel and look of woven, chitenge-like fabric, Firoz’s work is less organic and more symmetrical. It has softer colours, smaller dimensions and miscellaneous subject matter. Furthermore, unlike the other two, who have moved on to different painting techniques, Firoz appears to be adopting pointillism as his signature.
“It has become my identity, my finger print” says the soft spoken artist in a voice as gentle as the hues of his paintings. “But this doesn’t mean that I only use pointillism. You will notice that I use three different techniques. Apart from pointillism, I also use brush strokes as well as a watercolour technique”, said Firoz just before the opening of A Visual Journey of Zambia his on-going solo exhibition at the Alliance Francaise in Lusaka that runs until May 14.

In A Visual Journey of Zambia the artist has over 40 recent works with a broad range of subject matter ranging from market scene compositions, wildlife, sunsets and geometric patterns. He said the body of work was inspired by his many travels across the country and that he draws most of his inspiration from the tranquillity that can be found away from the noise of major cities such as his native Livingston as well as Lusaka. And frankly, you can almost hear the tranquillity in his paintings which have a static quality and peculiar silence.
Madzi (acrylic)
“It’s (the exhibition) about Zambia, the colour, the shapes, flora and fauna, patterns and traditions… Zambia is a very colourful country. You can only appreciate this when you get to travel it.” He explained.
“And as for the colour in my paintings, I buy basic colours and do all the mixing of the colours by myself, you know, just to create a tone of my own”.

He explained that even the canvas that he uses determines the outcome of a paintings and he uses several types but prefers sisal sack, heavy drill cloth and calico.

Walking through the exhibition space of his work, one might get the feeling that it becomes predictable, and almost monotonous, a solitary rhino, hippo and elephant against a flat horizon here, the silhouette of a dry tree against the setting sun there. But these small shortcomings can be forgiven, because without doubt, Firoz does bring to contemporary Zambian art a completely new vision.

The works on display at Alliance Francaise range between K800 and K6, 500, which means there is something for everyone in the show. For gallery art of this quality, even by Zambian standards these prices are quite reasonable. But in the reality that is the non-buying public of Zambia who are struggling to put food on the table, what with the recent fuel price hikes its nonsensical to spend the equivalent of a minimum wage on a work of art. As much as collecting art is a hobby of the rich across the globe, this is true to our local scenario. It is not uncommon that artists’ works are often bought out of sympathy, as an act of charity, at least to keep the artist off the street.

This is also heightened by a fact that there is not really a systematic commercial method of purchasing works of art either through public or private institutions.

Firoz Patel at the Alliance
Francaise in Lusaka
Speaking of which, the rumour mill has been spinning off its hinges ever since the arts were realigned to the ministry of Tourism and Arts. The word in the corridors is that government, through the ministry, the National Arts Council and unspecified stakeholders are mapping out a policy document for the purchase of art for the decoration of public buildings which of course would be a welcome thing and something that this newspaper column has campaigned for, for at least the past decade, often falling on deaf ears. Then there is also the speculation that Zambian sculptors are very likely to miss out on the opportunity to create work for the sculpture parks designated for the two airports Kenneth Kaunda International in Lusaka and Harry Mwanga Nkumbula in Livingston because they do not meet “certain” tender criteria. But then again, it is easier to hack into the CIA’s computer system than to get anything out of the super stealthy arts administrators in Zambia to verify these rumours.

If the situation concerning the two airports turns out factual and all is said and done, let us hope it does not get to the extent where it creates rifts, as did the African Renaissance Monument, a colossal 49 metre tall bronze statue in Senegal. It turns out that Senegalese artists were not given the opportunity to create the US$ 27 million statue and it was instead designed by a Romanian architect and built by a North Korean sculpting company famous for various projects and large statues throughout Africa since the 1970s.

Well, this writer for one, will not be surprised in the tenders are given to far eastern sculptors and we end up with neo-Stalinist styled sculptures at the expense of statues with an African touch. If our local artists do not meet the so-called standards and the work really has to be given to someone beyond our borders, why not give it to someone on the continent, therefore keeping Africa’s wealth in Africa. But anyway, rumours are rumours and what does a simple arts writer know about tender policies in any case. -

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