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Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Artists are unsung heroes, Professor Luo

By Andrew Mulenga

With the on-going UNWTO general assembly, it appears all roads lead to Livingstone, fortunately, the main highway from the capital and other parts of the country passes through Choma where any dedicated Zambian art collector or devotee should be making a stopover.

The Choma Museum and Craft Centre (CMCC) is currently showing works by some of the country’s most important printmakers in an exhibition entitled Graphic Art of Zambia that celebrates an almost forgotten art form in Zambia. The show is also a historic anthology of the genre and its artists from the 1960s until today.

(L-R) Choma Museum Director Mwimanji Chellah,
Minister of Chiefs and Traditional Affairs Prof. Nkandu Luo,
deputy ministers Susan Kawandami and
Robert Taundi look at prints by Cynthia Zukas
It features Cynthia Zukas MBE, the Lusaka Artists Group – as of 1977 Zambia Association of Artists – collective of Bert Witkamp, Fackson Kulya, Patrick Mweemba, and David Chibwe alongside Lutanda Mwamba, William Miko, Agnes Buya Yombwe, Jonathan Leya, Patrick Mumba and Adam Mwansa.

Also featured in the show are the two indigenous forerunners of post-independence contemporary Zambian art, the scholarly Henry Tayali and the fabled free spirit Aquila Simpasa.

Opening the exhibition as guest of honour on Wednesday morning, Minister of Chiefs and Traditional Affairs Professor Nkandu Luo, who was accompanied by her two deputies Susan Kawandami and Robert Taundi, described the exhibiting artists as unsung heroes for their contribution to the public good.

And in his opening remarks after conducting a tour for the officials CMCC Executive Director Mwimanji Chellah said the Choma museum board and management conceived the exhibition as a side event for the UNWTO.

Meanwhile, National Museum Board Executive Secretary, Flexon Mizinga explained that the exhibition intended to “Bring out the Zambian character, the uniqueness of ‘us’ and these artworks portray that in a very special way, we are Zambians because of what we do, we eat, how we treat each other and so these artworks portray that but in a very special way,” he added “It is our hope that some of our guests will find their way here. As of yesterday we were yet to confirm that some of them have signed up so that the UNWTO can spill over into here, buses can be provided”.

Chellah later introduced the museums co-founder and art exhibition co-ordinator Bert Witkamp an artist of Dutch origin who has lived in the country for over 30 years.

This early linocut by David Chibwe shows
meticulous detail that is hard to achieve in this medium
“In this room, there are a lot of people who can talk about art in Zambia starting with that man (Chellah) that I have known for 40 years since the first time I came to Zambia. There is also Simon Chungu (artist), Patrick Mweemba (artist) and there is this gentleman who helps put arts in Zambia on the map nationally and internationally Andrew Mulenga (the author) we are very happy to have him here,” said the self-effacing Witkamp as he almost shied away from taking the floor.

He explained that although the exhibition was about printmaking, it was also about drawing in pencil, in charcoal and in pen.

“Let me say something about printmaking. Before we hardly had any – contemporary art – print makers, the first one was Cynthia Zukas who was the pioneer and has made a great contribution in the arts in Zambia; the second one is Henry Tayali one of Zambia’s greats who died in 1987 the third one involves I. When I came here in 1975, I looked for – grassroots – artists to work with. The Tayalis and a few others were on one side of the social ladder because they were educated and had important positions in social life”.

He disclosed that he worked with artists from the shanty towns, Mtendere to be specific with little or no education and in those days the Zambian art scene was very small.

“You are talking about a handful of artists so it didn’t take much just by organisation to place yourself on the scene so what we did with the help of the Art Centre Foundation was to organise a workshop where we worked for five years called the Lusaka Artists Group, some of them from the group like Patrick Mweemba and Fackson Kulya are in the exhibition as you can see,”

Women's Talk, (1979),  woodcut, by Henry Tayali is
 among many works currently on sale in the exhibition
“From the 70s and early 80s, we had new artists dominant on the scene like Miko, Lutanda and Patrick Mumba so here we are showing you the pioneers and people who came after them. The result of this effort until today is a vibrant interesting tradition of Zambian graphic art that indeed captures the life of the people. It is not like in the western world where you will look at art and ask, ‘is this is art? What is it?’, but this is art that shows you the life of the people.”

And before she officially opened the exhibition, Professor Luo, who was honestly fascinated by the way CMCC has been working with the rural women of the community in far flung places such as Kanchomba in Pemba East after its board Vice Chairperson Ellie Choonde revealed that traditional Tonga baskets sold through the museum are a source of income for the rural women and have found their way into the interior d├ęcor of many hotels countrywide.

(L-R) Choma Museum founding partner and
artist Bert Witkamp, director Mwimanji Chellah and
Minister of Chiefs and Traditional Affairs Prof. Nkandu Luo

“What is exciting about this museum, it is different from other museums I have visited in Zambia in that they are speaking to the international discourse which now says we should move away from thinking that museums or heritage sites will be protected by the learned but that we should involve communities in the protection of our national heritage”, she said.

And in her closing remarks, on a lighter note, the minister said she knew the works of Henry Tayali because incidentally her older sister was married to an artist and an actor in the name of Edwin Manda and because of him, her family got to know many creative people, visual artists inclusive.

Professor Luo shares a light moment with a
European couple that was visiting the museum
“I got to know the works of Henry Tayali and others but today I will be happy to look at work by people we call unsung heroes, our visit today is not really looking at the art but actually celebrating the unsung heroes through the art they have created”.

Still, as far as art appreciation goes, we still have a journey to go. As much as the minister was familiar with Tayali’s work, it was evident a few members of her entourage were not. Some could be heard softly murmuring in disbelief at the average K2, 000 (two thousand kwacha) price tags, thinking these were too high.

In actual fact, a good Tayali print can fetch way over US$2,000 (two thousand dollars), so to have a total of seven of these works on sale in Choma right now – the oldest being a 1979 print entitled Woman’s Talk – is a surprise in itself. These treasures are at risk of being whisked away by foreign museums never to be seen by less privileged Zambians again.

The Choma museum craft shop stocks handicrafts that are
created by members of the surrounding rural community
Work by African artists is currently a hot commodity; there is a recharged worldwide recognition of the vibrancy of contemporary art made on the continent. Or in the words of Financial Times “African contemporary art is hot,” as it announced, after the London auction house Bonhams achieved a record US$850,000 for a work by Ghana’s El Anatsui, an artist who still lives and works on the continent last year. Bonhams, which has been consistently holding exhibitions dedicated to contemporary African art for the past five years actually has an African Art department, and its director Giles Peppiatt is reported to have told Naveena Kottoor of the BBC World Service that compared to contemporary art from other parts of the world, the prices for African art are still quite modest, and investors are seeing it increasingly as a good investment.

The craft shop also stocks several Zambian titles that are
mainly written in Tonga, the language of the
Zambia's Southern Province
“Public museums don't have lots of money, so their curators have to look over the hill and see what might be the next big thing," Peppiatt told the BBC.

There have also been reports that, even in times of global economic uncertainty, institutions such as the Tate Modern – one of the leading contemporary art museums in the world – is stocking up on its African collection. So it would be no surprise if the Tayali prints are quickly whipped up.
Nevertheless, returning home, for anyone who has been studying the Zambian art scene with regards political will, it can be interpreted as both a welcome and encouraging act when a high level entourage of government officials, in fact the entire top brass avails itself for the opening of an art exhibition. Particularly when it is from a ministry that does not oversee the arts. The chief’s ministry oversees museums under deputy minister Kawandami who oversees development in the ministry. Anyway, maybe, just maybe the arts are slowly, but finally getting recognition. The Graphic Art of Zambia exhibition runs until October. 

In the gardens of the Museum one can see the eight-foot steel balls that were used to clear the planned harbour sites and fishing areas of Lake Kariba during construction of the dam wall. These steel balls were connected to bulldozers by battleship anchor chains and dragged through the bush, smashing everything in their path. Each ball cost £2,500 and each chain, £ 6,000. Using these balls, it was possible to clear 50 acres per hour. (Caption, courtesy of The Lowdown Magazine)

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