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Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Wadada’s lively city of Lusaka

By Andrew Mulenga

For most painters, the process of creating work is usually a solitary activity that involves long and fairly toilsome hours of daubing, spreading and tapping away on a canvas with their brushes and not saying a word.

On The Move by Patrick Phiri
But for Patrick Phiri – not the football luminary – this is more or less the opposite. When he is not working at his full time job in his older brother’s bore-hole drilling company, he can be found in his front yard in Lusaka’s Chilulu Township ­– right next to the infamous Bitchland – with an erected easel and mounted canvas applying different colours to it while surrounded by family.

The 42-year-old will be happily painting with his head tilted to one side while chatting to his welcoming wife Karen, his brother and several of his seven children ­– some whom can be seen returning from school – on any available topic from current affairs to sport.

He was not voted among the people’s top four artists at the just ended Lusaka centenary exhibition at Manda Hill Mall, but he surely was one of the most entertaining, and his pieces displayed at the Shoprite entrance entitled Levy Park and On the Move, two representations of urban life in Lusaka could simply not be ignored. The work intentionally had a childlike unsophistication with its inventive distortion of figures, cars and buildings of which when coupled with the liveliness of his palette brings a very fresh and therefore welcome player to the Lusaka art scene.

“I’m a self-taught artist, I started drawing when I was in grade 6, my educational background; I never went far, not beyond Grade 7. From there I started painting with friends in Chipata,” says the artist, insisting on having the conversation in English, and his articulacy did not at any point reflect his modest, educational background.

Levy Park by Patrick Phiri
Although he was raised in Chipata, he spent his school years in Matero, where he lived with his parents until his father retired and went back to his homeland in Eastern Province’s Chiparamba Village. Although he is as fit as an ox in adult life, at the time Phiri was frail due to an incessantly poor medical state. He later had to drop out of school, because of his bad health and the family’s financial instability.

“In my career as an artist I am happy that I was part of the team that helped build the Visual Arts Centre in Chipata. I learned a lot from there; especially from James Zimba who is now in Livingstone,” says the artist who often signs his work as “Wadada”, a word the Rastafarian explains means “love” in Jamaican patois.

 “Mr Zimba played a very big role in my development because there was a workshop funded by the Finnish embassy that he helped me attend. He was picking two artists from each province and I was picked with my friend Mzheba Dube who is still in Chipata. Then from there we came to Lusaka and had a workshop in Chalimbana under the theme Painting from Observation in in 1997”.

The 1997 workshop may have just amplified an already existing, highly developed sense of observation in    Phiri.

Fruit Traders (work in progress) by Patrick Phiri
“When painting On The Move, I just went into town, and stood at the junction, by the courts opposite Levy Park for a long time, then I went back and made a painting from memory” he says.

But for the Levy Park painting, he used the image he took with his mobile phone. The location itself has sentimental value for the artist because the site used to be his father’s work place, the Mechanical Services Department (MSD) which later housed the Engineering Services Corporation (ESCO) Limited and subsequently became Levy Park, one of the country’s biggest shopping malls and business arcades, a location he used to come to as a boy.

Nevertheless, the liveliness in his paintings may somehow be attributed to the fact that Phiri often starts a painting without a sketch, giving it a very raw vibrancy as can be seen in Fruit Traders, a work in progress that he was found working on this week. He casts the rules of proportion to the wind and although his paintings are not clear-cut abstractions, he sometimes juxtaposes his figures in a very unnatural way. In Fruit Traders, the most prominent character in the painting, a fruit vender almost has her face submerged in the arm pit of another, just to portray how crowded the city centre can get.
Patrick Wadada Phiri
And the fact that buyers are not regular does not bother Phiri. He explains that for him art is an inner passion and after all he has other means to make money and support his family, but every now and then a buyer does walk through his door.

"I do sell. I sold one when we had an Africa Freedom Day exhibition, and the same white guy who bought my painting phoned me because my number was at the back, then he phoned me and asked me to e-mail some of my work, so when I did he asked me where I stay and he came home and bought a few more” he explains.

By the same token, the week-long Lusaka Centenary exhibition may not have been a huge business success on the day, having just sold one out of several dozen paintings, but it managed to show that there are a lot of artists still slithering out of the woodwork such as Patrick Phiri, artists whom we would have otherwise known nothing about. Watch this space for more relatively unknown artists of the Lusaka Centenary exhibition.

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