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Monday, 23 September 2013

‘Commoditization’ dominates inaugural Kundwe art talks

By Andrew Mulenga

The Lusaka National Museum has introduced what is expected to be an exciting series of discussions, presentations and much needed progressive debates on contemporary art in Zambia.

The Kundwe Art Talks as they are being called are organised by the Museum’s Education Department and coordinated every Wednesday by Emilia Alvarez a volunteer helping out with the documentation of artworks at the museum.

Opening night during the Lusaka My City
exhibtion at 37d Gallery
in Kabulonga, Lusaka -
Picture courtesy of StART Foundation
The inaugural talk last week was a presentation or a re-introduction rather, of the StART Foundation and 37d Art Gallery of Kabulonga in Lusaka by its curator Mika Marffy.                  

Just under two years on the scene, The StART Foundation has emerged as an energetic new player that has already created ripples on the Zambian visual arts scene successfully combining creative charity work and commercial art sales, all the while encouraging creativity in children and supporting Zambian artists.

“StART is structured on the twin basis of 37d gallery and Just Imagine workshops and programmes for disadvantaged children in Zambia. These two aspects exist upon a parallel, supporting and sustaining each other,” explained Marffy “Let me clarify by explaining these two component parts individually. 37d exists and operates for two purposes first and foremost to fund the Just Imagine projects. The artists that exhibit at the 37d gallery sign a contract in which they essentially agree to donate a thirty per cent commission of their income to the StART Foundation fund, this fee goes directly to fund the trust’s projects and activities”.

She added that secondly, 37d provides established and emerging Zambian artists with yet another choice where they can exhibit thereby gaining access to new and different buyers; and that the gallery offers a professional alternative.

The soft spoken yet eloquently charming Marffy spelled out that the gallery can only be visited by appointment because it was situated in a private home but this should not discourage anyone because the space was still very accessible through forums like the art talk, social media and the foundation’s website.

Probably observing some irreconcilability, Zenzele Chulu, the Visual Arts Council Vice Chairman, asked whether there were any plans to separate the private premises from the core gallery business because there seemed to be a tug of war between them.

But Marffy convincingly responded that buyers can purchase works online and there really was no need to visit the gallery. She also emphasised that the exhibition opening nights for select clientele – which one might add are very well organised – draw in serious buyers despite their exclusivity.

“Our main focus is on the art workshops so we need serious buyers to come to the gallery and buy the artwork so we can keep them (workshops) going,” she said as she called upon Cilla Frost-d’Elbee, one of the StART Foundation’s founding trustees to make a contribution.

“We are a catalyst; we are not the only gallery in Lusaka or in Zambia. There are others, we are just adding our light to the sum of light and the way we have structured it is the way we like to run our trust so we think we are contributing to the whole and filling a niche but certainly there are many others and I think it is increasing all the time. The impression I am getting is that there is more and more interest in art,” said Frost-d’Elbee.

Mwamba Mulangala chipped in and explained how he has been working with some street children for about 10 years and how now they are ripe enough to be affiliated to StART Foundation’s peer educator’s programme, taking over from what he has been doing with children on the Just Imagine projects.

At this point, the author, who was also in the audience asked whether they (37d gallery and StART Foundation) did not fear the risk of reducing art to a commodity that will be enjoyed and purchased by a select few and echoed Chulu’s question on whether they had plans of bringing their exhibitions to a larger audience. This in turn swayed the talk into an ‘art-as-commodity’ debate, a running question which is in fact part of a global critical discourse.

“We are trying to put Zambian art on the map, to be recognized as an entity on its own so we have to boost up the Zambian collector status. So to try and address that art being only a commodity for a select few people I fear that it could go that way but we try to invite as many people from the community as we can but mainly those who we know will buy” responded Marffy while again allowing Frost-d’Elbee to say something.

“Art as a commodity? the same rules of art apply in Zambia as to the rest of the world, so in the rest of the world the serious collectors are a small group with lots of money. We have in the past liaised with the Lusaka National Museum over various options and it often runs into logistical problems on how to shift things from A to B. But we have tried to be very modern in terms of social media to blast those barriers”, Frost-d’Elbee.

Anyway, Marffy explained that it was also a bit of a worry to move around works of art in case they get damaged.

And the heavily dreadlocked, Rastafarian sculptor Nezias “Neziland” Nyirenda joined in to the “commodity debate” when he said artists have gotten carried away and made art for a certain group of people and as such it has become a commodity, he shared his experience of shifting from the Arts Academy Without Walls in the Lusaka showgrounds to Roots of Expression open air sculpture studio in the Chilenje area where he is not selling his work but allowing the community to watch him work.

“We should make art for the community right now because we have to educate them they do not understand what we do”

“We make art for a certain group, when we put it in the gallery it becomes a commodity because when it becomes too commercial it is like we are selling tomatoes because for you (StART Foundation and 37d Art Gallery) it sounds like when it sells you are satisfied, but the best art doesn’t sell”, suggested Nyirenda.

But Marffy stood firm and maintained that through the money, although it might sound unsavoury to some, the end result is all about what art can do for the disadvantaged children.

Again Frost-d’Elbee came in saying her foundation had only been around for less than two years but had made an impact as a catalyst in arts development and that StART Foundation had got people talking and debating and wanting to be in their exhibitions but as a foundation they did not own the way art is ran in Zambia.

“I love what you are doing in the community,” she said gesturing politely towards Nyirenda “There is a long range of things to do in the arts, but also artists have to eat. I know Stary Mwaba built a house and somebody else bought a car. Keep in mind also that we are not funded by the government or anybody; we try to structure it so that it funds itself. Anybody can do better than us. We do it the way we do it because we can cater to that.”

For sure Frost-d’Elbee was not implying that Mwaba built a house from a couple of 37d shows. The artist stunned the Zambian art scene when at the age of 32, he earned over KR100, 000 (K100million then) in a single show entitled Freedom in Translation at the Lusaka National Museum where he sold a painting High Priest for a record KR 18,000 (K18million then), which was unheard of for an artist his age in 2008.

Nevertheless, the VAC Vice chairman Chulu made another contribution and asked if the foundation had any plans to break into the international market using the artists that are exhibiting at 37d and Frost-d’Elbee once again spoke up.

“We were visited by a Tate Modern – Britain's national gallery of international modern art – scout last year. The recycled masks that came out of the children’s workshops was purchased by the biggest collector of African art in the world a man called Jean Pigozzi based in Geneva, so twelve of those masks went to Geneva. We had Read from the Read Gallery in Johannesburg come to the gallery, we have the website, twitter and the online gallery that we are still putting together,” she said.

The Tate Modern scout she spoke of also visited the Henry Tayali gallery in the Lusaka show grounds but the itinerary of this shadowy figure was further obscured by his Zambian guides. And then Pigozzi, the European tycoon, is also known as a big-hearted philanthropist, one hopes he did not buy these masks as an act of charity and that he may return for work done a mainstream visual artist and not a disadvantaged child.

Anyhow, an excited young artist who is affiliated to 37d gallery – and whose name will be spared – quickly interjected after this and likened art going to collectors especially those abroad to seed dispersal saying good things will germinate as their art was falling on fertile ground.

“When it comes to 37d it should not even surprise us because they have chosen how they are going to play. I think ever since I came on the Zambian scene -- which is evidently not too long ago -- there hasn’t been so much noise made towards the art business,” he said.

With a bit of research in his chosen field, he would have at least had an indication that artists never went wanting in the late 1960s through the 1970s which had avid private collectors such as liberation hero Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe and businessman Abe Galaun. We had the Barclays Bank and Anglo American Exhibitions and the Edward Shamwana-chaired Art Centre Foundation that would later inspire the Mpapa Gallery, the Minbank Collection, Gwenda Chongwe’s Zintu Gallery and the golden age of the Meridian BIAO Bank Collection when artists could not create enough to supply the demand. This was also at a time when Enzio Rossi, Andrew Sardanis and John Kapotwe were at their prime of collecting art. There is nothing new under the sun, as they say.

Nevertheless, the young artist said that everyone was talking about the 37d Art Gallery, and that there should be no fear of its exclusivity because that is what the gallery has chosen so artists should appreciate what they had in it at the moment and work together to put themselves on the map

“let’s give 37d so much work that they should fail to choose, so fear is the worst cancer we can have at this time,” continued the artist who seemed just a hair away from brown-nosing his new gallery, and who can blame him, after all he did earn himself something in excess of KR24, 700 – before the thirty per cent donation – in an upcoming artists exhibition at the gallery early this year. And he did not get out of the lucratively successful Lusaka My City exhibition walking away KR6, 600 richer recently.

The Lusaka My City exhibition was a runaway success selling over KR100, 000 worth of art on the opening night alone with subsequent purchases and requests for work that is in the on-going exhibition that runs alongside the featured exhibition. It featured some of Zambia’s top artists as well as some upcoming artists. Themed around Lusaka’s Centenary celebrations it did far better than the Lusaka 100 exhibition held at Manda Hill which did not sell a single work despite the fact that it was brought “to the people” as it were, so exclusivity may have the commercial upper hand after all.

Ignoring the nudging thought that they are trying too hard to be a posh outfit The StART Foundation and 37d Art Gallery with their unique model are truly a breath of fresh air on the art scene, and being a private entity of course they can run things their own way, but the Kundwe Art Talk at the museum brought ought a few interesting issues that are food for thought.

As much as the concept of the online art gallery – nothing to do with 37d Art Gallery -- is working commercially abroad and in some cases locally true art lovers will never enjoy viewing a good collection or their favorite painter’s work from their mobile phone.

Take for instance the reported coming of Jamaican Dancehall superstar Sean Paul to do a gig at the Levy Mwanawasa Stadium on October 23 in Ndola. Why are all his Zambian fans foaming at the mouth with unbridled excitement when they obviously have his music on their mobile phones, laptops and home theatres? It is because they want to listen to him live on stage.

Similarly which Flinto Chandia fan would want to continue seeing tiny images of his latest sculptures on their smartphones when there is a possibility to see it up close, there is just something about seeing something live, the real thing?

The Kundwe Art Talk’s also provided an opportunity for artists and other players to critically debate the discourse on art as a commodity.

Dr Sidney Littlefield Kasfir an American scholar and art historian -- with whom the author made an acquaintance at the Arts Council of the African Studies Association in the US -- interestingly observes that when African artists get partially affiliated with high-end galleries, they often start producing parallel works, those for an elite market and cheaper spin offs for local collectors. 

In her book Contemporary African Art – Tames & Hudson 1999 – Dr Kasfir dedicates an entire 21-page chapter entitled Art and Commodity to the dialogue.  

Here is a bit of what she writes in the chapter’s first paragraph: “Anthropologist Bruce Lincoln argues that one problem with conventional high-art discourse is that it creates a major distinction between ‘the privileged sphere of Art’ and all other goods… Zimbabwe stone sculpture demonstrates, one of the central tenets of this discourse maintained by museums, patrons and collectors is the difference between aesthetic objects made in response to an urge to create and those produced unabashedly to be sold. High or fine art, it is held, must be free of commercial motive because this reduces artworks to the status of household furniture.”

She observes that there have been distinctions entangled in this belief, that between art and craft and a second between art and commodity.
“Neither of these methods of categorization, which derive from European aesthetics and artisanal traditions, are, however an accurate reflection of African cultural realities”, writes Dr Kasfir.

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