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Sunday, 8 September 2013

Let’s get serious

By Andrew Mulenga

The main contemporary art exhibition that was held at the Livingstone Museum for the just ended UNWTO general assembly was regarded by many as representative of the cream of Zambian visual arts talent.

Officiating at the opening on August 23, the second lady, Dr Charlotte Scott, herself an enthusiastic follower of Zambian visual arts went to the harmless extent of safely speculating that it was an all-inclusive representation of Zambian artists declaring it was not “the usual suspects of Lusaka or of Livingstone”.

As much as one would want to agree with her honour the second lady that the show did not have “the usual suspects”, it was in fact teeming with them. Almost at every turn there was a familiar name, names that you could almost speak in alphabetical order, even from the top of your head, which of course is not an issue if indeed their works represent the country’s finest.

Artist Suse Kasokota walks through
the exhibition at the Livingstone museum.
In the foreground is his work Ano Domini
But what remains a lingering mystery is the selection of the so-called all inclusive works which only included four female Zambian artists namely Mulenga Mulenga, Agnes Buya Yombwe and the mother and daughter duo of Claire and Alina Mateke. Mulenga was the only one representing the rest of Zambia whereas Yombwe and the Matekes are Livingstone-based, meaning they may have only been included because they were “local”.

Surely, it cannot be said that Zambia is short of female artists, whatever happened to Milumbe Haimba, Sylvia Mwando, Bridget Sakwana, Angela Kalunga, Caroline Miyoba, Agnes Lubumbashi, Tessie Lombe and young Gladys Kalichini who was in town for the Insaka International Artists Workshop?

Anyway, the UNWTO show was not a women empowerment exhibition, but some will remember however, the dizzying number of female artists that crawled out of the woodworks during a Women’s Day exhibition at the Lusaka Museum in 2010, it tells you that they do exist and can be available if called upon.

Still, it is not only the selection of works that remains a whodunit, but the panel of adjudicators if at all there was one was equally enigmatic and as difficult to place a finger on as a tiny blob of mercury.

Neither anyone from the Visual Arts Council (VAC) executive nor its mother body the National Arts Council (NAC) was able to explain how the selection of works was made, who was sitting on the mediating panel or how the call to artists was made. But this is understood because they were all very busy, after all the whole world was understood to be in Livingstone.

In any case, there is probably more openness in a papal conclave than there was in the selection of artists and works for what was meant to be one of the country’s most important art exhibitions ever. These are the kind of exhibitions that career artists mention in their portfolios for goodness sake.  An exhibition of not only national, but to a certain extent international importance – if you would like to consider the UNWTO general assembly – with government funding that rarely happens.

The exhibition also had what apparently was supposed to be an exhibition catalogue, a brilliant idea as far as ideas go. Anyone who has visited a well-organised exhibition will attest that a good catalogue provides viewers not only the opportunity to learn more about the theme of the show as well as the chance to learn more about the individual artists but even a chance to “take the exhibition home” with them, which again was in line with the UNWTO exhibitions theme “Take Zambia Home With You”.

The exhibition catalogue in question, a well printed, glossy 22-page booklet should not have been printed at all. To start with, the publication tries to give what turns out to be a weak overview of Zambian Art and Culture, followed by misplaced biographies of Zambia’s five-or-so museums which were not necessary as the museums are still under the Ministry of Chiefs and Traditional Affairs which has nothing to do with the contemporary art exhibition.

The booklet goes further to have a page titled Zambian Art at a Glance, which is perfectly okay if the text was not outdated owing to the fact that it reads like a paragraph from Gabrielle Ellison’s book Art In Zambia, revealing either a lack of time for research by the authors or indeed laziness. If the publication’s target were the international visitors, one has also to be very careful in suggesting that Zambia is “adequately represented in the diaspora with renowned artists”. It is a known fact that there is very scanty information on what so-called diaspora artists are up to, whether they are practicing art or not, what galleries are they affiliated to? Or do they market their own work.

The international contemporary art scene is an extremely lucrative and therefore highly competitive and fast paced one, what is Zambia’s share into this market and who are her representatives, readers are not daft more so foreign ones. Are there any Zambian’s exhibiting alongside Chéri Samba from Congo, South Africa’s Johannes Phokela, Ghana’s El Anatsui or the British-Nigerian Yinka Shonibare to name just a handful of artists whom the west regards as African contemporary art superstars? Are there any Zambians selling with the London auction house Bonham’s or showing at the Tate Modern?

As much as we may be proud of our brothers and sisters in the diaspora who go abroad on the grounds of academic study, we never hear of them graduating or continuing on their trajectory of pursuing greater heights in the arts, not that it is anyone’s business but their own.

But the worst misdeed this booklet commits is that it only had about thirty of the exhibiting artists’ biographies, which is nearly half the number of the total group that had works on display. Once more all these biographies are outdated, starting from the profiles themselves to the artists’ mug shots, again they all look like they were clearly lifted from either Ellison’s book or one of the Lechwe Art Trust collection catalogues, sheer laziness on the part of the authors. One does not simply copy another’s work and assume no one will notice. Frankly speaking the small, nine-page catalogue for the on-going Graphic Art of Zambia exhibition in Choma is better arranged and its biographies too are freshly written and up to date, meaning whoever did it, took time to research.

The UNWTO exhibition had newcomers we have never heard of such as 17-year-old Alina Mateke who was the youngest in the show, this was an opportunity for her likes to be introduced and launched onto the scene, seeing someone had already decided to put her in a major exhibition.

This was an opportunity for us to have  beautifully organised catalogue to serve as a historic reference book in Zambian art practice seeing we do not have any apart from the Ellison book and Lechwe catalogues, but we just had to throw away the opportunity did we not?.

But overall one could sense serious inefficiency throughout the run of the exhibition. One morning, about two days after the opening, this author met an American couple who were very eager to buy two wood sculptures from the exhibition, the gallery attendants were in a muddle when the couple asked how much it would cost to ship the art to the US. Being polite, the couple excused themselves and said they will be back later in the day, just to give the gallery attendants a little time.

For sure, in the afternoon the couple returned but there was still no figure for shipment. When a quotation from a shipping company finally came through after a long series of phone calls between the gallery attendants and whoever was in charge of the exhibition itself, – most likely the VAC chairman who was busy at another venue at the time – the figure was so astronomical that the couple abandon the prospect all together and politely bade their farewells.

Honestly, if you are going to sell sculptures, you must at least have an idea how you will ship them to your potential customer, this is basic commercial gallery etiquette.

Speaking of sales, only one painting sold at the museum during the entire duration of the show, which is of no consequence, because exhibitions are not always about sales and any sober mind knew too well that delegates will not come and whisk away everything. But there were a lucky few that were able to sell when their works were taken to the UNWTO main conference marquee at the Royal Livingstone Hotel after an impromptu call from high office at the dead of night and the museum had to be opened so as the works could be transported there. Again another show of disorganisation. Was it not known that the main venue will have to be decorated too?

Externally, the exhibition was a success simply because it did take place. But the undercurrents show that it was haphazardly done and lacked transparency and seriousness.

Art is serious business and should not be taken lightly. If Zambian artists are to be taken seriously by their ministry or by the international art community they should start putting their act together, we cannot continue going in circles. Of course there are very few art professionals when it comes to arts management in the country, but a few do exist, and a few of them were trained at government expense and they can be found. The era of the know-it-all attitude and allowance-driven arts administration should come to an end.
If those at the rudder of the visual arts are incapable of steering them in the right direction, they should stand down and allow those who are capable to take over. This is a field that is about to flourish and there is no time for games, not when there is talk of a National Arts Culture and Heritage Commission and an impending opening of the country’s first National Art Gallery which from the look of things we are not yet ready to manage.


  1. Mr Chanter I am humbled that you actually read it. I remember you as an avid supporter of the arts when you were in charge of the Ridgeway Hotel where my family lived for a few months, when I was fairly little. I will be in touch when I am in your city again, most likely October. Don't miss this coming Saturday's article, being a man of music, I'm sure you will relate to it