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Monday, 11 November 2013

Timidly Zambian

By Andrew Mulenga

This year’s Independence Art Exhibition has been a delight to see more than once, having been on display for close to a month at the Henry Tayali Gallery since its colourful opening by Lusaka Province acting Permanent Secretary Bright Nundwe on the 18th of October accompanied by traditional song, dance and drum playing.

Political Violence by Patrick 'Wadada' Phiri
Recent works by various artists were shown alongside old time favourites on loan from the Lusaka National Museum such as David Shepherd’s Hoisting the Flag (1964) – which shows slight storage or handling damage – and Akwila Simpasa’s Birth of a Nation (1973).

These two iconic works were only last seen outside the museum about a decade ago in 2004 when the late Levy Patrick Mwanawasa opened that year’s Independence Art Exhibition as republican president on the State House lawns under the theme 40 Years of Visual Expression. An exhibition he described as “a splendid display of good Zambian art”.

Nevertheless, this year’s show was just as splendid – to borrow the word -- considering the limited time in which artists had to come up with work as the call was just made two weeks before the opening. The curators did a good job in spacing out a good number of stone, wood and metal sculptures as well as paintings and drawings by some of the country’s leading artists.

“… submit artworks that highlight aspects of Zambia’s independence struggle and the peace and harmony we have enjoyed over the past almost 50 years now,” read the call to artists from the Visual Arts Council (VAC) exhibition committee in part.

No doubt the artists tried their best to throw in some aspects related to what they understood as their nations liberation struggle, but like the author none of them were there in 1964 and the few that might have been, were too young to remember, so it is understood when they did not have time to do a bit of pictorial research in the limited time they had to prepare for the show.

As for the “peace and harmony we have enjoyed over the past almost 50 years now”, this is an aspect of the exhibition that probably the artists struggled to interpret and sadly so.

Often regarded as one huge refugee camp servicing not only the former Frontline States but also other African countries since independence, Zambia has arguably been so peaceful that peace itself has been a sapping force in the area of creativity. Sapping creative expression of any political communication. One would safely argue that peace is so inherent in the Zambian artists themselves that they are unable to feed from their socio-political environment to make work in response to it, rendering most of their work decorative to say the least.

For a laugh one would observe that some works by Zambian artists are so decorative they do not even warrant wooden frames but tassels or lace frills around them.

Forty-nine years down the line, the advent of independence has barely begun to resolve the imbalances of the legacy of colonialism. In many ways Zambia is still wracked with poverty and underdevelopment in most of its districts and provinces even though it is bursting with potential in many places. But all this is not reflected in art, our art lacks a certain sting or venom that is sometimes necessary for it to lend a critical voice, get involved in the power structure or indeed sway public opinion.

Again one would not be wrong to suggest that Zambian art tries too hard to stay away from politics or even the softest form of socio-political commentary, rendering it timid to say the least. As such one is tempted to describe it as ‘Timidly Zambian’ to loosely borrow and adulterate a popular commercial slogan.

Independence (mixed media)
by Mapopa Manda
But this is not to say that the entire Independence Art Exhibition itself lacked any hint of political commentary. One actually stood out among them all and it was aptly titled Political Violence, a painting by Patrick ‘Wadada’ Phiri.

He brings the same creative energy and bursts of colour he showed in the two works Levy Park and On the Move that he exhibited at the Shoprite entrance during the Lusaka Centenary Exhibition at Manda Hill a few months ago.

In Political Violence, the artist makes probable reference to the sporadic squabbles that almost cultivated a countrywide culture of violence between Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) and Patriotic Front (PF) supporters as the latter attempted to take charge of the market places and bus stations shortly after the ruling PF came into power in 2011.

In his composition, Wadada continues to prove himself as a skilled visual choreographer. At first glance the viewer’s eye lands on the lone, punch-throwing MMD supporter in a Rupiah Banda t-shirt, but then he directs our eyes from the top right corner past the cadre of PF supporters in a 45 degree straight line, down to the bottom left corner where he has signed his nickname “Wadada”.

But the gaze is led right back from left to right at the same angle from the signature, past the supporter in a green “Vote Sata” t-shirt through the frantic rhythm of a raised boot, via the clenched fist of the central figure, and right up to the supporter in a green long-sleeved “Vote Sata” Chitenge shirt whose stretched arm and clenched fist are about to land on the face of the MMD supporter from where the viewer’s eye was led in the first place.  

Anyway, Mapopa Manda was not to be left out in trying to dabble in political commentary of some sort. The young artist who last year described himself as a political commentator whose work is part of a dialogue that looks deeper into the conflict of interest related to societal development as far as politics are concerned and involved had a very visually energetic work on display too.

It was one of his trademark, satirical portraits of President Michael Sata on a mock newspaper front page. Unlike his previously exhibited works entitled Plot 1 and Donchi kubeba that depicted interpretations of the president standing with his index finger against his sealed lips in his trademark 2011 presidential campaign “Donchi kubeba” (Copperbelt Bemba slang that loosely translates ‘don’t tell them’ or ‘don’t ask don’t tell’) Independence, the painting in this exhibition depicted a full head and shoulder portrait.

He is shown in a white, ceremonial military uniform with his head tilted slightly to the right and his eyes fixed in clock-stopping intensity slightly away from the viewer. The artist brings out all the leaders definite facial features that reflect his strength of personal character portraying him as a no-nonsense man of action.

Although Manda painted a Times of Zambia newspaper masthead in this instance, he is also known to use other newspaper banners.

“I use The Times of Zambia because it represents Zambia’s political history over the years and then I use The Post because I think it did a great deal to support president Sata and frankly speaking, he wouldn’t be president without The Post” suggested Manda during the Africa My Africa exhibition in May this year. Last year however, he said used The Post because it was formerly linked to controversy and the Daily Mail because he thought its strength was everyday issues. And as for why he called his latest portrait of the president Independence that is up to the artist to know and the viewer to speculate. Such is the beauty of art; after all, what is art without the innuendo of ambiguity?

Nevertheless, as earlier mentioned, the Independence Art Exhibition was a delight to view. In every corner of the gallery, all you could see was an immense display of skill, in every splash of colour, stroke of the brush, shade of pencil or scrape of the grinder.

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