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Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Farewell Baba Jakeh

By Andrew Mulenga

Late Finland-based Zambian artist Baba Jakeh Chande aka Romanus Chande was put to rest in a memorial service in Helsinki on Saturday 1st March. He died at the age of 42 at the Hospice Terhokoti in Helsinki on Friday last week after a battle with a cancer that affected his liver.

Baba Jakeh died in Helsinki, Finland
Survived by a wife Riikka Soumi-Chande and two children, a seven-year-old girl and a five-year-old boy, he had been a resident of Helsinki since 2006 but travelled back and forth to Zambia for his art projects. He was an active Helsinki artist who participated in various exhibitions mostly as a performance artist, his most recent being in November 2013.

The artist’s widow Riikka confirmed that her late husband had cancer of the liver, as well as a tumour on the liver that was diagnosed in September 2013 and in an announcement to friends through social media in October last year, the late artist revealed that he had been diagnosed with hepatitis B, which he suspected to have had for a very long time and despite having gone through normal regular check-ups, it was never detected hence causing the liver cancer.

He revealed that the tumour on his liver had steadily been growing bigger until he developed symptoms such as stomach aches, headaches and nausea. He had been having regular-severe abdominal pains since early 2013 that led him to seek medical treatment and several examinations that gave him these results.

Endangered Species by Baba Jakeh,
a sculpture at the Zambezi Sun, Livingstone
(Photo -courtesy of Alice Cuningham)
Chande was a visual artist exceptionally skilful in taille directe  an approach to sculpture that is practically freestyle in which artists do not use a model or maquettes in front of them but work from memory. His forms were mainly organic in nature and during a two-man exhibition he held alongside close friend and Rockston Studios stable mate Ngamanya Banda at the Chit Chat CafĂ©, Lusaka in 2006 he explained: “The organic and most intense forms reveal my inner sensitivity and the harmony I find in the world around me”.

Working mainly in stone, he was in fact a subtractive sculptor removing material to create a finished work. His preferred form of subtractive sculpture was by far the most technically challenging due to the nature of stone medium which can be one of the most limiting in expression. However, anyone familiar with Chande’s work will attest that he was able to work marble with the agility of cloth. A good example would be Endangered Species, a sculpture on the lawns of the Zambezi Sun Hotel in Livingstone which is a popular photo spot for tourists.

Torso by Baba Jakeh
This stone sculpture features an organic form that rests on a high plinth. The lower part of the huge rock is extraordinarily hewn into a perfect curly spiral that leaves you wondering how it was achieved even with a grinding machine; this lower part can also be likened to the curled trunk of an elephant. The upper part of the sculpture takes on a broad leaf-like form which resembles an elephants ear and the works surface alternates from smoothed out areas to rough and raw ones. Speculatively speaking, Endangered Species is the sculpture of an elephants head, which is befitting of the part of Livingstone in which is located.

Chande also had the mischievous knack of creating solid female torsos that would also have a phallic semblance making them somewhat androgynous objects in terms of a representation of the male or the female. A good example is the grey marble torso he once showed at the Lusaka National Museum, in this work – as in many -- what could easily represent the scrotal sack could easily represent breasts making it a powerful representation of male and female fertility.

Awaiting revelation (performance in
 mutton cloth) by Baba Jakeh
There is no surprise that on the Helsinki art scene he was known more for his performance pieces than sculptures because this is a trait he had long developed before moving to Europe. While at the Rockston Studios in Lusaka, he was always staging spontaneous pieces at times during gallery exhibitions even though performance art has still not yet taken root as a form of creative expression in Zambia. He is particularly remembered for the performance piece Awaiting Revelation in which he stripped, covered himself in stretched mutton cloth from head to toe revealing only his waist-long dreadlocks.

In Gabriel Ellison’s book Art in Zambia, he was mentioned among the most promising artists that held the future of contemporary Zambian art in the palm of their hands; he was 33 years old at the time.

The loss of Chande may be best expressed through the compassionate words borrowed from close friend and one time stable mate Zenzele Chulu, the Visual Arts Council Vice chairman. In a eulogy targeted at close friends within the visual arts fraternity – which he agreed to share for publication after some convincing – a few excerpts from Chulu’s passionate account may sum up the life of the artist.

“From the humble dusty streets of Chilenje, Lusaka he lived in a highly privileged neighbourhood  with  other legendary artists who collectively formed the famous Rockston Studio ( 1985 ) guided by the strong scripture inscriptions “ Iron Sharpen Iron” , Baba Jakeh executed his duties whole heartedly to save and serve  Rockston in all his days.  David Baruch Chirwa, Lutanda Mwamba, Martin Chanda, Nezias Nyirenda , Zebby Muhango, Ngamanya Banda, David Lewanika, the list continues of those artists that Baba Jakeh shared his unique creative vision and how he influenced the drive for excellence,” states Chulu’s tribute to Chande in part.

“As artists we will cherish those unforgettable days, life was an art performance for Baba, he celebrated his days in the most artistic context you could ever imagine, his looks, the skill in carving Lusaka marble is legendary, a tough but soft spoken Baba lived up to his bill, with a long string of unrecorded recipes he created. We shared the music, the laughter, always discussing creative futuristic ideas for the benefit of our children and their children. Such was the Iron Sharpen Iron reality”.

Chulu discloses that his late colleague had a considerable amount of formal and academic exposure and attended the Mbile International Art workshops, Art Academy Without Walls Workshops, the introduction to Glass Forming at Open University, University of Art and Design, Helsinki and  the Etching and Printing course, London Print Studio (currently Global Print Studio).

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