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Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Looking Awry still showing at the Tayali

By Andrew Mulenga

For the face-value viewer accustomed to the typical figurative and semi-abstract paintings that are routine during exhibitions at the Henry Tayali in the Lusaka showgrounds, Canadian mixed-media artist Wendy Dobereiner and Zambian sculptor John Mitti’s Looking Awry, an on-going duo exhibition is very unusual.

Ad 1 (mixed media)
by Wendy Dobereiner
Mitti’s work of course is all too familiar because his hand and use of highly polished hard woods particularly ebony is something that has not fallen too far from the tree of his mentor, the late celebrated sculptor and founder of Ulendo Art Studio in Lusaka’s Linda compound Friday Tembo who is considered by many – including the author – as the father of “reclaimed wood” sculpture in Zambia, well at least he is the first to have brought it into the gallery by any means.

On the other hand, Dobereiner’s work is a bit of a punch in the eye because as much as the images of painted advertisements such as “blocks for sale”, “barbershop” or “hair salon” are spread across the city of Lusaka, no one would really expect to see them within a gallery space, and many of us see the images as mundane things that we pass by without batting an eyelid. But Dobereiner uses them here as a means of expression, to manifest her visual encounter with the city of Lusaka as a western foreigner who is seeing things askew or awry as it were, thus the exhibition title Looking Awry.

Dobereiner has been in the country for about six months now; she is a guest lecturer in Fine Art at the Zambia Open University (ZAOU).

Ad 2 (mixed nedia)
by Wendy Dobereiner
“When I came here I couldn’t believe all the – hand painted – advertising, in Canada you just can’t put up advertisements anywhere. I was amazed and I researched folk art, because the paintings on the walls fascinated me, but this isn’t folk art. I started to research   some of the painters who do this, there is this huge desire to depict something”, she explained during a walkabout while hanging the work before the show opened last week.

“But so I found that since I’ve been here they have been replaced by photographs or vinyl I really thought it was a shame that you will lose some of these quite interesting graphics they are not folk art, but they are done from a passion of trying to depict something”, she said struggling to define or rather categorize the unique work.

Surely most of the images are from barbershops and salons and it is true quite a number of these are disappearing and being replaced with vinyl and photos with large format printing becoming cheaper. But Dobereiner’s observation is no new thing.

In a 2010 interview (Sign-writers Vs digitally produced billboards, Weekend Post, Friday July 23 2010),  Wesley Chongo a prominent sign-writer who was handed down the skill by his father and had been practicing for 13 years said “But even with computers we haven’t lost some clients because they know that one of my works can last for up to 10 years, whereas the computer stuff is quick to fade”.

Cornered (mixed media) by Wendy Dobereiner
Chongo may have had his point back then, because four years down the line industries such as the apparently booming and rapidly mushrooming drilling companies that line Lusaka’s Great East Road for instance prefer the large advertisements of their Ashok Leyland drilling trucks to be painted rather that printed on the walls. One can even sense some competition here on who can render the most accurate depiction of a truck down to its finest detail.

Nevertheless, Dobereiner has apparently immortalized some signwriting by using them in collage with her own formula of plaster and Cobra wax on canvas.

When asked about her thoughts on how she really felt about the diminishing number of painted signs and advertisements in certain areas, she said she thought it was a huge loss; she is convinced that a rich part of Zambian visual culture is dying.

Out of The Maize (mixed media)
by Wendy Dobereiner
But in Looking Awry she does not just concentrate on the signage of Lusaka as a concept for her visual encounter with the city or with Zambia. In one of her pieces -- actually one that stands out -- she grapples with the concept of a melting pot culture, a blending of cultures using femininity to drive the point home. Here she appears to be sampling from her roots in feminism, a movement in art that sees the production of overtly feminist artworks that dates from the late 1960s onwards. Entitled Out Of The Maize, this work is a curious collage of female body parts; legs, torso, abdomen, among the focal points of the artwork is a pubis and an urn or vase that appears to be sprouting female eyes of all races.

For this particular exhibition Dobereiner decided to display her work alongside that of Miti because she felt his work too embodied Lusaka from a local perspective.

Portrait (mixed media) by Wendy Dobereiner
“John is also dealing with his view of Lusaka, the only thing is I don’t come from Lusaka and John does. I can’t really speak to it but its local, and a lot of my stuff is about local,” she said.

Apart from ZAOU, she has also taught at the University of Columbia, the University of Alberta and the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. She has also been the recipient of at least five academic awards and has numerous transcontinental gallery exhibitions. On the other hand the closest Miti has been to any semblance of academic training is the studio apprenticeship from his earlier mentioned mentor. He is currently working alongside Dobereiner at her Ibex Hill studio with his former Ulendo Studios stable mate Rabson Phiri. Read about Miti’s profile and experience in this exhibition soon. 

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