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Sunday, 6 April 2014

Mwaba’s ‘Going To Mars’ sends Cheshire children over the moon

By Andrew Mulenga

The African-American abolitionist Harriet Tubman, a stalwart of the Underground Railroad and an under-celebrated heroin of the American Civil War once told us “Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”

Mwaba with some of the children
in front of his painting, Space Girl
Well, literally reaching for the stars is exactly what a Zambian dreamer Mukuka Nkoloso aimed for when he hoped to send an “Afronaut” – his term for African astronaut -- with two cats to the Moon and later Mars in a space programme under his independent National Academy of Science, Space Research and Astronomical Research in 1964.

Although Nkoloso’s dream to beat rival programs run by the United States and the Soviet Union and be the first to put a human on the moon never materialized, it lives on through an exhibition it inspired called “We’re still going to Mars” by Stary Mwaba.

Mwaba draws from Nkoloso’s archival material to inspire his recent project as an allegory that encourages humanity to dare to dream regardless of the prospective vainness of life.

It is in this particular spirit that the artist hosted orphans from Cheshire Homes in Lusaka last week, treating them to an art walkabout as well as some fun time with a small art workshop at the exhibition venue, the Lusaka National Museum.

Children from Cheshire Homes orphanage
take photos in front of
Mwaba's painting, Akamunga
“As the theme goes We Are Still Going to Mars I believe it is important for us as a people to have dreams despite our challenges as Mukuka Nkoloso did. Along with Mrs Charity Salasini –the Museum Keeper of Ethnography -- I wanted the children to get a chance to experience the exhibition and participate in making a film strip” explains the artist.

He says when the children arrived, he asked how many of them could draw to which only a handful replied in the affirmative.  But at the end of the workshop they could all draw which he describes as humbling.

“We tend to limit or judge people based on our stereotypical point of view, these children proved us all wrong they are capable of doing more than we can imagine if given the opportunity to do so,” he says.

He adds that artists are often challenged when it comes to teaching children the importance of art as a medium that is critical to the development of society.

Mapalo enjoys using coloured
pencils during the workshop
“I did a project with St Lawrence orphanage in 2000 and also with Danae Sardanis at Kasisi Orphanage for 4 years, I learn a lot from Children. When children draw they usually exercise a certain freedom that I love to see in my own work. It’s inspirational”.

But his day with the children at the museum had one major disappointment. Access to the building is not wheelchair friendly at all. Along with orphanage and museum staff, Mwaba had a tuff time hauling some of the children up the countless stairs of the museum entrance.

“The museum has a lot of work to be do infrastructure-wise it is not a friendly place for the disabled “says Mwaba.

In fact the accessibility problem does not end at the entrance. The upper floor which has some very important artefacts on display is equally inaccessible to wheelchairs.

Using their authority, maybe the Zambia Agency of Persons with Disabilities (ZAPD), a government institution which was established under the Persons with Disabilities Act No.33 of 1996 might want to knock on the doors of the policy makers – right next door, at government building – and remind them to correct this tragic situation.

Museum Keeper of Ethnography
Charity Salasini observes one of the participants
Anyhow, the exhibition ran from the 20th to the 27th of March and the high-profile opening was graced by such dignitaries as ambassadors, banking executives, the Attorney General Mumba Mulilila and internationally acclaimed contemporary art curator Bisi Silva of Nigeria.

Silva, who was here at the generous expense of the Swedish embassy, is also the founder and artistic director of the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos, Nigeria where Mwaba attended a residency last year which resulted in the concept for his latest exhibition. It is the same concept that he will be taking to Germany, having been nominated by Silva, he was awarded a one year Stiftung Grant to attend the 2014- 2015 residency at Kunstlerhaus Bethanien.

Such is the influence that Silva exerts. If there ever was a global premier league of art, she is a major player representing the African continent. Back home in Lagos she just opened Playing with Chance to mark the 70th birthday anniversary of one of Africa's most acclaimed contemporary artists, Professor El Anatsui of Ghana who achieved a record sale £541,250 (over half a million pounds) for a single work of art made of discarded bottle tops last year.

Access to the museum is
not wheelchair-friendly
She has co-curated the Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art in Greece, the Dakar Biennale in Senegal, selected artists for the biggest annual art prize in the United Kingdom the £40,000 Artes Mundi in Wales and last year she was the only African on the five-woman jury that saw Angola walk away with the coveted Golden Lion Award for best pavilion making it the first sub-Saharan country to do so. Later on in the year she put together the centrepiece at Art Dubai 2013, the UAE’s premier art fair where she featured art by West African artists living on the African continent.

In this light, Mwaba’s show was a ground-breaking exhibition having attracted Silva and therefore putting contemporary Zambian art under her radar, which is definitely not a bad place to be.

She was accommodated at Chaminuka Lodge and Game Reserve where she engaged with what is arguably the largest collection of Zambian art on permanent display; she also visited 37d Gallery in Kabulonga and the Arts Academy without Walls in the Lusaka showgrounds. According to Mwaba she described some artists as ripe to go international because they have outgrown the Zambian art scene were Agnes Yombwe, Flinto Chandia and Lutanda Mwamba.

But Mwaba’s show was also revolutionary in a sense that although his subject matter remained typical, the concept of using archival material in the light of Nkoloso’s story was quite unusual by Zambian standards. Yes there have been paintings inspired by the past, but Mwaba’s literally zoom in on the specific theme of Zambia’s forgotten involvement in the space race albeit by the independent efforts of a man who was considered a crackpot and yet would later be honoured by his own country as well as Russia.

The artist says, although Nkolso’s dream was never achieved it must not be forgotten, it should be told to a new generation that has never heard of it. Actually, this brings to mind the words of Sarah Coggrave a British artist and blogger who often uses archive material and historical sources to inform her creative work.

“One thing we can be sure of, is that no matter what we record in the present, or however we interpret the past in the now, it is those in the future who will shape the legacies of whatever we choose to preserve,” writes Coggrave in a review of Past Is Prologue: Artists Who Work With Archives, a conference that explored ways in which artists draw creative potential from archive material such as photographs, film, artefacts and oral histories that was held at Goldsmiths, University of London last year.

In the exhibition, Mwaba’s Space Girl series is an unmistakable homage to Martha the 17-year-old Afronaut whom Nkoloso scheduled to be the first human – and girl -- on the moon since at the time Nkoloso had already been beaten by the Russians who paved the way for human spaceflight by sending a dog, Laika that died from overheating aboard Sputnik 2 in 1957 and Yuri Gagarin aboard Vostok 1 four years later making him the first man in space and in orbit.

But our Martha did not have the rigorous training of Laika or a sophisticated jetfighter pilot background like Gagarin or Louis Armstrong as was a prerequisite for astronauts at the time. She was simply a round-the-way Zambian girl whom by way of an understandable youthful instability fell pregnant – not by Nkoloso of course -- derailing the space project altogether, although Nkoloso would later attribute the failure to lack of funds.

Mwaba’s dreamy renditions of Space Girl are not that easy to decipher, but once you get the gist of the story all is loud and clear, they are a tribute to a lost dream and the individuals who possessed it yet again they are also a tribute to every dreamer, reminding us that we should not be afraid to dream no matter how farfetched our dreams may be or whether they lurch on the fringes of cosmic insanity.

As for the commercial and general success of the exhibition, the artist sold 19 out of the 22 paintings mounted – minus the 5 that were borrowed from collectors – be reminded that this is the same venue in which he struck gold during his debut solo in 2007 cashing in well over K100 million (old currency) a record at the time, and he was only 32.

This again brings us to another issue. Some well-known collectors on the Zambian scene have never been convinced of Mwaba’s meteoric rise to fame or recognition or why his works should command the handsome prices that they do and as such have vowed never to collect him although they would never miss a show. These collectors are of the view that the artist has “arrived” too soon and they have for a long time been waiting for him to fizzle out, which to their dismay is not happening since being scouted out of his native Kasama by Lutanda Mwamba who would later become his mentor.

But his conundrum does not end with some collectors. The artist has confessed – on a serious note -- to some of his fellow artists approaching him for the magic charms that they suspect he uses to hypnotize buyers into collecting his work, an allegation that he finds thoroughly infuriating.

Compounding all this is the artist’s modest academic background, and the fact that he can be classified as a workshop trained artist gaining most of his pseudo-academic experience through the many residencies he has attended.

His first was the Mbile International Artists Workshop, Siavonga, Zambia in 1999  followed by Rockston Studio, Lusaka, 2001, Kuona Trust  Wasanni International Artists Workshop , Lamu, Kenya and Insaka International Artists Workshop, Siavonga, 2004, the Watermill Artists Residency, New York, USA and Braziers International Artists Workshop, England 2005, Caribbean Contemporary Arts7 ,Port of Spain Trinidad and Tobago 2006, Thapong International Artist workshop, Gaborone, Botswana 2007  and the CCA Lagos Ghana Residency programme Accra Ghana last year.

He has held four solo exhibitions in Zambia and abroad, “Freedom in Transition”, Lusaka National museum, Lusaka, Zambia 2007,  Solace of a Migrant, Gallery Momo, Johannesburg, South Africa 2009, Watermill Residency Exhibition( Google Maps) New York 2010 and finally “we are still going to the moon ”Lusaka National Museum.
Among the recent exhibition sponsors are Bayport Financial Services, Java Foods, Superior Milling, KLM, Kasama Sugar and the individuals Kirsi Pekuri and Amishi Patel who provides the studio space Mwaba currently shares with Lutanda Mwamba in Kabulonga.


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