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Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Rabson Phiri, champion of the Ulendo legacy

By Andrew Mulenga
There is something unmistakably kinetic about the work of sculptor Rabson Phiri and it is perhaps no surprise that last year using this energy he took the theme of 37d Gallery’s 2013 upcoming artists exhibition  Movemnent-Momentum and made it his own.

Balance (scrap metal) by Rabson Phiri

- courtesy Claire Chan collection, Lusaka
He shared the stage with five other emerging artists including Mulenga Mulenga, David ‘Doubt’ Makala, Natasha Evans, Tom Phiri and Emmanuel Chibaye in a thoroughly entertaining show, but the theme was almost suited to be an optional title of his featured work Balance, an abstract scrap metal piece of a figure balanced on a unicycle captured in the thrust of motion, which is currently in the Claire Chan collection in Lusaka.

But his impressions of velocity do not end with one piece. They can also be seen in works such as The Dancer or Champion to name a couple more.

The Dancer features an ingenious usage of scrap metal that comprises mainly car and bicycle parts. According to the artist, this is a reflection of his days as a performer of indigenous Zambian dances while in the culture club during his school days.

Champion also pays homage to his past and depicts a cyclist with a raised front wheel performing a wheelie, a considerably challenging acrobatic cycling manoeuvre. In this particular piece he uses the actual frame of a bicycle which gives an indication of the scale of his work which is often life-sized.

Champion (scrap metal) by Rabson Phiri
Champion speaks to two aspects of Phiri’s past. First, the title itself was his nickname in Linda, the Lusaka slum in which he grew up and where he explains he used to win stunt competitions that involved flying off ramps over nails, spikes and broken glass among other challenges in a home-made adaptation of X Games.

Second, the piece speaks to his past as a bicycle repairman, a job he had to take up as a teenager to provide child support after impregnating a childhood sweetheart and dropping out of school after sitting for his grade 9 examinations. It is this occupation that would eventually allow his path to cross that of his mentor, the late Friday Tembo and change his life forever. 

At the time, Tembo had already established Ulendo Studios, an informal art school right in the heart of Linda compound and although Phiri knew exactly where it was and what activities transpired there, he had never set foot there. The opportunity came one fateful day in 1998 when Tembo’s bicycle broke down.

The Dancer - courtesy the

Shiraz Limbada collection
“My friend Edwin Kalusa told Friday Tembo that I think I know someone who can fix this bike, so he sent for me and that was the first time I entered his studio, just looking around I had a feeling that I just wanted to stay there and never go away,” explains Phiri “Then Mr Tembo asked me how long it would take. It was around 14:00hrs so I said by 16:00hrs, but then he said I should take my time because he wanted a good job. I took it back the following day around 9:00hrs. I charged him K15 but he said it was too little and he gave me K40 instead.”

Phiri says the bicycle was very crucial to Tembo because it is the only thing that enabled him to commute between his two wives and leave ample time for studio work and this is one of the reasons he was offered apprenticeship.

A day after Phiri accepted to join Ulendo, the excited 16-year-old accompanied Tembo alongside others on an expedition to reclaim discarded wood for use at the studio; the learning process had already started.

“He used to explain the (creative) processes to us and he taught us how to use power tools as well, how to handle hard woods, and just how to have an eye for recycling materials and re-using them for art,” he says.

At times they never had to go too far to find some of their favourite materials. Ebony for instance is a hard wood that was preferably used as supports for pit latrines because of its non-corrosive qualities, when the residents of Linda began the transformation of their sewer systems to septic tanks; they did away with the old wood preferring brick and concrete. 

The Music Master (scrap metal),

was purchased by Puma Energy during the

Lusaka My City Exhibition at 37d Gallery 
Tembo and team would happily harvest this wood and turn it into fabulous sculptures that would find themselves in the city’s top art exhibitions. A fascinating concept if one was to roll it over in the hole of the mind for a moment. Can you imagine a grime-laden piece of wood that had been under a pit-latrine for a decade or so gaining a new lease of life as a highly polished artwork in a high-end hotel, ambassador’s residency or even State House?, priceless.

Although Phiri still works in discarded wood as per Ulendo tradition, of late he has taken a liking towards scrap metal just like his mentor, sometimes combining the two materials. 

 Now aged 32, he is happy where his artistic career is heading and he feels everything is going his way at the moment.

“Now I’m working full time as an artist, I have no limits about scale or ideas and I’m not really focusing on sales, I’m also thinking of a solo exhibition because I think I have had enough of group exhibitions and I want to be seen,” he says.

He no longer has to take up the odd job as a carpenter or mechanic and has currently taken up work space alongside his Ulendo stable mate John Miti at Canadian artist Wendy Doberainer’s studio in Ibex Hill where he has access to a variety of studio and workshop equipment that complement his work.

But despite his new space, he always goes back to Linda compound for inspiration and because from that one encounter as a bicycle repairman, he would later become his mentors right hand man.

“Rabson please take care of Ulendo and make sure all your brothers continue to work and make art, art will be your future, and with it you cannot suffer and go hungry”, were the words of Tembo while on his deathbed in the University teaching hospital in 2004.

Rabson Phiri
Unfortunately most of Phiri’s Ulendo comrades gave up art after the death of their master, taking up real-world jobs as construction workers and carpenters that surely guaranteed one an income at a specific time of the month.

But Phiri stood fast and attended Art is Everywhere a recycling workshop in Nigeria the same year unlike his friends you could see that his career as an artist was taking shape. Tragically, his close friend Kalusa – the one responsible for his introduction to Ulendo – was killed the same year. He was stabbed to death in Linda compound over a misunderstanding at a game of pool on Christmas Eve. 

He does not have an immediate plan on what can be done to bring back Ulendo to its better days but he promises to continue working hard even if it means individually first. 

Phiri has exhibited in numerous group shows at the Henry Gallery, the Lusaka National Museum and Twaya Art at the Intercontinental Hotel. He was also awarded the second prize in Sculpture in 2010 for the Art for Wildlife Competition. His work also features in the stART Foundation’s ongoing exhibition at 37d Gallery from where he has enjoyed sales to the likes of energy giants Puma Energy Zambia and Shiraz Limbada from the prominent business family.

1 comment:

  1. Wow great post! Love to see this post. Keep up sharing more post like this.