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Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Vision within the wood, the art of John Miti

By Andrew Mulenga

As indicated in a recent edition of the Hole In The Wall, in style, technique and use of material the work of John Miti has not fallen too far from the tree of his mentor, the late celebrated Zambian sculptor Friday Tembo.

Footballer - Masebela Ampila 
(Ebony and Marble) by John Miti
Truly a chip off the old block, Miti, one of the few active artists from the apprentices of Zambia’s father of reclaimed wood sculpture is determined to carry on the legacy of Tembo’s Ulendo Art Studio.

Although he has temporarily shifted base from Ulendo in Linda compound – originally a slum -- taking up studio space with Canadian artist Wendy Dobereiner in Lusaka’s leafy suburb of Ibex Hill, his works still stay true to their origins, a background of art created out of nothing but discarded objects, particularly wood.

“I use hard woods; ebony, rosewood, mukwa and musase. But the woods are no longer easily available because of construction everywhere, there is no bush so we have to go as far as Kafue,” says Miti in a mixture of English and Nyanja, insisting on using the latter to best explain his process and visualization. His work too carries titles that are in both these languages.

He says the reason he goes as far as Kafue with hired transport is because he would never cut down a tree for use in his work, they all have to be naturally fallen trees, discarded wood. In his belief it has to be God given.

Playing - masebela (metal, rosewood) by John Miti
“The ideas for my work are also God given. It’s the way you see the material, the type of wood. Never argue with the material otherwise you can even end up throwing it away after creating a worse piece of rubbish than you found,” he explains.

“Sometimes you have to look very long and hard at the piece of wood when you find it on the ground and then you use your imagination. You imagine what you can see in the wood, and if you can’t see anything and it shuts down your brain, leave it for the time being and look at it some other time, maybe a vision will come”.

When he speaks, Miti’s tone has an otherworldly ring to it. He confidently speaks as if there are actual living beings in these redundant pieces of wood, which one might add is fascinatingly mysterious. And the synthesis of art and mystery often yields intriguing results.

Hunter- Chibinda (Ebony) by John Miti
To borrow from western thinkers, is it not RenĂ© Magritte, the Belgian surrealist whose work tests the onlooker’s view of reality that told us “Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist”? And is it not Einstein himself who said “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed” – and that is coming from a scientist the most matter-of-fact type of people there are.

In this light, listening to Miti explain how he was able to see animals, sportsmen and hunters in the recent work he showed alongside Dobereiner at the Henry Tayali Gallery makes sense.

In Hungry Croc - Ngwena Yanjala the artist saw an aggressive crocodile in a piece of discarded ebony. He just made the necessary additions of carving grooves into it to mimic the scaly tale and he added a set of marble teeth finishing it off with thorough sanding and heavy polishing which can last up to three weeks to get a desired finish.

In Footballer - Masebela Ampila and Playing – masebela he saw ball players in acts of sports and he presents them to us so convincingly that no one has to explain. In the first you can see a lone football player probably about to dribble past an opponent or pass the ball, in the second one you can see a group of either basketball or netball players jostling for the ball at the rim. 

Hungry Croc - Ngwena Yanjala by John Miti
Miti is clearly gifted with visions for seeing images within the wood before he carves it. But he never forgets to constantly reference his mentor of whom he speaks so fondly although ten years have now lapsed since his passing.

“When we were just starting, Friday Tembo would sneak some of our works in exhibitions and we were not even members of the Visual Arts Council, but he was a founder member of the Henry Tayali Gallery so he did what he could do”, he reminisces. 

“Even when we didn’t sell he would give us money from his own pocket, but also he was very famous even later on his friends and collectors would come to the compound and buy our work, some of them were even foreigners, but they would come”

He says the years following Tembo’s death were hard. Miti and close friend Rabson Phiri (read about him next week) had to hustle through all sorts of alternative jobs such as brick-laying and carpentry, returning to art only once in a while. The lads would occasionally receive hand-outs from patrons such as Enzio Rossi, Cynthia Zukas and William Miko from Twaya Art Gallery.

All the same, Miti is grateful for the new studio space he is now enjoying and promises the world is yet to see his best. His humble beginnings were in Chainda compound, where he was born in 1983. He later relocated to Linda where he met the late Tembo whom he joined as a studio hand in 2002.

Miti - Sometimes you have to stare hard at the piece of wood

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