By Andrew Mulenga
Lutanda Mwamba’s death early this month shook his legions of friends, followers and collectors alike, some of whom are as far away as the France, the UK and the Philippines.
Yours truly has been in touch with a few of them and they share some elevating remarks that celebrate the life of this great artist and not the grief in his passing.
Lawrence Yombwe of Wayi Wayi Art Studio in Livingstone remembers Lutanda as a person who knew what he wanted in life and followed his dream, when he believed in something no one could change his mind, he but was also considerate of others. Agnes Yombwe says she will always remember his striking smile, an image that will live forever in her memory.
|Lutanda 1966 - 2014, Photo - courtesy of VAC|
Betty Wilkinson an economist based in the Philippines who owns a good number of Lutanda’s works and purchased four more upon hearing of his death this month remembers the artist as one that always brought a unique understanding of women and their hard work into his work.
“He moved into abstract interpretation about 15 years ago with increasing interpretation of humans and our nature into these forms. His work brings me back to life in Zambia and to the unique joys and challenges common people face there,” writes Wilkinson who lived and worked in Zambia in the 1990s.
She also owns over 40 paintings and sculptures by various artists that she started collecting alongside former husband and artist Jodam Allingham aka Sisco Phiri. But although she owns this large collection, her conscience has always summoned her to donate to the Lechwe Trust collection as she has done again with the recent purchase.
“Many of the best works done in Zambia have ended up with foreigners who take them home and appreciate them in their home or third countries, and these works never make it back home. The national gallery does not have sufficient resources to purchase some of the key works produced by national treasures like Lutanda,” she elaborates “These pieces of art inspire everyone who sees them, they are a cultural memory and interpretations of life and the world which are so important to the country and its people. I deeply respect and cherish Cynthia Zukas, who has given the country an unparalleled treasure in her establishment and management of the Lechwe Trust, creating unique opportunities for so many artists”.
She feels Zambia has some of the best artistic talent and inspiration anywhere on the planet, and her gifts to the Lechwe Trust can help keep every generation inspired and thoughtful about what has been done and what can be created in future.
But although she is passionate about contemporary Zambian art and has high regard for its makers, Lutanda’s work holds very special place because she knew him personally, as a friend not just as a collector.
“I knew him very, very well; he was a common visitor at our home in Woodlands and often his daughter and other children came with him to play with our daughters Bridgette and Nellie. Lutanda was quiet, and we often needed to sit with him, silently to give him a chance to express himself to us,” she recalls remembering how the children would sit on his laps and tug on his dreadlocks as he laughed with them. But she also remembers a more serious side of him, in a workshop for instance with other artists, discussing the exploration of different forms of media and how hard you needed to push to get the impression of an image in the printmaking process just right.
“I also remember sitting with David Chirwa and Lutanda at Rockston discussing the transitions between painting and sculpture. For a slim man, Lutanda loved to eat, and our two families would dive into nshima with groundnuts and greens and beef,” recollects Wilkinson ending on a fonder memory.
Alexis Phiri, of Kachere Art Studio and wife Maria are also long time collectors of Lutanda’s work. Phiri was a very close friend as well as dreadlocked comrade with whom the artist shared like-minded cultural ideologies of Pan-Africanism.
“My fondest memories are his silence which spoke the loudest through his massive body of work. Lutanda was a very brave and courageous artist who was not cowed by experimentation and was always ready to give artistic advice to anyone who sought it,” says Phiri. He adds as a collector, what drew him the work is its uniqueness, depth and warmth.
Bert Witkamp of Choma says he knew Lutanda as of 1990 when he started to collect his fellow printmakers work.
“He stayed several times with us at Choma to work in my graphic studio in particular to use an excellent etching-lino press. My fondest memory of him is the way he smiled. Lutanda was a modest, soft spoken man whom I never have heard to say anything negative about any of his colleagues,” he remembers.
Although Witkamp feels the death is clearly a great loss for the Zambian graphic art scene as it is indeed rather sparsely populated, he however suggests there are still a number of good graphic artists of Lutanda’s generation or a bit younger that can carry on the tradition so all hope is not lost.
Having said that, Witkamp acknowledges the exceptional talent that the artist had led him to collect the works in numbers, and reveals – probably in passing – that he may arguably possess the largest collection of prints by Lutanda.
“I started to collect Lutanda’s work in 1990 and purchased over 50 of his prints, a number of them in several copies. I supported him this way in appreciation of his great talent. I first purchased his linos and later the silk screens. Lutanda’s work displays a sophisticated sense of space and composition often capturing familiar scenes now transformed to artistic imagery,” he explains.
He concludes by suggesting what is more important at this stage is to keep Lutanda’s artistic heritage alive – it would be appropriate to soon have a memorial exhibition the benefits of which would also help his family.
Certainly wise words coming from Witkamp, it would be appropriate to have an exhibition in Lutanda’s honour if not to indeed help the family although it is not clear whether the family is truly in need of immediate help.
The recent purchase of a good number of Lutanda’s works by Wilkinson is a good sign if the family is benefiting, but it also brings to mind two age old notions that “artists are appreciated merely upon death” and “art prices go up when an artist dies”.
Interestingly, American art consultant Alan Bamberger, author of the books Buy Art Smart, Art For All and The Art of Buying Art, dispels the latter in particular claiming it is a myth “…that's perpetuated in large part by greedy dealers and galleries, particularly in the commercial realm, who'll say anything to make a quick buck off of naive buyers.”
He does admit nonetheless that there are exceptional occurrences where prices do go up because of unprecedented demand, and he highlights two conditions for this.
“First, the artist has to be relatively famous or well-known in certain circles, and their art has to be relatively expensive and in demand among collectors. Second-- and here's the biggie-- they have to die prematurely and unexpectedly, thereby catching the marketplace totally by surprise.
When that happens, a sort of panic or temporary insanity sets in,” writes Bamberger for ArtBusiness.com. He goes further to suggest there is also a totally opposite effect to this situation.
“For example, estate executors or family members may mismanage an artist's estate by dumping all the art on the market at once and as a result, temporarily depress prices because supply becomes significantly greater than demand,” suggests Bamberger.
Well surely Bamberger’s models are not only restricted to the United States; they are global and can be applied anywhere, even to a budding contemporary art scene like Zambia’s.
Without doubt, Lutanda left many works; one may only hope that the family does not mismanage the artistic estate in line with Bamberger’s example. As Witkamp suggests, an exhibition at the right time, will be a sensible thing to do.
Where the family is not sure, there are a number of experienced people on the Zambian art scene, Witkamp himself is one of them – although he often prefers to shy away from his contribution -- having been active since he came to Zambia in 1976 and helped establish the Lusaka Artists Group later called the Zambia Artists Association which produced prominent printmakers such as Fakson Kulya, Patrick Mweemba and David Chibwe who worked in a studio at the Evelyn Hone College furnished with a lino press provided by Cynthia Zukas.