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Monday, 16 June 2014

Zambian artists question own visibility, woo patrons

By Andrew Mulenga

The theme and context assigned to the on-going exhibition by the Zambia National Visual Arts Council (VAC) at its Henry Tayali Gallery base evokes depression so spirit-crushing that it leaves one short of bludgeoning oneself “about the head with a steel pipe” in utter despair to borrow the words of Werner Herzog when cast in American cartoonist Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks.

The works on display are certainly impressive, featuring some of the country’s finest talents as well as a few delightful surprises, artists that have been off the radar for a while such as sculptor Smart Banda and the painters Mufiti Mushoke and Wilson Lungu -- formerly identified as the recording artist Wille, popular for his comical love songs in Lamba.

The show’s anxiously beckoning title almost says it all “Visibility (can you see us?)”. It is a restless cry for attention, a holler to be seen. A testament that Zambian visual artists feel neglected, abandoned by patronage both public and private, a sad state of affairs indeed although this can only be subtly detected in the short exhibition write-up.

“The theme for this show ‘visibility’ is prompted by the fact that visual arts are created to be consumed visually and how else can the artists make their works available than to collectively bring these in here and present them to you in this manner”, it reads in part.

The cry out continues with four bullet points declaring “some say they don’t know where we are located, some feel we haven’t marketed ourselves, some think we don’t make enough noise, some imagine we are too hidden within the Lusaka Show grounds”.

VAC turns 20 next year but is struggling

now more than ever before  © VAC
The statement welcomes first time visitors to the gallery and urges them to call again now that they have located the space. But sadly, the well-meant appeal nose-dives into a knee-blistering grovel.

“Please feel free to come in at any time. When we don’t have any scheduled show, we will always have some kind of filler show. Bring family and friends to our gallery. Your continued patronage will motivate us to open our doors even wider to meet your artistic needs home or corporate. To our established patrons, thank you for your support over the years. Your purchases have not only helped the individual artists but kept the gallery and the Zambia National Visual Arts Council going”, ends the statement declaring how grateful the council was.

Well, one can only sympathize with VAC. Running an art gallery even a quasi-governmental one like the Henry Tayali is not easy, more so in Zambia where both leadership and the electorate have wedged the arts firmly in the back seat if not the boot in the vehicle of national development. A laughable situation, considering the arts by providing informal employment have firmly been at the steering wheel of this vehicle under very difficult circumstances which have deteriorated as we approach the much glorified golden jubilee.

But there was a time when the arts were valued in this country, a time when they were even included in the official independence celebration programme under the National Exhibition of Art and Culture in 1967 which had a printed exhibition catalogue that carried an eloquent foreword by late liberation hero Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe who was Minister of Home Affairs at the time.

“Culture is the heritage of us all. Some may be more interested than others in the treasures from the past, but no one can fail to take pride in his country’s participation in the story of mankind as represented in carvings, sculpture, music, painting and the other arts”, declared Kapwepwe in the opening remarks of the text.

“The men of culture are truly apostles of tolerance and understanding, the guardians of beauty and light, and our hope in this world for unity and concord,” wrote Kapwepwe of the artists in closing.

That great son of the soil could not have put it better. It is true there is no Zambian that has helped promote the culture of his or her country globally than a musician, dancer, theatrical performer, fashion designer, chef, or painter. Other professions simply do not count. Any Zambian in a high end job abroad working for Microsoft, The World Bank, Google or NASA does not apply any indigenous touch to their work, this applies to athletes too – especially the footballers -- who sell nothing culturally except perhaps for the flag when they participate in international tournaments. Ironically that too is often in a wrong shade of green or copper.
Nevertheless, despite once holding a place of importance, the arts continue to be considered a career path taken by the academically challenged or those supposedly afflicted with a limited intellectual capacity, they are no longer seen as the apostles Kapwepwe spoke of. They are ignored and as such it is probably justifiable that VAC should call upon the community if they feel neglected. 

VAC turns 20 next year but it is struggling now more than ever before. Most of its past funders, a pantheon of foreign embassies and none-profit organisations have shifted their focus towards different areas probably anticipating that the Zambian government through the National Arts Council will take up a more tactile role in supporting the arts. Regrettably this has not been the case.

For two decades VAC has received oscillating levels of enthusiasm with regards public patronage depending on the government of the day. Recently, there has been a glimmer of hope concerning the streamlining of the arts as a sector with the tabling of a new arts bill whose journey to parliament has constantly been riddled with inter-ministerial conflicts by interested parties ending in a sluggish crescendo of inertia after the first minister under the “Tourism and Arts” designation was slapped with court cases -- that were not connected to the arts – before losing her job. The new minister has yet to say anything about the arts bill or the arts in general, continuity of course not known to be a strength in Zambian policy making, one might speculate the bill is officially dead.

So much for VAC’s cry for visibility when even the highest authorities put the arts on the shelf. As for the general public, these are challenging times; one would suspect the populace is currently preoccupied on how to budget around higher utility tariffs; commodity and petrol prices while the corporate houses will be busy keeping their collective eyes on the fluctuating Kwacha, the purchase of art will be the last thing on their minds. Depressing indeed, someone pass the steel pipe.  

“Visibility (can you see us?)” runs until the end of July to pave way for “The Showtime Show” during the 88th Agricultural & Commercial Show whose theme this years is "2014, Breaking New Grounds". Showtime will be an opportunity for VAC to showcase the best Zambian works to an audience that never visits them regularly; it will surely be a good time for visibility and breaking new ground.

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