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Monday, 14 July 2014

‘Supreme Court artist’ put to rest

By Andrew Mulenga

Zambian presidents have been sworn in standing in between his two lions at the entrance of the Supreme Court, the High Court lawns too are beautified by his African rendition of Justitia, the sword and scale wielding Roman goddess of Justice (Lady Justice). These are the iconic landmarks that are the legacy of sculptor Nobbie Tsokalida who passed away at the age of 70 last week on 2 July 2014 and was put to rest in Lusaka on 4 July 2014.

Despite his considerable contribution, Tsokalida was never a household name within or outside the visual arts circles actually he was a man of humble means having created his major works from a rickety backyard studio in Lusaka’s secluded Desai compound outside Matero Township.

One of the twin lions at the Supreme Court, Lusaka
“I did the lions from my home right here in Desai compound, it took me two years from 1984 to 1986. But when we placed the lions at the Supreme Court the (lions) heads were facing the sky” explained Tsokalida in a 2007 interview with the author “So the chief justice Annel Silungwe told me ‘Mr Tsokalida you will have to re-do the heads’ and so I had to chisel them”.

A year after he completed the lions, he was tasked to create Lady Justice; to this statue too he had to make last minute alterations.

“When I had just finished Lady Justice, the chief justice Annel Silungwe came to my home in Desai with a group of judges, when they noticed her eyes were open, they asked me to have them closed, so I had to re-do the face,” he said.

Lady Justice, High Court, Lusaka
It appears through the ages, the Roman goddess after whom the statue is created has been depicted either with her eyes shut or with a blindfold, referencing that justice is blind and should therefore be dispensed fairly regardless of the individuals brought before the court.

Lady Justice earned Tsokalida a reasonable amount of money and according to the artist, he was awarded K95, 000 (ninety-five thousand kwacha) when the Zambian currency was 2 to 1 against the US dollar. But apparently there seemed to be an irregularity with processing payment for the lions and the prolonged imbursement seemingly tore him apart over a 20 year period, emotionally sapping him of creative resourcefulness. In fact at the time of the interview, his wife explained that he would get so emotional and talk about the issue for a whole day without stopping.

Tsokalida turned to a reclusive life, avoiding mainstream activity for years but the Kachere Art Studios under the guidance of Alexis Phiri made an attempt to support him and possibly revive his creative energy in the late 2000s by engaging him in an outreach programme where he would mentor young artists.

Nobbie Tsokalida 1944 - 2014
“I’ve taught so many people to become sculptors. I have to help, it’s my duty I do not want to die and take these skills to the grave. There is now this Kachere; it has come at the right time. I didn’t have a place to expose myself as I work deep in the compound. Also I am pleased with the quiet piece of land that Kachere has near Munda Wanga (botanical gardens) it reminds me of the old days when we used to work from nature with Cynthia Zukas”, said Tsokalida in his last interview.

A true child of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, Tsokalida was born in 1944 in Mutare, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and moved to Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) with his father who was from Nyasaland (Malawi) in 1954 when he was 10 years old.

He was one of the first pupils at Edwin Mulongoti Primary School in Matero, Lusaka where he was educated up to Standard 6 in 1956. Early in his career as a self-taught artist, he managed to land a job as a sign-writer with the defunct Public Works Department (PWD) which was a competitive employer in Zambia’s post-colonial, nation-building years. 

As an artist, in life he was never celebrated, even in death there is no hope for his honour, but Tsokalida leaves Zambia an everlasting legacy, many more presidents will be sworn in between his two lions and Lady Justice too will continue to blindly gaze over us with her raised sword and scales.


  1. A true hero and as usual not acknowledged by everyone

  2. What happened to the original lions? I think there used to be two lions there. I lived behind the courts in Long Acres in the late 1970s and early 1980s and I knew of the story where one of the two original lions was blown up in the night of June 16th, 1976. My assumption is Tsokalida should have done only one lion or if he did two then the original must be somewhere!