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Monday, 21 July 2014

Zambia National Art Gallery: are we there yet?

By Andrew Mulenga

The promise of a national art gallery has long eluded Zambia, so as the first phase of the Livingstone Art Gallery comes to completion, these are definitely exciting times for the visual arts.

The state sponsored structure situated in the former Livingstone show grounds has been under construction for quite a lengthy period owing mostly to a lack of resources and oscillating levels of commitment from different governments of the day. 

It was almost completed a few days before the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) general assembly last year, perhaps to showcase it as one of Livingstone’s main attractions when Zambia and Zimbabwe co-hosted the international tourism indaba.
However, not even hurried construction works could allow the building to be finished on time and an exhibition that was scheduled for the venue was instead moved to the Livingstone National Museum.

Once again it appears the construction works are in full throttle to meet a new deadline, this time ahead of the country’s 50th Independence Day celebrations. No doubt a befitting time to launch a gallery of this importance which as earlier alluded will be the nation’s first, seeing the Henry Tayali Gallery ran by the Zambia National Visual Arts Council (VAC) in Lusaka is in a rented space.

Members of VAC Livingstone tour the site
The arts mother body National Arts Council (NAC) is expected to officially handover the building and running of the facility over to the VAC Livingstone at an opening ceremony on a date yet to be announced but possibly in October. While the members of VAC Livingstone are a thoroughly enthusiastic group of individuals who pour themselves into their artistic work, most do not simply have the capacity to run a national gallery, well at least not now.

During their tour of the facility early this year -- of which the author was privileged to take part -- the group was still not sure on how they are going to run the facility once it is handed over to them. There were suggestions of turning a large part of it into a commercial restaurant in the prospect of bringing traffic to the gallery others proposed a curio shop or craft market.

But reflecting on their suggestions one is tempted to wrestle with a few questions. Who will be running the daily affairs of the gallery? What will be the main activities – apart from the restaurant? Will it house a permanent collection organised in the manner of African Art, Modern Painting and Sculpture, Historical Painting and Sculpture and Contemporary Art? Will it be exhibiting some foreign shows that are perhaps on world tour? Will there be efforts to link it to other galleries on the continent and beyond? Has NAC provided adequate training for VAC members on how a gallery is managed? Zambians are generally not a gallery-going people, what are there any strategies in place to attract them into this new space? 

Zambia’s first national art gallery will require a full time team as much as the would be custodians are dedicated to run it in their own way, a good number of its members have full time jobs that are equally taxing in the fields of education and museums while they also put in personal time to practice their art making.

In any case, there is no telling what NAC has in store for the opening, one hopes it will be given the grandness it deserves. This is no small thing, for five decades there has been a cry for a gallery so now that Zambia is finally getting one let us just hope the organisers do not make a circus of it, as they did with the shambolic UNWTO exhibition at the Livingstone Museum.

If it is to be opened with an exhibition, the invitation checklist should be as high profile as possible. NAC must get the president to cut the ribbon and unveil a plaque with his name on it, all the senior government officials and ambassadors too must be invited as this is the only sure chance of getting the event onto all the television and radio stations as well as the front pages of the newspapers. Noise has to be made.

NAC should ask itself what it is they want to launch, a gallery of international stature befitting the tourist capital and Zambia’s 50th birthday or a joke. This should also be done bearing in mind that it is easy to have a high profile, government-type launch with all the bells and whistles, but it would be unfortunate for them to hop on to their Sports Utility Vehicles and head back to the capital and leave VAC Livingstone with teething problems that they may not be able to handle. 

Again if there are to launch it with an exhibition it should be all inclusive, featuring artists from across the country as well as historic works, some of which can be brought out of their storage from the safety of museum vaults in Livingstone as well as Lusaka. If historic works cannot be shown on Zambia’s jubilee when will they be shown? But being the treasures that such works are there is not telling how safe they would be hanging in the new gallery which may not have standard security features if details such as the chicken-run-type roofline are anything to go by.
Returning to the running of the gallery, a good model to follow would be that of Zimbabwe, just next door, the sister nation to which Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland lost the opportunity to house the gallery which was eventually built in Salisbury.

Today called the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, it: “is a state owned non-profit making organization that was established by an Act of Parliament in 1953 and falls under the Ministry of Education, Sports, Art and Culture, to promote and preserve visual art in the country through continuous acquisition and conservation of artworks in the permanent collection and other various activities”.

The gallery has a full-time director as well as curator. The curator oversees the gallery exhibitions while the director is a link between the ministry and the Board of Trustees that also includes the mayor of Harare and if they have been running like this for 55 years, they must be doing something right which has seen the opening of two regional branches The National Gallery in Bulawayo and he National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Mutare just 15 years ago. 

South Africa too has a flagship institution, the South African National Gallery in central Cape Town under the umbrella of Iziko Museums, an agency of the Department of Arts and Culture but this is complemented by regional galleries - the Durban Art Gallery in KwaZulu-Natal, the Johannesburg Art Gallery in Gauteng, the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum formerly the King George VI Gallery in Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape which all showcase collections of indigenous, historical and contemporary works from the respective provinces.

Zambia can learn a great deal from both the Zimbabwean and South African models but perhaps there are already plans on how this is going to be done in the interim before the much awaited Arts, Cultural and Heritage Commission is set up through the Arts, Cultural and Heritage Bill.

In his June newsletter, Ackson Tembo, a Chingola-based theatre personality and arts activist, eager as many to hear what the status quo is reminds us that: “July 2014, marks the twenty second month after the announcement that an Arts, Cultural and Heritage Commission was going to be set up through the Arts, Cultural and Heritage Bill.  Can someone please update us on this matter?”

Tembo has every reason to be worried because the new minister of Tourism and Arts has yet to say anything about the bill or the arts in general, as speculated in a recent edition of Hole In The Wall the bill may be officially dead.

The setting up of the bill was announced by the Republican President Michael Sata in a policy statement during his address in Parliament on 28th September 2012.
The intention of the Bill is to harmonise all sectors of arts and culture to operate under one body encompassing theatre, digital art, reading, dance, music, literature, and crafts as well as “art collections that will reinforce the identity of the country and national pride through culture.”

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