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Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Passion for the portrait

By Andrew Mulenga

In Zambia, whenever you introduce yourself as an artist, chances are you will always be asked the same old question: “so can you draw me?”

But what is it with Zambians and naturalistic portraits? Do we just enjoy seeing our likeness in a well framed, drawing or painting or do we like doting over our images like the handsome young man Narcissus of classic western mythology whom it is said fell in love with his own reflection ignoring the affections of a goddess and was turned into a flower bearing his name?

Portrait of a family by Nukwase Tembo
One may argue that our passion for the portrait was inherited from our colonial masters; after all, in the west portraiture has for a long time been used in the very symbolic manner of emphasizing power and has been central to noble culture as art historian Joanna Woodall suggests in her introduction for the book Portraiture Facing the Subject.

“The metaphor of the body politic meant that portraiture played a vital ideological role. By silently assimilating the real to the ideal, naturalistic portraiture enabled a particular human being to personify the majesty of the kingdom or the courage of a military leader,” she suggests “Portraiture also assimilated the patriarchal principle of genealogy upon which aristocratic ideology was built. The authorising relationship between the living model and its imaged likeness were analogous to that between father and son and processes of emulation presumed identity to be produced through resemblance toe potent prototype.”

Certainly a forkful, but it does hint that probably by legacy, we too have adopted these notions. When one reaches a certain level on the social ladder one feels it is time for them to hangar painted portrait in the living room or office.

Of course during and shortly after independence a number of official portraits were commissioned possibly to replace those hung by figureheads of the colonial regime such as the last governor of Northern Rhodesia Sir Evelyn Hone, one of which can still be seen at the Lusaka National Museum. Some of the finest specimens of these “replacement portraits” are the 3 Kaunda portraits commissioned by the Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines who in 1990 engaged British painter Oenone Acheson at the close of the first president’s 27 year old reign.

Paintings and the more affordable pencil drawings have continued to be the supposition of a status symbol, particularly when not commissioned as a gift which may explain why a good number of Zambian celebrities and successful young professionals have taken to ordering portraits almost to the point of competition.

But then again, while it can also be debated whether taking up portraiture as an artist means accepting to be in the rungs of a theoretically low genre in terms of artistic hierarchy, owing to its duplicative nature. Nevertheless, a good number of Zambian artists, including some of the most prominent take it up as a life line and good for them.

Decent portraits cost anything between K300 (three hundred) to K5, 000 (five thousand) depending on the size and medium. It may not be a jackpot, but depending on the frequency the money is good enough to keep an artist going in-between the odd group exhibition and the scarce solo.

Sadly, visits to individual artists’ work spaces often reveal a portrait that has not been collected because clients tend not to understand that professional materials such as imported paints, canvases and fixers come at a cost and artists have to break even when they factor these in with their talent and time. So often clients and artists will end up in negotiations that can be likened to a flea market haggle.

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