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Monday, 22 September 2014

By chisel and mallet, theirs is a brotherhood cast in stone

By Andrew Mulenga

By chisel and mallet, file and grinder, theirs is a brotherhood cast in stone, literally. Roots of Xpression, a collective of non-conformist, like-minded, up-coming artists got together about six years ago in Lusaka’s Libala South where they put up a makeshift sculpture studio because they felt marginalized by ‘the system’.

Artist, Tom Phiri dusts of
one of his sculptures
The founder members of the mostly dread-locked troupe are Bisalom and Tom, sons of the late influential sculptor and Visual Arts Council founder Martin Phiri, France-based and Zimbabwean-born Agnew Masangu, Doubt Makala, Hagai Mambo and Ntamanyile Sichamba. They were later to be joined by Chifuchi Kandala, Lexton Kunda, Kilarenz Albert and the prodigious metal-worker Othiniel Lingwabo who was still in secondary school at the time.

In fact this group comprised of what were break-away factions from Rockston Studio of the Lutanda Mwamba and David Chirwa fame as well as arts interlocutor Alexis Phiri’s Kachere Art Studio.  They held their first public exhibition in 2008, at the Alliance Francaise in Lusaka in a radically titled exhibition named Oppression. Although these young Turks never sold a thing during Oppression probably owing to poor marketing as well as an over-priced piece here and there, they gave viewers a glimpse of something new. They unveiled a body of stone works that were not inhibiting in their presentation and expression. As much as they (works) were for sale, it was clear that the artists did not care whether they sold anything or not, they merely wanted to show the public what they could do in marble, granite and other hard rock types. Most of the works would have highly polished surfaces on one side with contrasting, rough and untouched surfaces on the other.
Fast-forward to today, this militant group of young artists is still going strong and still working with stone, which is not the simplest of tasks either as an artist’s medium or a means of survival. But these young rebels have now toughened, probably as hard as the stone they chisel and hammer at for living.

Nezias 'Neziland' Nyirenda in his gear
“It is not easy at all, but this is what we do to survive. We buy our stone from United Quarries and we have to hire transport which is quite expensive. And some rocks are very large and heavy that we cannot lift them even in a group so you have to hire a crane”, says Tom Phiri, the younger of the Martin Phiri heirs who prefers to work in marble and granite.
Softly scratching his dread-locks from underneath his large red turban, he becomes something of a geologist and explains that although he enjoys working in granite it is a very hard type of rock to manipulate because it has semi-precious tendencies.

“Granite has veins of feldspar and these can be quite tough to grind or carve” he says
And when working with large stones, one needs ready cash at ones disposal because there is always the need to hire a crane. These charge anything above KR500 per hour in Lusaka, and they will always charge a minimum of 3 hours, demanding the money upfront. Meanwhile, it is not every day that Mr Phiri and team will make a sale and have that type of money at their disposal, but they still soldier on.

A marble torso protrudes
from chipped off rubble
“It is not every day that we work for commissions here at Roxy (short for Roots of Xpression). We just work every day because we feel like working, working is what we enjoy” he says.

Apart from waiting for large commissions, Mr Phiri and team make very creative tomb stones to keep food on the table, some of which can be seen lining the fence of their art studio. He says while the idea of selling the tombstones and small garden sculptures helps, visibility for new markets is a challenge and he wishes they could have a space at which more people could have access to their works.

Mr Phiri launched his artistic career in 2003, shortly after completing school at Kabulonga Boys Secondary school, but found inspiration before this when he was selected to attend a workshop under the mentorship of the sculptor Flinto Chandia. At this workshop he grasped the basics, how to design shapes and form.

“But it is after school that I met Nezias Nyirenda who introduced me to Lutanda Mwamba, Baluchi Mulenga and David Chirwa at Rockston studio which was very active at the time, in woodlands” says Phiri.

A squating figure awaits a buyer 
In fact, today, tables have turned and things are the other way round. Nyirenda, who was once mentor to Phiri, is now taking lessons from his onetime protégé because he has been away from stone as a medium, preferring to work in wood, making functional art and furniture for about 18 years.

“I moved out of the show grounds (Arts Academy Without Walls) last year, what I wanted is to rediscover myself. I wanted to start working in stone once again, because when I started out as an artist, stone was my first medium”, explains Nezias Nyirenda or Neziland as he is so often called.

So I thought where can I go to work with stone, then I remembered Roots of Xpression, stone is their main medium. They are younger than me, but I have humbled myself and I am learning from them, from Tom and especially Bisalom Phiri who often gives me guidance. Being older than someone does not mean you cannot learn from them.

“Here at Roots of Xpression it has been great, I feel energized once again. Here I feel the spirit of Martin Phiri, Rockston and Roots of Xpression all in one, this new beginning reminds me of my early days, when I was the youngest member of the Visual Arts Council in 1990”, he says “Being the youngest I was always sent around to help pick up stuff. When I sold my first sculpture, Martin Phiri told me that it was easy enough to sell a work, but it was important to find out why the buyer chose the work in the first place, and I have stuck to that guiding principal”

A 41-year-old Rastafarian, whom the media once reported as having the longest dreadlocks in Zambia, Nyirenda trained under the apprenticeship of David Chirwa at Rockston Studio between 1990 and 1993 and later took up carpentry and joinery at the Chilenje Trades School which drove his inclinations towards wood. Unlike Tom Phiri and the other introverted members of Roots of Xpression, Nyirenda is never shy of voicing his opinion beyond wood and stone.

The work shack at Roots of Xpression studio in Libala South
“We are very excited that we have a ministry for the arts now, but I feel there is a lot that has to be done. But anyway, the easiest way for government to assist us as visual artists is to come up with a cultural fund like our friends in Zimbabwe have” he says “This fund can be revolving in art studios, probably a KR100, 000 given out every two years to a deserving studio, after all in Zambia there very few, maybe Kachere Arts Studio, Roots of Expression, Arts Academy Without Walls, these can be given out as loans, just so that artists can buy equipment, you know”.

A sculpture by the late Martin Phiri, one of the studio's idols
Nyirenda says although he has been following the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) General Assembly preparations for some time he still feels in the dark about the involvement of the arts.

“All I know is that there is about KR300, 000 set aside for a sculpture at the Livingston airport, but I think it would have been better also for more artists to benefit, artists from all the ten provinces should be given a pavilion to showcase art from all over the country but maybe I am wishing too much” says Nyirenda.

Nevertheless, whether they get help from ‘the system’ or not, it looks like the band of comrades that call themselves Roots of Xpression will be doing what they enjoy best, crafting art out of stone as they listen to the blaring sound of Reggae music for a long time to come.

A pumped 'amandla' fist, the embodiment of their  'stay focused' work philosophy

Some unfinished rock sculptures and the workshop- shack


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