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Monday, 15 September 2014

Renaissance underway foretells versatile Zambian artist

By Andrew Mulenga

When Mathews Mwepu Kabungwe graduated from the Evelyn Hone College with an art teachers Diploma in 1994, his restless creative spirit could not settle for the life of a secondary school educator. Even six months of successful teacher practice at Kabulonga Girls Secondary School in Lusaka could not contain him. 

His vision was clearly beyond the classroom, it swung towards the uncertain but boundless opportunities of self-employment.

Stage design for Mulenga Kapwepwe's Rufino's Wife at
the Lusaka Playhouse by Mwepu Kabungwe
Twenty years down the line, Mwepu, as he is fondly called has never gone back to formal teaching, let alone so-called formal employment. He continues to live the true life of a freelancer, that of a daily struggle doing whatever job his creative hands can find, and in this regard he is something of a Renaissance man.

“My artistic expression is in a wide range of media. I make a living as a graphic designer; depending on the job I design stuff using my computer. I use that for posters, CD covers, billboards and so on,” he says “But when I’m doing banners I enjoy painting them by hand, that goes for signwriting too”.

Since the 1990s he has decorated pavilions for the likes of The British Council, Environment Council of Zambia (ECZ), National AIDS Council and Multi Choice (Z) in the Lusaka Show grounds, he has also designed stage backdrops for the Lusaka Playhouse, NATAAZ   Festivals and the Ngoma Awards.

One cannot easily put a finger on Mwepu’s artistic style, as a graphic designer, painter or sculptor but he does identify with a few Zambian artists whom he describes as inspirational.
“I haven’t really exhibited much on the gallery scene but I always visit shows just to keep abreast. I have always been inspired by artists like the late Godfrey Seti and Martin Phiri the Paul Kadimbas, Bauchi and Nezias Nyirenda but in between, there has been a good number of artists whom I myself have inspired, who are actually doing better than me and that’s a good thing,” he says explaining that he usually paints to vent inner pressures that he lets out in the form of landscapes, sunsets and portraiture.

CD design by Mwepu Kabungwe
“Speaking for my fellow graphic designers, the situation here in Zambia is quite pathetic. There are no institutions seriously teaching computer aided art and design which is very important in advertising and animation. You can imagine for simple software like Corel Draw, you have to travel to South Africa,” he says.

He claims that because of this, a good number of talented Zambians have become leading graphic designers in South Africa; many went there for training but ended up whisked into the – normally well-paying -- bustling design industry by companies that are always looking for talent.

“I don’t have to tell you why there has always been a brain drain in my field. It is because we are not appreciated locally, that is why when we get the opportunity to go, we don’t come back. But let me tell you even those artists who are busy working in the underground like myself, they are busy making their money without support,” he explains “The thing is, we cannot just sit down and say government is  not supporting artists. Are my children going to eat complaints? That is why we have to go out there and look for these contracts even the small ones like designing business cards”.

National Association of Media Arts Award
trophies by Mwepu Kabungwe
He warns that the continued neglect of Zambia’s creative sector will result in what he describes as an artistic explosion that will shock the world.

“Let me tell you, the world is not yet ready for what Zambia has to offer artistically, they have never seen talent like what we have here. Zambian art has been moving, artists in their own way have been moving but if we get the support from above, fine, and if we don’t, still we are in an artistic transition,” proclaims the artist, a devoted Rastafarian and well known alcohol abuse activist among the youth of Kaunda Square Stage 2 in Lusaka, where heavy drinking has become a key pass time along a marketplace corridor called “Third World”, popular for a reasonably priced whiskey or vodka and Tangy fizzy drink combo called “Ka Set” or simply “Set” that is being consumed at the endemic proportions of its predecessor the Tujili jili satchets.
“Anyway, there is about to be a Zambian art renaissance (revival) its about to explode, there is much more to be seen, the world is not yet ready for Zambia there is going to be a serious rebirth that the world is yet to see,” he reiterates.

The 44-year-old speaks very passionately about the unemployed youth of his community and tries to encourage them to use whatever creative skills they have to get by as he has been doing for a sometime.

Mwepu hard at work in his backyard
“The youth have to be inspired. I work hard so I can leave a foot print for them to see that a man passed here. Even me I’ve been inspired by people like my late lecturer Martin Phiri, Flinto Chandia and even Agnes Yombwe,” he explains, visibly enthusiastic “There are many other gurus but for me Flinto is the man, that’s the level we have to get to, his geometry is unbelievable just look at that Elephant at Meridian (Comesa Building), also look at work like the Mposa Mabwe ( a statue by Francis Chinyimba) which was done years ago in Kitwe it still looks good today, so even artists of the present should learn to do work that will stand the test of time”
Although a proud Kaonde-Ila raised by a Nsenga mother, the well-read and travelled (around Zambia) independent researcher also emphasises the importance of legacy by dabbling in a fragment of Bemba cosmology.

“They say Luchelenganga a medicine man to the Luba Lunda kings stepped on a rock and you can still see his footprint up to this very day, this is what the artists are supposed to do, to leave a solid footprint for eternity,” he says in reference to a mystical, Gandalf-like figure whom according to Bemba legend guided the Luba-Lunda peoples during their migration from Kola in present day Angola, through what is the Democratic Republic of Congo. A generally held belief is that his foot prints are set in solid rock somewhere North of Kasama. He is also briefly mentioned in the distinguished scholar Hugo Hinfelaar’s 1994 book, Bemba-speaking Women of Zambia in a Century of Religious Change (1892 1992) as a personification of creation, Lucheyele Lesa (Light envoy of god) who is expected to return one day.  

Nevertheless, Mwepu also brags of being able to read Lozi and Tonga among other languages, he says he is self-taught and encourages youth to return to their indigenous values and study local languages, folklore and proverbs. 

The endlessly busy artist has enjoyed banner commissions from the Alliance Fran├žoise, Women For Change,  Road Transport and Safety Agency (RSTA), Yezi Arts , Sakala Brothers, Danny Kaya and Sister D. As an illustrator and poster designer he has done work for Africare, Project Concern International) and Afya Mzuri. He works from his home in Kaunda Square Stage 2, behind Simusokwe Pub and Grill off Hybrid Road in Lusaka.


  1. I know this guy. We met as young Rastas and had all these ideas of forming a black movement in Zambia. I am now a writer and it is good to see him pursue art. I will fetch him from Kaunda Square to retrace our street dreams we used to share.

    1. Hello, somehow I never saw this reply. Do you have a blog with some writing that I can have a look at out of interest?