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Sunday, 2 November 2014

Zambia: Implosion for Explosion

By Andrew Mulenga

Zambia’s art scene has for a long time been in need of another book to share the shelf with the 2004, Gabriel Ellison title Art in Zambia.

The nation has repeatedly been skimmed over by art historians and international curators consequently being omitted from important publications that have often focused on neighbouring countries creating a gap in literature on art.

From colonial times when the west had just begun to display what is called ‘tribal art’ in museums, there had always been a preference to catalogue artefacts from countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola (Chokwe masks) and Tanzania (Makonde wood carvings) across the border.
When the focus shifted to ‘modern art’ again concentration was on Mozambique, with artists such as acclaimed painter Malangatana and the sculptor Chissano, being well documented. Zimbabwe too has many books written on its now world famous tradition of stone sculpture.

So the new book Zambia: Implosion for Explosion comes as a pleasant gesture. Written in both English and Italian it is designed as a catalogue for part of Italian tycoon Luciano Benetton’s international collection, featuring the works of 162 individuals listed as Zambian artists.
It has no chapters per se but a collection of five short commentaries on visual arts and the socio-economic environment of Zambia among other things, one is attributed to Benetton himself. The other contributors are emerging Italy-based curator Abdulmalik Mabellini and Zambian artists William Miko, Clare Mateke and Mathew Mudenda.  
But the well bound, 300-plus page, hard cover book is somewhat problematic when issues such as context are taken into consideration. Of course the book is part of the Italian clothing and investment mogul’s “Imago Mundi,” Latin phrase for “image of the world” project where by 2016 he plans to collect the work of 10,000 artists from 60 countries, but it raises questions on the publication’s true purpose, particularly on how the Zambian art scene is portrayed and essentially how the publication came into being.

The book is not yet available in Zambia but can
be ordered online at the cost of €20 (twenty euros)
In his introduction, Benetton describes the 162 participating artists as “afronauts”, a term coined by the Zambian visionary Mukuka Nkoloso who hoped to send a girl and two cats to the Moon and later Mars in a space programme under his independent National Academy of Science, Space Research and Astronomical Research in 1964. Benetton suggests as afronauts Zambian artists are exploring a country undergoing massive change. Comparably, although it is not mentioned in the book, anyone passingly familiar with We’re still going to Mars a body of work by painter Stary Mwaba that explores Nkoloso’s concept is also the basis of his ongoing residency at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin.

However, in the text Benetton also illustrates Zambia’s geographic location and mentions a few things from urbanization to Chinese investment, after remarks on the “impressive” Victoria Falls he explains how his collection intends to provide Zambian artists with much needed international exposure.

But the impression throughout this piece of writing echoes a tone of discovery, the encounter of a faraway land the world knows very little or nothing about.
Mabellini picks that tone up like a baton in the subsequent write-up as he opens suggesting that while the world has been ignoring Zambia, it’s art has been flourishing under very harsh circumstances such that artists are forced to use materials such as “garbage”, “old bed sheets”, “car paints and burlap” (in those exact words) for their art production. 

Before he too lands at a description of the Victoria falls, he makes quick work of giving a historic overview of the art scene in what appears to be a two paragraph summery of Ellison’s Art In Zambia in proper sequence from her tackling of the art that was introduced by European settlers through to Tavern art and ending at Stephen Kapata so beloved by foreign collectors because of the perceived innocence and naivety of his style.

Nevertheless, concerning the use of discarded materials, there are only a handful of artists practicing in this genre. The average Zambian artist uses imported and highly expensive paints, inks and canvases some from Italy itself. Even so, global trends show that use of the “found object” has been on the increase in art production particularly in the light of environmental awareness. Just last year the Financial Times announced the London auction house Bonhams achieved a record US$850,000 for a tapestry by celebrated Ghanaian sculptor and scholar El Anatsui Africa’s highest grossing artist made out of trash in the form of flattened beer cans and bottle tops, Kenyan artist Cyrus Kabiru too is also causing an international sensation with his re-purposed materials.

What appears to be happening with the book is a kind of fetishization, a search for the exotic or perchance the primitive.

While Mateke, Miko and Mudenda’s contributions provide more practical observations in short essays entitled Art in Southern Zambia, Zambian Art Must Implode to Explode and Copperbelt Art respectively, after these are a few pages of select images, which again seem awkward.
Some show the Bush Art Gallery and the Mosi-O-Tunya Art Centre two roadside art shacks in Livingstone which sell inexpensive tourist art – like seed and straw mosaic -- that lacks the conceptual thought or complex production processes of mainstream contemporary art practiced by a good number of the 162 artists featured in the book.

Images of the country’s most outstanding and comprehensive collections such as Andrew Sardanis’ Chaminuka, John Kapotwe’s Namwandwe or Enzio Rossi’s Villa Lucia that have hundreds of the best paintings and sculptures between them are omitted as are gallery spaces like the Henry Tayali Gallery, Twaya Art Gallery and the cutting-edge 37d Gallery which on opening night can rival any overseas gallery by standards of display. In light of this one gets the feeling that images of these spaces were omitted in order to cast a shadow of parochial simplicity on the Zambian art scene?

As earlier noted, the manner in which the book was put together also raises a few concerns. Early this year, Mabellini was tasked to engage a minimum of 140 artists through Zambian contacts with whom a call for participation was made with the promise of a great opportunity for international exposure.

Through the Zambian contacts, artists were called together and when he flew in, each one of them was provided with a small, postcard size canvas of 10 x 12 cm on which they were tasked to create works of art. The artists never received any brushes, inks, paints or indeed payments beyond the promise of having their work exposed in an exhibition abroad. But perhaps a little monetary gain for them would not have hurt considering they were contributing their work to the collection of a person whom Forbes lists as one of the richest men in the world with a net worth of US$ 2.6 Billion dollars.

The tiny canvases are a clever gimmick because obviously all 162 of them must have been able to fit in one bag which may have even been carried on to the plane to Italy as hand luggage. Meaning someone was able to fly in and out and collecting 162 samples of art by Zambians at the cost of an air ticket and of course decent accommodation.

What is probably aggravating is the fact that Zambia has some of the finest realistic painters anywhere in the world and a few of them such as veteran Vincent Maonde of Livingstone or the younger Caleb Chisha of Lusaka are in this book but the works they submitted are perhaps among the worst of their careers, think of it as a worst works competition. Here, one also wonders how much time the artists were given to complete these works, photographs in the book show some Livingstone-based artists working in groups as if being watched over, one artist from Lusaka however confirmed that he was given between 10:00hrs and 16:00hrs to conceptualize and execute the work.

Be that as it may the artists in the book, are all jumbled together regardless of career level, genre or alphabetical order, it is one thing to have an all-inclusive publication but half the artists in the book hardly practice or exhibit publicly and many of them are in actual fact students in both secondary school and higher learning institutions who happened to be in the right place at the right time when the call for artists was made.   

Zambia may be in need of international exposure but it is not entirely invisible to the global art scene. For years, by individual efforts, artists have continuously represented their country on the international circuit. This year alone for instance Lusaka-based Lawrence Chikwa featured prominently in the blockbuster exhibition “A Divine Comedy” set up by international curator Simon Njami at the Frankfurt Museum of Modern Art. Closer to home, Lusaka’s Zenzele Chulu  and Norway-based Victor Mutelekesha are featured in !KAURU a roving SADC exhibition that opened at the University of South Africa (UNISA) which seeks to address “African identity, modernity and contemporaneity” questioning who has a right to speak for or represent whom. Needless to mention in 2009 when only aged 30, Anawana Haloba exhibited at the 53rd Venice Biennale, the world cup of art. These are just a few.

Zambia’s idiosyncrasy therefore should not be so much the artist’s choice of material, but the fact that they can use it to produce both simplistic and conceptually complex works for local or international intake depending on the situation. Had Mabellini done a little more research or stayed in the country a little longer than the nine days in which he had to travel from Livingstone, Lusaka and the Copperbelt he would have grasped a more realistic understanding of the substantially fragmented but pulsating art scene that the book masks.

It must be noted also, that this is not the first time Zambian artists are being featured in a catalogue of an international private collection. In 2005, the works of Flinto Chandia, David Chirwa, Enoch Illunga, Stephen Kappata, Fackson Kulya, Style Kunda, Teddy Zebbie M’hango, William Miko, Adam Mwansa, Godfrey Setti, Shadreck Simukanga, Henry Tayali and Friday Tembo were featured in Transitions (Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe 1960 -2004) one of four exhibition catalogues for the Robert Loder collection that was shown at The Africa Centre in London. It was a culmination of the Loder funded Triangle Art Trust Workshops and exhibitions.

Clearly expressing the purpose of that publication, one of the contributors, John Picton, professor of African Art in the University of London stated: “The sequence of catalogues accompanying these exhibitions has achieved two purposes. The first is to place Robert Loder’s collection in the public domain, and the second is to accompany the illustrations with a series of texts that permit the thematic development of contexts within which to understand the material on show”

In Zambia: Implosion for Explosion however, the works appear to be dangling with “no explanation of the thematic development of contexts”, possibly by design all is left to the readers’ imagination.

All in all the book is a hasty interpretation of the Zambian art scene through jaundiced Western eyes. The question Zambian artists should really ask themselves is whether the way they have been portrayed in this book is how they would like to be seen by the rest of the world.

As for the authors, there would have been no harm to also borrow from the comprehensive texts in the Lechwe Trust Catalogue by Cynthia Zukas, Roy Kausa and Miko that provide a detailed account of art in Zambia from the 1960s until the present. Zukas has been a practicing artist for over 50 years and was even knighted for it, Kausa has been writing on art for over 30 years, citing such a publication along with Ellison’s work or interviewing these individuals would have surely strengthened the new book contextually, is it not the whole purpose of a bibliography.  

Zambia: Implosion for Explosion is easy to read but not engaging or interesting enough to pick from the coffee table for a second read. Was it enough to satisfy the commission of the collector? Yes. Is it a true portrayal of the Zambian art scene? No.

Nonetheless, the book borrows its title from the text Miko provides. It is from a concept he first shared in a presentation during the 15th Triennial Symposium on African Art by the Arts Council of the African Studies Association hosted by the University of California, Los Angeles in 2011 where he likened the Zambian art scene to something that is undergoing internal combustion, it is a theory linked to "Kundwe" out here! : it is always darkest just before dawn” a critical analysis of the state of Zambian contemporary visual art developments he delivered during the International Association of Art Critics symposium held at the University of Cape Town in 2007. The theory around these two papers are also the driving force behind the concept “Correcting the national anomaly” in which Miko implies the way to a better art scene in Zambia is through education. Fuelled by that viewpoint, alongside fellow artist and scholar Billy Nkunika, they were the key figures behind the graduation of the first Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree holders to be produced locally through the Zambia Open University in September this year.    

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