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Sunday, 25 January 2015

ZAOU exhibitions, are they deepening in character?

By Andrew Mulenga

Early this week, the Zambia Open University pulled down its second Fine Arts Degree Show at the Lusaka National Museum. Set up as both a step-by-step assessment as well as definitive presentation of work by BA students after four years of study, it had been on display since 19 December 2014.

Way of Life, 2014, mixed media, 85 x 55 cm by Tabitha Mvula
Anyone who has been observing the progression of the ZAOU art programme will attest that it has attracted a lot of first-timers, students who had never touched a brush, pencil or encountered live figure drawing before, which tally with institutions philosophy of “education without walls”.
The fact that Zambia’s first art degree course has not rejected individuals that may be perceived as lacking in any artistic talent has raised a lot of questions particularly among artists who graduated from Evelyn Hone College with art teachers diplomas and have been practicing for years. 

Certainly, the sceptics do have a point because what appears to be happening is that out of fear of relegation a good number of students are practicing teachers and educators arriving from the provinces in droves, eager to get that degree, the promotion and of course more money in their pockets as seems to be per custom when a civil servants upgrades academic qualifications.

Crowd, 2014, 35 x 34 acrylic on paper by Patrick Muyunda
This is not to say all the students lack in natural talent or the ones that is eager to learn have failed to do so. As much as the just ended show exposed some pitiful works that surely should have not seen the light of day, it might be suggested that the 4th Year’s Expo as it is called appears to be improving.

In comparison, where the 2013 show lacked in inventiveness, variety of technique, concepts and media the 2014 show lacked in draughtsmanship.

With the impeccable dexterity of Pakuya Mwale, Ellen Hitas, Felix Mvula, Steward Chileshe and Andrew Katembula to name a few the 2013 group set very high standards in the field of drawing. The group also had a seasoned batch of gallery-exposed artists in the name of Sylvia Mwando, Alex Nkazi, Oliver Sakanyi and Davis Sichinsambwe that also brought a highly articulate feel to the fold.

Figure drawing of a live model, charcoal on paper by  Caroline Miyoba
Nevertheless, the 2014 troupe showed a variety of techniques that included the now rare art of linocut printmaking. They were fortunate to be in residential school when Cynthia Zukas MBE of the Lechwe Trust donated her printing equipment to the ZAOU Media and Performing Arts department of Fine Arts and conducted training sessions alongside Wendy Doberainer the Canadian artist and lecturer that died later in the year.

Figure drawing, charcoal study, 42cm x  21cm by Celistino Mumpuka
A few of the 2014 students exhibited a very strong hand towards the discipline as can be seen in a work by Japhet Phiri entitled Mother Zambia, but although the work is well executed it somehow does not tally with its title, yes it is a mother and child image but what does that have to do with the term “Mother Zambia” itself. Titles should be well thought through, if not, one is better leaving it as an untitled work, there is always that option.

Celestino Mumpuka shows an excellent hand in a charcoal study of a female figure leaning on a table which for some reason is entitled Gravity, again another ambiguous title, or is the artist for some reason linking the term itself to the voluptuous features of the model.

Tabitha Mvula’s painting Way of Life appears to evoke a light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel situation with a pathway that starts from a foreground that references parched, unfertile land and narrows up to what appears to be a doorway of ethereal light, to the left of the path appear four poles, probably support for the pilgrim that traverses this route. Somewhere in between the poles the artist has torn the canvas, again a reference to tension. Whether it is autobiographical or just a plain metaphor on hope, along with Crowd a colourful abstract by Patrick Muyunda it was one of the strongest paintings of the exhibition.

Daniel Mutonga’s work displayed a very strong presence with its childlike honesty and disregard for anatomical proportion, his haphazard composition and indifference towards the rules of perspective too give him a compelling depth of character. But as na├»ve as his paintings and drawings may be, his subject matter is serious, if not at times forbidding as was seen in Judgement of a witch that depicts a rural witch cleansing or Composa, a series of drawings that tell the story of the brutal killings of innocent civilians by Zambia National Service officers in Chongwe just outside Lusaka in 2013.

In this group Caroline Miyobe is one of the artists whose studio, gallery and general artistic experience and exposure prior to her four years of study also shone through, anchoring the display professionally. 

Nonetheless, apart from the familiar disciplines of painting and drawing, interaction with ZAOU students shows that they are gaining a high level of aptitude with regards theoretical discourse in the arts and perusal through some their writing also shows a very strong input towards academic dialogue in the visual arts of Zambia.

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