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Monday, 30 March 2015

Every face tells a story

By Andrew Mulenga

He repeatedly cites a famous quote whose origins one would not even attempt to look into because it has been recited in song and in writing countless times, whoever said it first has long been forgotten: “Every face tells a story”.

Alec Lishandu, 52 a Mazabuka-based businessman and artist is thoroughly passionate with drawing faces in very fine detail while maintaining the value of pencil lines, texture and tone in order to distinguish a drawn image from a photographic one.

The faces he draws – mostly women -- are both the young and the old. For the young, he pays much emphasis to the eyes filling them with so much life you would expect the drawing to blink. For the old, he prefers subjects with wind-beaten brows and shrivelled skin to whose wrinkles he literally accords a certain beauty. Beauty that can perhaps relate to a quote by American author Clarence Day Jr.: “Age should not have its face lifted, but it should rather teach the world to admire wrinkles as the etchings of experience and the firm line of character.”

For now, Lishandu’s characters are distinctively of the Basarwa peoples of Botswana, a country in which he lived and worked as an art teacher for 8 years before he was inspired to return home after the late republican President Michael Sata visited that country in 2012 and famously cautioned Zambians living there that they should “return home and help develop the country” and that if they did not “…other foreign nationals will be employed to help develop the country because the process is not going to wait for anyone.”

“After I heard the president’s speech I realised that yes perhaps it was time for me return home and go and do my bit,” says the retired teacher cum contractor and lodge-owner. “In Botswana I taught in two schools over an 8 year period, I was supposed to return in 2014 but then I thought of just quitting and going back home, we are here developing a different country when there is a lot to do back home”.

Lishandu and wife Linda, a nurse in the Ministry of Community Development and Mother and Child Health in Mazabuka run two guest houses, Village Blues Lodge in Monze and Benoni Lodge in Mazabuka as well as Rockview Contractors and Dainfern Plaza, a new shopping complex in the heart of Mazabuka town.
Nevertheless, despite his career change, he cannot stay away from his pencils and uses them to escape the pressures of the world, like some kind of meditation.

“What has actually made me go back to art is that I have discovered it is a form of therapy, when I need something to calm me down. I even read online that art really is something I can resort to for inner peace. Even when I was in Botswana I used to use it when I am lonely, because my family remained here in Zambia during the whole period I was away,” he says.

But pencil drawings have not always been his preferred medium. When he decided to take art seriously, he was a sign writer, hired to paint on walls for clients, which is what landed him in college and eventually lead on to him getting employed abroad.

“There was a school, Lwengu International School in Monze owned by the Vlahakises, so I was lucky to be hired, and then Mr Vlahakis liked my work so much he asked whether I was able to teach at his school but then I didn’t have the qualifications so I was encouraged to enrol at the Evelyn Hone College in 1999,” he recalls “I graduated with an Art Teachers Diploma in 2003 and was offered a job by Nakambala Sugar they had a private school as well, but before I could take up the appointment I went for a visit to Botswana, I met a Zambian who had a school there and I was hired to do some work, it was seen by others and I was later offered a job. So I never came back from Botswana, in fact I never applied for a job it was like something from God”.

In actual fact, he never had it that easy. Before he went to college, he was retrenched from the Zambia Railways, from a job as an accounts clerk that he got as a school-leaver, shortly after completing school. It was the joblessness that made him fall back on his artistic skill.

“My late father also worked for the railways and my mother was just a house wife, when I started school in Kafue with the likes of Given Lubinda, I didn’t know I had the talent but when my father was transferred to Kabwe in 1977, I had an option at Highridge Secondary School of taking art or French, I went into art and even won a consolation prize for the Save The Rhino Campaign”

“Then in 1980 I went to Luangwa and I didn’t find art, there was Agricultural Science instead but I opted to sit for art even without a teacher and got a credit. After school in 1981 that is when I joined the railways, two years later, I started work from 1983 up to 1995 when I got retrenched during the liberalization of the economy by the Chiluba government. It was hard for me because I had just gotten married in 1991, luckily my wife was already a nurse, but still I was failing to make ends meet so I started freelance signwriting on a serious note and became very good at it,” he recalls.

But like his teaching days, his sign-writing days are in the past and he sticks to pencil because it is less of a hassle in terms of cleanliness around the house, unlike inks and paints they are easy to put away, which he says also keeps his wife happy.

As for his subject matter he is still in a phase of depicting the iconic faces of the Basarwa people of Botswana.
“I was amused with their own delicate distinctions. Also if you bring a Xhosa from the Eastern Cape and a coloured (mixed heritage) person from the same place you will think they are one and the same but they are very different, it’s all in the detail. When I went to Botswana I wanted to learn about the local people’s way of life, especially that the government was attempting to integrate them into main stream society,” he explains.

“I really wanted to get close to the Basarwa, as they are truly called, they are not bushmen that terminology is derogatory, a serious insult, I wanted to learn what makes them stand out in terms of the rest of us Africans. But I could only access them through the annual Letlhafula Cultural Festival where people from all over Botswana come to perform their dances and show their cuisine at place called Botswanacraft its run by a white man who works in collaboration with the Ministry of Tourism”.

Lishandu plans on showing his work in an exhibition soon, except he is challenged by the fact that in Mazabuka, lake many small Zambian towns, art is not taken seriously. Anyway, one can only hope he continues to be inspired by facial features and rich ethnic cultures and may perhaps bring his effort closer to home and start depicting the beautiful Tonga faces of the Gwembe Valley in the Southern Province and possibly he should start labelling his portraits to tell us what he reads in them. 

Alec Lishandu

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