By Andrew Mulenga
(Photos: Camiel Van Lenteren)
(Photos: Camiel Van Lenteren)
This year is seeing an unprecedented explosion of activity on the Zambian art scene as artists keep shining at home and abroad, there is no telling where it has all sprung from but one can argue that it has not been this vibrant in such a long time.
Not to be left out of the upsurge is Lusaka-based painter Vincentio Phiri – or simply Vincentio as he is fondly called -- a legendary figure in the genre of abstract expressionists in Zambia.
|Vincentio starts work on the first piece of the painting|
His recent collaboration with Dutch art advisor and concept designer Camiel Van Lenteren can only be described as absolutely phenomenal, perhaps something never seen before on the Lusaka circuit, an exciting reminder that there is no fixed way of viewing art and the humdrum of a gallery is not the only environment where the display of art can be arranged.
Entitled Omissions / Unit 43 Vincentio’s project is unique on three main levels. First, the artist himself has been active since the 1970s but arguably decided to take a low profile in recent years. Second, the venue, of course there has been one or two exhibitions at shopping malls in Livingstone and Lusaka, but this one was unique in that a single artwork took up an entire space. Third, the production of the work, this was done in full view of an audience complete with terraces and it was executed over a period of time.
| Vincentio addresses a group of visiting |
pupils from LICEF school
“My last solo was at the German Embassy in Lusaka in 1996. I didn’t intentionally avoid the spotlight but I felt I had a duty to work in the arts through Insakartists International workshop,” clarifies Vincentio on his perceived creative hiatus. “I didn’t come out of hibernation I’ve always been there; but working quietly”.
He explains that the just finished work was a huge project for him; it is 5 metres x 2.5 metres. One large piece done on four different panels and it is all about the act of not including certain things in one’s life that is why he calls the work Omission.
“I’ve always loved working in primary colours but of late I’ve been struggling to work with ground colours I love to build with colour, the circular movement in my painting represents continuity,” he says describing his technique.
|The painting takes shape|
The production of Omission involved live painting from February 27 to March 27 meaning visitors to the new, increasingly busy shopping mall at the University of Zambia along Great East Road were able to catch a glimpse of the artist at work, making it a performance piece of sorts. It was a rare opportunity for them to see in full throttle an artist who is usually enclosed in a studio.
“I was working four days in a week from Wednesday to Saturday from 12:00hrs to 18:00hrs and would rest on the other days,” he explains “Working in front of an audience was not an easy task for me. I didn’t do performance art so you can imagine how scary the whole process was; but I treasured the experience. We made it a rule that while I was working I was not to be disturbed”.
As for the audiences’ understanding abstract art, he explains that fully understanding it is not the question but the appreciation itself was enough and the general public was intrigued.
|The artist takes a break while viewers admire the work in progress|
On the same subject of abstract painting, Vincentio was a protégé of the late Zambian master Henry Tayali, whom upon returning with a Master’s degree in art from the Staatliche Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, Germany in 1975 took the young artist under his wing. Incidentally, in a review of Tayali’s 1993 posthumous exhibition for the Weekly Post, the late Trevor Ford (also a cartoonist known as YUSS) cited some of the artist’s influences to the rebellious Blaue Reiter group of German expressionist painters even though this is a movement that only lasted a short while, long before Tayali studied there. But then again Ford wrote, “Tayali remains Tayali, he looked, saw, and used – but did not plagiarise”. This is true of Vincentio too, he may have Tayali influences, but Vincentio remains Vincentio, his style is distinctive, made most evident in this latest piece that he started with swirls of split and complimentary colours that were later held together by vivid primary colours.
|Done and dusted|
“Henry Tayali was my inspiration; but he was not always nice to me. I was the helping hand when he did his painting work on the walls of the Germany Embassy in Lusaka,” he explains of his mentor, famous for a scorching temperament festered only by a zeal to sermonize art “But, the mid-1970s at the Art Centre Foundation Workshop this was my school and my foundation I learnt a lot and thanks to Gijsbert Witkamp, David Chibwe, Patrick Mweemba and Fackson Kulya”.
|Camiel Van Lenteren (L) and Vincentio goofing around|
The Art Centre Foundation Workshop was a venture by the Art Centre Foundation, Zambia’s inaugural fine arts body ran by a board of trustees among them the late ceramist Bente Lorenz and Cynthia Zukas MBE, when it was formed in 1967 its elected chairman was Valentine Musakanya. The workshop studio was in premises loaned by the Evelyn Hone College, Vincentio was its youngest member.
Born in Bulawayo, he moved to Zambia in 1973 and started painting in 1974 without any formal training whatsoever and decided to become a full time artist after much encouragement from Fackson Kulya whom he met during Kulya’s solo exhibition at the Lusaka City Library in 1973, a popular venue for exhibitions during that period, where Vincentio would later hold his first exhibition in 1974 at the age of 18.
Nevertheless, back to the present, Omission can be seen at Rootz Design and Lifestyle, a shop that specialises in interior designs at East Park Mall where it will be hanging before his solo exhibition scheduled for later this year on a date to be announced.
“My inner dream was to show my work to the general public and I did, I am a happy man I met people who were so happy just to walk in at a Mall and be greeted by art. My solo will be something to look forward to and the Insaka international artist’s workshop will be an exciting one because 80% of the applicants are female artists, we have never had that in our history as Insaka,” he says
Between 1979 to date he has travelled to Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Swaziland, Mozambique, Uganda, Namibia, South Korea, England, USA, Germany, France and Japan to visit museums and art galleries, returning to most of these places several times.
He has also had numerous solo and group exhibitions at home and abroad and his work features in several private and public collections that include the National Collection, Zambia, Barclays Bank Collection, Lusaka, Finance Bank Collection, Lusaka, Namwandwe Gallery, Chaminuka Collection, Mwelwa Chibesakunda Collection, Madison Insurance collection and The Post Newspaper Collection among others.
Born in 1956, Vincentio is on the margins of 60 but does not look a day over 40, he is kind enough to lightly share with us his elixir to eternal youth.
“I try to do a good deed every day and to send positive vibes that’s my secret of keeping youthful,” says Vincentio.
In the interim, Van Lenteren, the Omissions / Unit 43 concept designer indicates that the project went beyond his anticipations.
“It was above my expectations, more than 1100 visitors, lots of new contacts -- more than 300 -- interesting visions, discussions, new ideas, new friends, children who loved it, a school class where 2 of the children came back the next day with their parents, great,” says the dutchman who was in charge of project management and project support for museum exhibitions at Centraal Museum, Utrecht in the Netherlands from 2007 until he came to Zambia last year “And the best of all Vincentio himself: what a nice, interesting and intelligent man and truly a great artist who is really bold to stay true and honest to himself and dedicate his life to be a real artist. I learned a lot from him these last 4 weeks.”
Van Lenteren, 41, who also had a stint as a contemporary art advisor in Indonesia has a Master of Science in Biology (ethology and behavioural genetics) from the University of Utrecht and a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Video, 3-D, 2-D and conceptual art from the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam is happy so far with the vibrancy of the Zambian art scene but is worried that it is not getting the adequate public and private support that it deserves despite a few business houses being enthusiastic.
“I’m working on different projects and I hope they will be lifted from the ground soon and everybody in Lusaka and Zambia can enjoy,” he says.East Park Mall, The Art Shop Zambia Ltd., Rooney’s, The Red Carpet, Zebra Crossings Café as well as Rootz Design and Lifestyle were sponsoring partners of the project.