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Monday, 8 June 2015

‘Voices of Colour’ brighten Zebra Crossing Café

By Andrew Mulenga

Voices of Colour, the ongoing exhibition at the Zebra Crossing Café, Ababa House in Lusaka, brings together a vibrant band of artists coming from a diverse range of backgrounds as kaleidoscopic as the paintings they have on display.

Girl, acrylic on canvas by Jack Menke
Each of them have personal credentials, artistic styles and thematic content so unique from one other that this is what actually gives the exhibition colour or character as it were. The seniormost among them Jack Menke, is an HIV/tropical medicine specialist by day and a painter by night. Mapopa Manda, 33 is a politically astute mixed media artist with a witty yet astute political commentary that focuses on local and global issues and also comments on anything ranging from social injustices to popular culture and corruption. Montfort Chinunda, 23 is the restless young talent among them, always seeking out new ways to express himself in a representational vocabulary that is heavily accentuated by abstract ornamentations. Last but not least is the lady of the group Gladys Kalichini, when she is not busy putting her University of Zambia Economics degree to good use doing some number-crunching at a leading telecommunications company, the twenty-something-year-old is busy dabbling with paint.

Egg-shaped characters that slightly gaze away from the viewer with wide eyes have become Menke’s signature, the subtly forlorn expressions on their faces are at times hard to read there is no telling whether they project sadness, happiness, or both, this ambiguity is buffered only by the infectious warmth of the artist’s pallete and the cartoon-like appearance of the subjects.

“I see myself as a painter and an AIDS activist. My work as an AIDS activist is all around (the acceptance of) Anti-retroviral treatment with the artist collaborative art4art. Art in my opinion can be used to clarify or promote discussion about social issues of any sort. Art4art was registered as a Zambian NGO in 2009 and has organized several exhibitions on the subjects of HIV stigma, adherence and antiretroviral treatment (ART),” stresses the artist who is also Technical Director at Elizabeth Glaser Paediatric AIDS Foundation in Lusaka.
“I greatly admire the art of the insane, prisoners, children, and primitive artists. Children are close to the sources of creativity and create free of models or previous examples. In my own work I strive to achieve a similar untutored simplicity, often by employing intense colours and by line drawing in an unstudied manner uninfluenced by convention. One of my aims as an artist, is to "make secret visions visible”.

A piece of me, acrylic on canvas by Monty
Although the Netherlands-born artist has been in Zambia working as a medical practitioner since 1998, he has only been exhibiting consistently on the Lusaka art scene for the past five years. He was also a key co-ordinator during the construction of Anti-Retroviral man a large scrap metal statue that was mounted at the Lusaka National Museum in 2011, an ode to the fight against stigma.  

Apart from his medical studies, Menke obtained an MA, Art History from the Universiteit Leiden in 1991, in his final thesis he examined the Russian Cubo-futurist opera (1913) "the Victory over the Sun" by Malevich, Kroetsjonych, Matjoesjin and Chlebnikov.

“I find the inspiration for my work in my classical art education and my work as a Tropical Medicine specialist. I try to combine these sources into art that makes you smile out loud. My work is influenced by my favourite artist from the renaissance Jacomo di Pontormo, and modern masters such as Paul Klee, Jean Dubuffet, and Jean Miro,” states Menke whose favourite haunt has been the Art Academy without Walls (AAWW) in the Lusaka showground’s since 2007.

Manda’s work, while as colourful as Menke’s is on a different thematic plain as earlier mentioned.  But although the fellow AAWW and Art4art artist still maintains his politically steeped paintings, he appears to be more meticulous in the detail of his magazine and newspaper clippings, both in the use of the images and headlines that he chooses to paste into his paintings. He seems to be advancing the style as far as he can and in his own radical way keeps gnawing at the heels of the politicians and while it can be argued that most Zambian politicians may have no interest in art at all and perhaps never attend exhibitions -- yes including the so-called honourable Minsters and permanent secretaries whose job it may be to do so -- he appears resilient an continues with his messages.

News of the world, acrylic and
collage on canvas by Mapopa Manda
Chinunda, or Monty as he is fondly called has been practicing art from as far back as he can remember although strongest memories of his foundation are rooted in his days at Kalomo High School where the National Theatre Art Association of Zambia presented him with the District Junior Theatre Art Festival Award. Like Menke and Manda, the Kapiri-Mposhi-born artist also calls the AAWW his studio space and he too expresses himself in vibrantly bold colours.

“I create a deliberate push and pull between near photorealistic detail and my own vocabulary of visual glitches that challenge the very realism. I paint and draw to remain wholly representational while functionally abstract. This duality is central to my work and allows the figures to evoke emotions with or without defining them,” states Monty who is now a staple at the Zebra Crossings shows, his style remains consistent and echoes the few years spent under the highflying Zambian painter Stary Mwaba’s apprenticeship.

Kalichini on the other hand appears to be the odd one out in this quartet, of course not because she is the only woman in the show, but she is the one with the coolest pallete. The coolness of her tertiary blues and delicate greys have a subdued aura compared to the work of her colleagues and this calmness of colour is perhaps matched by the expressionless faces of her subject matter, case in point the huge panels in her 2015 'Evolution series'. Also very visible in this body of work is her bold use of line, where she creates sharp edges that almost translate into silhouettes when coupled with the colour play.

Kalichichini is particularly fascinated by topics of social imbalance in the third world and her background in economics, and the many graphs with clean repetitive lines that she deals with at the office creep into her studio work.

Evolution series, acrylic on canvas
by Gladys Kalichini
“I thought it would be interesting to do a lot work with black and white hues for this show. The contrast against the other artists' work would be very interesting in my opinion. To evolve the concept of colour in African paintings not just being the occasional earth tones. The idea of using colour, or the lack of it to evolve some of my already existing work, and see it in a different light, in a more simplistic nature is what I find intriguing, as well as making the images almost as timeless as the very idea of black and white,” explains Kalichini.

“Well this is what I thought working towards a colour themed show. Also bearing in mind that the works of my colleagues does indeed speak volumes. For instance Mapopa (Manda) and how he works with the political scene, Jack (Menke) with more the social interactions of individuals and Monty with more cultural based work.”

Practically a self-taught artist apart from interaction with more experienced artists, she has come a long way and in the process has managed to bag two Ngoma Awards, in 2010 and 2012 respectively. Along with Manda and two other young Zambian artists, Kalichini is scheduled for the Àsìkò: 5th International Art Programme, a competitive 30 day workshop in Maputo, Mozambique towards the end of this month. Organised by internationally acclaimed Nigerian curator Bisi Silva, the founder and artistic director of the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, the workshop is aimed at providing participants with “access to experienced local and international artists and curators,” provide “One-to-one individual portfolio reviews and feedback about participants work, encouragement of developing new contemporary practices on the African continent, sharing knowledge through curatorial lectures, artists’ presentations and critical debate, help develop new ways of creative thinking by integrating new elements such as performance, installation and sound projects as well as foster networking opportunities”.

It is in fact the 2014 version of these workshops that perceivably lead to Stary Mwaba being selected as the only artist from Africa for a grant by the KfW Foundation to work and exhibit at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin, Germany for a period of 12 months last year.  

For the four Lusaka-based artists that will attend, this is without doubt a big deal. At no time in the history of contemporary art in Zambia has such a group of energetic youngsters had the opportunity to go and receive international coaching over a 30 day period. These are things that only happen to footballers, but unlike footballers this team is sponsoring itself and will not be using tax-payers money, so technically they do not owe Zambia anything. However, they will be doing the local art scene a disservice if they do not return to share what it is they gather. This does not necessarily mean they should be compelled to hold classes and workshops. There is much that can be learned from them if what they acquire trickles down into their work as artists. It will be interesting to see if they will make the bold decision to become “real artists” for lack of a better term and not confine themselves to being the soft-focused, “chocolate-box” Zambian artists so beloved by penny-pinching expatriates that are known to haggle for high-end gallery art as if it were Sunday market curios without considering the materials used, the status of the artist and the conceptualization of ideas that went into the work, often taking advantage of artists’ hand-to-mouth existence.

It would be interesting to see Manda and Kalichini return and push their conceptualization to the next level. The so-called global art world – assuming it is what they want to permeate -- demands that work be more theoretical which brings us back to the ongoing exhibition. Titles and themes should never be taken lightly. It is one thing to throw together some colourful paintings and name the exhibition Voices of Colour and declare it a “colour themed” show, but colour in itself has many voices beyond a bunch of pretty images and these voices have even deeper meanings depending on the vocabulary.

So as a concept, colour has many meanings, perceptions and of course voices. But as for now you can go and enjoy the ones echoing in Voices of Colour which will be showing until the beginning of July. The Zebra Crossing Cafe Restaurant, is on the corner of Twikatane Road off Addis Ababa Drive, Lusaka as you approach the Manda Hill footbridge. 

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