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Monday, 26 October 2015

50 years of contemporary Zambian art: an interview with veteran painter, Vincent Maonde

By Andrew Mulenga

Because the field of the contemporary art in Zambia is still fairly young, seeing it only spans about 5 decades, the age of the nation itself, we are fortunate to still have a few of the field’s masters still working and walking among us.

Women in Songwe, 2013, oil on canvas
by Vincent Maonde
One of them is the Livingstone-based painter Mr Vincent Maonde, outstanding among many painters of his generation for his cheerful works of unadulterated rural life with picture-perfect compositions with delicately -coloured landscapes peopled by women at a riverside or children at play are both charming in their humanity and intense in their fundamental simplicity.

The 68 year old enjoyed a distinguished career with the museum’s board covering well over 40 years, now retired; he spends his days under the shade of a mango tree at the house he managed to purchase as sitting tenant.

But as they say, an artist never truly retires, so Mr Maonde does not actually sit wasting the hours away, he is always busy painting while also tending to a small vegetable garden besides which he tends to a patch of maize that he meticulously irrigates all year round. 
Recently, Mr Maonde was happy to share stories of his upbringing both on the Copperbelt and in Lusaka under the repressive British colonial regime and beyond. He also shared his views on art in Zambia from the 1950s until the present.

He explains that he developed a passion for depicting life in a rural setting because he had never experienced village life until he was employed by the museum as a keeper of anthropology and was able to travel around the remotest places in Zambia.

Golden Valley of Jewellery, 2013,
oil on Canvas by Vincent Maonde
“I was born in those round huts in Kabwata in 1947 (not 1949 as stated in the book Art in Zambia), the ones you now call cultural village. When I finished my standard six that’s the time when we had transition and they were trying to integrate blacks into white schools,” explains the portly father-figure known for his outstanding generosity among the younger generation of artists with whom he unintentionally assumes a godfather status, credited for founding the Southern Province Visual Arts Council which he often bankrolled from his own pocket.

“You know we now had a coalition government some went to Kabulonga Boys, I went to Prince Philip which is now Kamwala Secondary School. That time they only had whites colours and Indians. I was the only black from Matero and I was put in form one learning Latin and French because I was very bright”.

Even though Mr Maonde was selected from Matero to attend the then prestigious Prince Philip, his venture into schooling took a somewhat jokey start while living with his older sister in Kitwe on the Copperbelt.

“I started school in 1953. We were sitting with my older brother, bored, we had nothing to do so we just said I think lets go and start school so we went to Saint Francis, it was just a thatched classroom, my brother was picked but I was left out, still there were more than 150 pupils and the teacher didn’t even know who is who, so I could still attend,” he says letting out a hearty billow of laughter.

He recalls that teachers those days were very cruel and when he was whipped with a sjambock (whip made of animal hide) he quit school out of fear because it was the most severe pain that had even been afflicted on him. He however continued lessons by means of the homework that his brother would return with.

“In Kamitondo we discovered another school. I used to play with this naughty Bemba boy called Chilufya we always used to climb the nchenja tree that provided shade for an outdoor classroom. The pupils never knew until one day Chilufya dropped some fruits on the teacher,” he explains. The teacher called the boys down, Mr Maonde froze stiff remembering his last whipping, and the other boy took flight and never returned.

Washing Day, 2013, oil on canvas by Vincent Maonde
“The teacher didn’t beat me. Instead I was asked if I want to start school when I agreed, I was given free books and pencils, but my sister at home never knew until they summoned her as my guardian when I passed number one. At the time I didn’t even know my sir name so I used my brother in laws, Banda. So I started out as Vincent Banda,” he says bursting into another explosion of laughter.

“My sister at this point was very excited, they even bought me uniforms and I was the smartest because she would personally comb my hair, it was strait because my grandfather was Portuguese “.

But later, in 1958, Mr Maonde would return to his parents in Lusaka, whom had now moved to Matero from the tiny servant’s quarters they occupied behind a large house near St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Rhodes Park where his father served a white family as a cook. Of his visits to this home, he recollects very nice meals that they were privileged to have while the majority black Zambians in the townships faced hardships. He also remembers the days being full of incidence.

“Those days (in the late 1950s) you had to cross the yard of the muzungu (white person) at owner’s risk, all of them had these huge dogs; it is as if they were trained just to bite blacks. Also when we were walking around mu mayadi (the suburbs), the white boys would shoot at us with pellet guns, we used to fight back with catapults, there was so much hatred,” he recalls.

He however remembers his European teachers as being very kind, they used personal resources to buy him 6 white shirts, a school blazer, straw hat, socks and shoes that were too expensive for his father to afford even on a cooks wages although the position attracted the highest pay among house staff.

His return to Lusaka would also trigger seriousness in his art. He was quickly identified and encouraged by his art teachers at Prince Philip, whom he says were British and educated even up to Master’s Degree level in Fine Art. It was not too long before he also caught the eye of artist and philanthropist Mrs. Cynthia Zukas MBE.

Market Place, 2013, oil on canvas by Vincent Maonde
“In Zambia the beginning of art started with white settlers, and I joined the Lusaka Art Society when I was very young. Mrs Zukas, I have known her from my childhood, that’s why I questioned her one day this woman how old is she? Because when was in form two she still used to look the way she looks today,” he says “I used to run an art club at Matero Welfare Centre, they would come with the husband and pick me up in the evening and also we used to meet at the Evelyn Hone College that time there were no blacks so they were trying to recruit us, that’s when I met Henry Tayali he was already painting on canvas at the time”

With the Lusaka Arts Society, he would go on painting excursions along the Kafue River, where they would work from nature. They were never bothered by passers-by because blacks were still afraid of whites; but he was already used to them from school. This was just a year before independence and a considerable number of Europeans that could not cope with integration had started to leave the country.

Nevertheless, Zambia was soon independent and a few years later Mr Maonde would complete his Form 5 (Grade 12 equivalent) and subsequently become one of the first black students at the Evelyn Hone College enrolling in 1970 and graduating with a diploma in art in 1973. The permanent job in the museums however did not hinder his progress as a professional artist and he begun to exhibit widely in far flung places such as Gothenburg, Sweden in 1977 and Toronto, Canada in 1979. In 1982 he even secured a 3-year stint to upgrade his academic qualifications at the Rage Gate School of Art & Design.

Mr Maonde says one of the most memorable moments in his art career is when he was commissioned to illustrate a children’s book by a wealthy American family that would later invite him to New York for a holiday and exhibition.

From The River, 2013, oil on canvas by Vincent Maonde
“I just received a call in my office at the museum asking me to come for a holiday. About a week later Zambia Airways called me that they have a ticket for me,” he recalls “I remember when I got to New York they were waiting for me in a convertible Cadillac, it was like a dream, they took me any place I mentioned, I think it was sometime in 1993 I can’t remember but I will have to check my passport. I met the CBS television network president, the director of Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the largest art museum in the US. I went to Chinatown, they even flew me to Niagara Falls in their private jet, when I came back they gave me another assignment and paid me very, very well”.

But looking back at the general state of the visual arts in Zambia over the past 50 years, he observes that, the field has never been taken seriously.

“In Zambia we have a very big problem all the governments that come in have been full of lip-service, look you can’t have a country that does not have a national art gallery, just look at Zimbabwe next door, that’s why they have made progress in art because they have several,” he argues indicating that the efforts of opening a national gallery here in Zambia this month is somewhat a tall story particularly in the manner that it has been handled.
In fact the National Gallery of Zimbabwe “is a state owned non-profit making organization that was established by an Act of Parliament in 1953 and falls under the Ministry of Education, Sports, Art and Culture, to promote and preserve visual art in the country through continuous acquisition and conservation of artworks in the permanent collection and other various activities”.

Fisher Boys, 2013, oil on canvas, by Vincent Maonde
The gallery has a full-time director as well as curator. The curator oversees the gallery exhibitions while the director is a link between the ministry and the Board of Trustees that also includes the mayor of Harare and if they have been running like this for 55 years, they must be doing something right which has seen the opening of two regional branches The National Gallery in Bulawayo and he National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Mutare just 15 years ago.

“This thing they have built without any consultation with artists and now they are saying you run it? Artists don’t run galleries, to run an art gallery is a profession on its own. So now artists will have to look for money to pay for electricity, water and so on where are they going to get this money,” he charges.

“I was very happy when I heard government has given National Arts Council (NAC) K2.5 Billion (old currency) because they will do something. But they were just here every week, secretly, you know getting these allowances and doing nothing, we have a big problem,” he says insinuating a hint of mismanagement “The planning has been done from Lusaka, look when government gives you K2.5 billion you have to make sure you finish the whole project within that, government won’t have money to continue giving you they have bigger things to do like build roads and hospitals”.

He says it would be sad if NAC has misappropriated the funds allocated to the gallery and are now expecting the Visual Arts Council Livingstone Branch to run it on empty coffers. He only got to see the team from Lusaka when they needed him to help locate the plots demarcation beacons into the former Livingstone show grounds.

Untitled, 2013, oil on canvas by Vincent Maonde
“We advised them that there is nowhere in the world where artists run galleries that’s why in the beginning the Henry Tayali gallery was run by a board and had employees, I don’t know how it’s done now,” he says.

While he maintains that the arts have failed to flourish because of the lack of significant political will, he feels Zambians in general have always looked down upon the visual arts as a field for failures and that even parents will discourage their children against taking up art professionally.

“We don’t have a strong base you can call a movement because there is also no strong policy, our works are always bought by foreigners, I’ve only sold works to two black Zambians and they are women,” he reveals “You cannot rule out poverty, there is so much poverty in this country look I raised 15 children (including extended family) in this house I thought when I retire I will be free but it’s not the case, most artists paint to sell, they can’t express themselves artistically. If someone paints some giraffes and sells everyone else will start painting giraffes, but there are very good artists quite a lot of them”.

He suggests there is a need of total re-education for Zambians on the importance of art as a career path and subsequently a means of job creation and this can only start with firm government policy.

Meanwhile, Mr Maonde continues to produce magnificent paintings from underneath his mango trees, his collectors mainly American tourists are still smitten by the idyllic rural themed landscapes and village scenes he sells by means of the displays in the Livingstone National Museum and Squires Restaurant at the Zambezi Sun Hotel


Many artists at various stages in their careers have passed under his mentorship and tutelage during his time as the Chairman for VAC Livingstone such as Firoz Patel, Clare Mateke, Bernard Kopeka and his son Alumedi Maonde. Under his leadership VAC Livingstone was consolidated into one of the most organized branches in the country beating Lusaka in membership figures. 

(First published in The Bulletin & Record Magazine Dec/Jan 2015 edition)

2 comments:

  1. This blog is one of my best finds on the internet by a fellow Zambian. Love your work, absolutely great.

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    Replies
    1. Touché! you are doing a great job yourself, I'm also glad that I've learned about your page. Bless!

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