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Sunday, 1 November 2015

Flickers of hope for the arts in Zambia

By Andrew Mulenga

Shortly after President Edgar Lungu took office early this year, an inquiry was put forth in this column, under the headline “Is Edgar for the arts?”

Very little was known about the president at the time be it his personal character or his plans for the country. As for the arts, the speculation was worse as to whether he would consider them like his predecessor and mentor Michael Sata whose legacy, the realignment of the Tourism and Arts Ministry and the Arts, Culture and Heritage Commission Bill was a huge step forward, that gave hope to notions of a legitimate creative sector with the trappings of a national budgetary allocation and job creation.

But in August, seven months down the line, the President appeared to give the arts a first flicker of hope during a trip to Botswana where the Zambia Daily Mail’s Steven Mvula reported that the president had observed that the Zambian art scene was sterile.

“Zambia is lagging behind in terms of arts and theatre. The creative industry can give our women and youths a decent living. NAC is no longer doing what it is supposed to be doing. That is my own assertion. But we will be sitting down with colleagues and ensure that bickering comes to an end. We will see to it that the issues that are making the Council not deliver are sorted out,” stated Mvula quoting the president’s response to a question while the head of state was addressing Zambian’s based in Botswana.

On Friday, 18th September, a month later, the president was making his official speech for the opening of the National Assembly in Parliament; of course politics being what they are, the speech was hauled over the coals by the opposition and critics, cited as empty and unworkable rhetoric in the midst of an ailing economy and the soaring cost of living that accompanies it. But surprisingly somewhere in this alleged drivel, he kept his word on looking into to the issue of the country’s shambolic state of the arts, giving the subject prominence, and likewise giving the artistic community another flicker of hope.

“The Minister responsible for Tourism and Arts will bring to this House the Arts, Culture and Heritage Bill aimed at harmonising institutional arrangements in arts, culture and heritage to reduce overheads and promote cost effectiveness,” read his speech in part.
In a segment where he announced that he had directed the Secretary to the Cabinet to ensure continuous improvement to institutionalised pubic services, President Lungu declared that arts, culture and heritage, despite having economic potential as sectors had either been “overlooked by policymakers or inadequately addressed with piecemeal or traditional approaches”, and that this had created challenges in coordination, planning and resource allocation.

“Consequently, opportunities have largely not been effectively utilised in not only creating a vibrant national identity, but also in tapping into a sector that can contribute meaningfully to our economic growth and major contributor to the job or career market,” read the speech.
The speech pointed out that his predecessor directed the Ministry of Tourism and Arts to establish a National Arts, Culture and Heritage Commission as a directive that was intended to accelerate the creative industry’s contribution to economic development.
“In this regard, the repeal of the National Arts Council of Zambia ACT, No. 31 of 1994, is fundamental to the successful implementation of the directive. I am happy to inform you Mr Speaker, and Honourable Members, that my government with the input of stakeholders in the creative industry, has worked hard to produce the draft culture and heritage bill which will be brought to your attention before the end of the year.

“This house has already supported the initial funding to create a national arts, culture and heritage commission as reflected in the 2015 budget in which an amount of K3, 500,000 was approved by this parliament for this purpose. The newly created commission will improve the coordination, administration and management of the arts, culture and heritage sector in this country” read the section of the speech under the title Arts, Culture and Heritage.
But a month after his speech in parliament, the president gave the arts a third flicker of hope when on 17 October he officially opened the National Art Exhibition at the Henry Tayali Gallery and signed the visitors book, in it, leaving remarks that tally with his parliamentary speech.

“Let’s create a living for our people out of their talents by making art an economic activity”, wrote President Lungu, stamped and dated “H.E. Mr. Edgar C. Lungu, President, and Republic of Zambia”.

Well, at long last, there finally seems to be quantifiable political will towards supporting the arts, complete with a presidential stamp of approval, the pursuit of this approval of which has been a hymn for the past decade in this column, giving a voice to the many individuals that have incessantly campaigned for this direction. No doubt there is jubilation particularly in the visual arts community as they have often felt the most neglected in terms of private or public sponsorship compared to their counterparts in music, film, fashion, theatre and the literary arts.

But as artistes across the creative field await the bill to be passed, it must be noted that government sanctioned support may bring along its own problems. If you look at all the three instances mentioned here Botswana, Parliament and the Henry Tayali Gallery, the President is talking livelihood vis-à-vis job creation and he is also talking figures, which means money, all of which are a sound recipe for greed. It can be argued that greed and not necessarily the lack of sanctioned support has been an impediment in Zambian arts administration at every level for a very long time where we individuals who have personalized the respective arts governing bodies that they oversee and have created miniature empires in them, these are individuals who do not see anything beyond the next workshop allowance or foreign conference that benefits no one but themselves. So instead of just a name change and reshuffling of these bodies into so-called commissions, there will be need for an absolute overhaul, or purge for lack of a better term.

Nevertheless, for the creative sector to be fully functional as a player in the country’s economy as seems to be the President’s vision, there will be need for infrastructure. Zambia has no national theatre, no national gallery, youth art centres for developing talent and the two major universities do not regard the arts as a field of academic study. Zambia has no gallerists, no curators, no arts agents and no arts scholars to critique the arts after all the arts are developed by professional and academic evaluation. The sector is going to need training and qualified staff if things are going to work, the sector will also need proper professional regulation where only registered artistes will be eligible for grants and opportunities to avoid a free-for-all, “sangwapo” situation that may defeat the indispensable purpose of professionalism.

It was written in this space just a couple of weeks ago that in Germany, the city of Berlin alone generates an annual income of over 700 million euro and has 6,600 employees, well this of course is not by accident, there are more than 400 galleries and over 2,600 active companies within the Berlin art world, so investment in infrastructure is inevitable. It was also mentioned that Art school graduates as well as individuals who work in the creative industries are eligible for a wide range of financial assistance from the German government and that merely the show of a university degree from an art school officially guaranteed you to be labelled a “professional” artist meaning artistic grants and scholarships be benefited from the state, applying for a government grant is the equivalent of applying for a job. Ultimately by so doing, the German government was enviably tackling a thread of unemployment. In Germany all arts funding is administered on two levels, municipal and state. This is because through research, it has been observed that local arts administrator know the interests of their communities better, they also know the quality and needs of the artists who live there. It should also be mentioned that most of Berlin’s art does not stay in the city or in Germany it is exported to the global art, London, New York, Paris and so on, similarly, the world’s major galleries have found a hunting ground for young talent in the city, which also attracts foreign young artists.

Of course the German model might sound like a very foreign, first-world and extravagant example but it is testimony that investing in the arts, both through infrastructure and education can provide fruitful results.

Unquestionably, the placing of infrastructure and the restructuring of higher education to make the sector viable may be a long term project, but as soon as government policy falls in to place to fund the arts, the first and most straightforward things to do is launch annual international arts fairs and invite the world to participate, this would not only help showcase Zambia to the world – which also seems to be the presidents concern – but it will also fill hotels, guest houses, sell out car hire companies and fill the pockets of the tour guides instantaneously.

It has been done before and can be done again, all that was required was the political will. Indeed, Zambia may not have the expertise at the moment but neither did it have the expertise when it held the International Art Exhibition or National Exhibition of Art and Culture in 1964. As highlighted recently, coming from a restrictive academic system towards locals, as a new nation, Zambia did not yet have academically trained artists or curators in, so Frank McEwen from the Rhodes National Gallery in Salisbury, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) was brought in to put up the display. Modern art giants like Picasso, Braque, Brancusi and Henry Moore were his personal friends and he often shipped their work to Rhodesia for temporary display, so bringing such a character in was no mean achievement.

Of course 50 years down the line we do have capable Zambians that have been doing and are still doing an outstanding work under the circumstances, but the ability to hang paintings in a gallery does not make one a curator, one does not just wake up and label themselves a curator as much as one does not wake up and say I am a chef, a doctor, an accountant or a pilot. Unfortunately the job demands a lot of things like the scholarly formulation of artistic themes and the meticulous selection of work not to mention the publishing of opinion shaping exhibition catalogues that can be presented as scholarly literature at any international art symposium, museum, gallery or in a university library. The problem is that as Zambians we have the habit of betraying the truth by not admitting when we do not know what we are doing.

In 2013, again as published in this column, Angola was in a similar position as Zambia is today, virtually unchartered territory on the global art scene, eager to introduce itself the Angolan Government through the Ministry of Culture hired Stefano Rabolli Pansera, an Italian curator to work with a local team and sponsored a pavilion at the Venice Biennale, which is considered the Olympics or World Cup of contemporary art. The Angola pavilion was in the Cini Palace alongside the heavyweights, Germany, France and Denmark to name a few. Much to the world’s amazement, Angola stole the show and was honoured with the coveted Golden Lion Award for the best pavilion, making it the first sub-Saharan country to do so defying the odds against some very stiff competition. The Angolan artist Edson Chagas who was featured in the space used it as a launching pad and is now booked all year round at international galleries, art fairs and museums, flying his country’s flag high.

If Angola can do it, so can Zambia. Zimbabwe too has been in attendance for the past three years spearheaded by Chief Curator at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, Raphael Chikukwa who is just next door for consultation. If Zambia is to re-launch herself to the world through arts and culture, Venice 2017 will be a good starting point, there is ample time to prepare, and answering that February question, perhaps President Lungu is for the arts, but in the words of Dennis Liwewe, “let's wait and see!” 

1 comment:

  1. Very informative and I agree, the Venice Biennial 2017 may be a good starting point.