By Andrew Mulenga
Athletes are always said to fly their nations flags high during the course of their endeavours, certainly the Zambia National Football team did so when they won the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations, the Zambia National Polocrosse team did so when they reached the world cup finals this year, sprinter Sydney Siame did it with a good performance at the 2015 World Championships in Athletics in Beijing, and the Phiri’s Esther and Catherine – no relation – do it whenever they face an international opponent in the boxing ring.
|Tribute to the Afronauts 2015, mixed media, |
251 x 192 cm by Stary Mwaba
With due respect to these outstanding flag-carriers, it can be argued that only an artist has the ability to fly the national flag higher than them, well figuratively, an artist has the ability to place the flag on the moon or mars and this is exactly what Lusaka-based artist Stary Mwaba did -- while he was in attending a one-year residency through a grant by KfW Stiftung for the International Studio Programme at Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin -- by creating work inspired by the late Zambian visionary Mukuka Nkoloso.
Berlin art critic and author, Kito Nedo gave a stimulating account of Mwaba’s work from his solo exhibition Life on Mars that was published in the high-profile contemporary German art magazine BE shortly after the exhibition in early 2015. Life on Mars was the culmination of a series of exhibitions that started with a show at the Lusaka National Museum in 2014.
“With respect to the space race, a definite ‘grand narrative’ has become dominant in the west: in the 1950s and 60s, the Soviet Union and the USA competed to achieve the first manned flight into space. On 12th April 1961 the Russians won a successful propaganda victory at this stage with Yuri Gagarin. But that – as the assemblage-images and installations by Zambian artist Stary Mwaba indicate -- is only part of the story,” writes Nedo
“It is largely unknown in the west that Zambia was also part of the space race in the 60s: close to the capital city Lusaka there was a very ambitious space flight program led by Mukuka Nkoloso, a translator, teacher and independence fighter honoured today as the father of Afrofuturism.”
|The Spaceship (D KALO-15), 2015 |
mixed media installation 235 x 130 x 120
cm by Stary Mwaba
Now, in case you were wondering, “Afrofuturism” is a term generally accepted to embody a literary and cultural aesthetic that gained ground among the African American creative community through the 1990s particularly made popular by artistes such as the jazz musician Sun Ra. In recent times popular groups like the Black Eyed Peas have been known to dabble in Afrofutristic nuances and imagery in their dress as well as music videos which often combine elements of science fiction with an “African” twist. Zimbabwean-born writer Panashe Chigumadzi describes Afrofuturism as “a cultural movement that increasingly reflects the current mood of optimism about the political and economic future of the continent. This, as I’ve discovered, is an important genre.” Anyway, on the African continent however, a good number of visual artists’ work has been labelled afrofutristic such as Wangechi Mutu and Cyrus Kabiru of Kenya, South African comic-book artist Loyiso Mkize and Zimbabwe-born Gerald Machona whose work Ndiri Afronaut (I am an afronaut) gained him international acclaim. But in any case it is interesting that the beginning of this movement should be attributed to Zambia and Nkoloso in particular as Nedo points out, after all Nkoloso did coin the term Afronaut which again Cristina de Middel a photographer and artist from the United Kingdom borrowed for her 2012 book The Afronauts, described as “a photobook about the short-lived Zambian space program in Southern Africa.”
Nevertheless, there is perhaps no such thing is claiming sole ownership of a philosophy but to a large extent Mwaba’s recent show was an attempt to reclaim not only Zambia’s positions in the space race but also the nation’s slot in inspiring contemporary African thought. That said, Nedo points out that archival images from the Zambia National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy, which Nkoloso founded on a farm outside Lusaka, hugely inspired the Mwaba’s work, and he also asks a pertinent question of what Afrofuturism means to Zambia today.
“What does that past Afrofuturism spirit of departure mean to Zambia today? He is also interested in the aesthetic-political content of the Nkoloso programme: its assertion of African space travel conjures a powerful counter-image to the dominant colonial narrative, which sees Africa merely as a backward, chaotic, low-tech part of the world”, observes Nedo.
|Title unknown, 2014 mixed media on canvas |
170 x 129 cm by Stary Mwaba
“It is easy to view the academy as some kind of joke. But in the country that had declared its independence from the United Kingdom on 24th October 1964, such utopian efforts were part of post-colonial euphoria. The cradle of the Afronaut movement lay in Lusaka: today pioneering figures like Nkoloso still electrify artists with an Afrofuturism tendency”.
Zambia fell out of the space race after Neil Armstrong landed on the moon on 21 July 1969, this thwarted Nkolosos plan to get the 17-year-old Afronoaut Matha Mwambwa and two cats on the moon before the Russians and the Americans.
Still, a closer look at Mwaba’s featured work will show concur that the artist has once again managed to transform himself making him a hard act to follow. In Lusaka, he is largely know as a painter, but in Berlin he showed some collages, and three dimensional mixed media installations among them The Spaceship (D KALO 15) inspired by Nkoloso’s spaceship, what is perhaps most important is that Mwaba is an artist of a humble academic background, but he was able to marry his recent practical work with complex conceptual notions which worked well for the Berlin crowd that is more accustomed to this type of theory-based work.
But this along with many other of Mwaba’s successes over the years is in itself problematic. Because he has managed to penetrate the global arena with no training except the apprenticeship he underwent with the late Lutanda Mwamba in his formative years, he remains an internationally exposed, workshop-trained artist who fuels the notion that academic training is not a prerequisite for success in the art world. While this is true to Mwaba and many other artists around the world, the fact remains that academic training is undeniably necessary for an artist in today’s global art world, just because Mwaba has made it does not mean everyone else should take the same route. Academic qualifications are not only a safe thing to have as an artist but with the impending streamlining of the creative sector in Zambia, one can imagine those with ‘papers’ stand a better chance at receiving artists grants, getting jobs within the industry and so on. Academic training also opens the mind to analytical thinking which can become useful in informing an artist’s work to a higher level.
Mwaba is arguably the most successful artist of his generation and certainly one of the most influential, as early, as 2008 he was selling up to K100, 000 (K100 Million old currency) in single shows which was a record on Zambian soil, he was only 31 at the time, and from his studio space in Lusaka promising artists such as David Makala, Mapopa Manda, Montford Chinunda and his own brother Ng'andwe Mwaba of all passed through his apprenticeship. It can be speculated that inspired by Mwaba none in this group has indicated any interested in formal training beyond artists workshops, this is perhaps because they have been inspired by an artist who is enjoying a run of success without it. (For further reading on Mwaba’s 2014 show, see Mwaba’s ‘Going To Mars’ sends Cheshire children over the moon on www.andrewmulenga.blogspot.com)