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Monday, 4 January 2016

Reflecting on time through art, decay and the impermanence of life

By Andrew Mulenga

In an interview shortly after his Master in Fine Art exhibition titled Time in between on 12 and 13 November at Rhodes University where he was in attendance for two years before returning home to Zambia, painter and art lecturer Patrick Mumba, who is also Head of Education Department (Social Sciences, Art and Music Diploma Programmes), also called upon Zambian professionals in the diaspora to consider returning home to help improve professional standards rather than criticize the status quo from abroad.

Dawn, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 168cm x 260cm
by Patrick Mumba
By style, Mumba is an abstract painter, meaning his work is none-representational and does not intend to mirror reality, so in works such as Dawn, you do not expect to see a picture-perfect image of the rising sun on the horizon, but subtle references to the colours and the mood during that time of day, furthermore, in the context of his latest body of work, Dawn represents the time in between night and day.

“The abstract paintings in my exhibition address ‘in –between time’, engaging with the process of ageing and decaying. In this body of work I have painted various stages of ageing and death in living creatures and in plants, and the decay of objects and materials. I have linked this to the aesthetic process of moving from representational art to abstract art. My practice is concerned not only with the aesthetics of these paintings but also, more importantly, with translating each specific theme into the formal qualities of abstraction,” he explained.

Memories of Mpatamato, acrylic on canvas,
130cm x 168cm by Patrick Mumba
He pointed out that some of the works on display were inspired by notions of colonial greed, environmental concerns and personal experience driven by the concept that life itself is always a temporary situation, an idea he developed as Time in Between, the beginning and the ending, the young and the aged, the new and the old.

“In my practice I break down these dichotomies, questioning how abstraction engages with the relative notion of time and how this links to the process of ageing and decaying and how it affects our life span,” he added. The author was in fact privileged to accompany the artist during field research when he was cataloguing various stages of decay and corrosion which involved taking photographs at dump sites and scrap yards to reference elements such as tone and texture in his paintings.

My brothers wreath, 2015, acrylic on canvas,
168cmx260cm by Patrick Mumba
Independent research, under the observation of two supervisors, one for practical work (painting) and one for theory (writing), were the two main components of his MFA, and designed for substantially experienced artists, the complete study programme itself did not involve course work or the attending of lectures, which in turn demanded a considerable amount of discipline with regards a productive work ethic. Mumba did however attend numerous departmental roundtables as well as inter-university colloquiums as he is also an active member of the Visual and Performing Arts of Africa (ViPAA), a professional body of arts scholars that has its base in the Fine Art Department at Rhodes University.

Concerning his work process, Mumba confessed the challenges of the conditions in his studio space at the university which is situated in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape, where the weather is generally cold and wet all year round, not exactly an ideal setting for painting in acrylic, his preferred medium, more so in the kaleidoscope of brilliant colours that have become the signature of his palette. Therefore his painting process was quite slow and calculated, a layer of paint was only applied over another when it was completely dry to avoid the colours becoming murky and losing their brilliance. Under these conditions, it took him on average, one month to complete a painting, depending on the weather at times it took even longer.

Professor Tanya Poole gives an address on Mumba's
work as he listens on with wife Cynthia and daughter Busuma
Since the academic requirements demand that the exhibition be accompanied by theoretical research compiled in the form of a mini thesis for examination, for this he critiqued the western notion that “Africa abstract art” is not indeed “African” but a mere copy of “western Modernism”.

“Together the exhibition and the thesis analyse in depth abstraction and its role in’ African Modernism’. I have also related the theoretical and practical analysis of abstraction to scholarly debates on abstraction and ‘African Modernism’ arguing for multiple African Modernisms as, the notion of a single African Modernism is too homogenous. I have used a study of abstraction to interrogate notions of so called ‘African- ness’ or ‘Zambian-ness’ whilst simultaneously challenging the Western stereotypical view of African Modern Art”, said Mumba.

Mumba also spent long, late hours writing his
thesis in the Rhodes University library
A good portion of the paintings also address issues that concern global warming and climate change which is timely as according to scientists, the planet has experienced one of the hottest years on record. Similarly, the works also address deforestation in Zambia particularly in line with charcoal consumption as well as the despoiling of the landscape through the copper mining industry on the copper belt province where Mumba grew up.
Reflecting on his type of work and the Zambian art scene, he observed that the scene is relatively small and currently abstract art remains rare. He stressed that there is a tendency for Zambians and foreign collectors to think that abstract art is the preserve of Westerners and that Zambian artists should produce paintings that reflect picturesque scenes of wildlife, market places, landscapes and cultural ceremonies such as the Makishi. However, he cautioned artists against merely assuming an abstract style because it has a some what decorative character, but the work should be theoretically informed by research on issues that concern society at large. Likewise, even for those that paint in a representational manner, he advised them against merely reproducing the favoured market scenes and landscapes, but the work should be informed by key issues that can engage the audience to catalyse social change and promote public discourse across various sectors of society locally and globally.

Mumba shares a light moment with fellow
postgraduates Cassie (PhD) and Chiro (MFA)
He appealed to Zambian artists to make the effort of informing their work with research and try to document it as best as they can if contemporary Zambian art is to provide material for critical theoretic engagement as is the prevailing demand for international art practice not only within academia but on the worldwide art scene.

He pointed this out admitting the many challenges that Zambian artists face such as the lack of professional art critics, forums, journals as well as private and public support structures for their practice stressing for instance that Zambia, since independence in 1964 has had no school of Fine Art at any Government universities, and the highest qualification one can get from a public institution is an Art Teachers Diploma which is offered by his department at Evelyn Hone College  he  is hopeful that returning home, his newly acquired attitude will be placed into good use in trying to improve the situation although he admitted that this cannot be done single-handedly. He appreciated the efforts private institutions such as the Zambia Open University which produced its firs BA Fine Arts graduates last year, but acknowledged that while it was a good start, there is a lot of room for reinforcing the academic staff and improving the training facilities  if the graduates were to meet internationally accepted standards.

With reference to private support of the arts, he said artists will have to reorganise themselves if they are to be taken seriously and they should seriously venture into a door to door lobbying of corporate houses to sponsor exhibitions accompanied by catalogues and art books.

Concerning the latter, he bemoaned the fact that despite contemporary Zambian art being vibrant since independence, there are no books that have been written about it and he therefore faced serious challenges with regards reference material during the course of his research and constantly had to refer to books from West and South Africa which ironically, are mostly written by authors who have not lived on the African continent but have only experienced it momentarily.

Mumba adds his Masters degree to the BA Fine arts with honours he obtained from the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art in London in 1994 and the Art Teachers Diploma he acquired from the Evelyn Hone College in the 1980s. He has been a teacher and lecturer all his professional life, and ever the educationist, he advised artists that it is never too late to further ones studies if he can go on leave for two years and advance his own while in his early 50s, although he will not admit it, there is little doubt that he will pursue a PhD in the next few years, but for now, there is work to be done, in the time in between. Do not miss the two part series “2015 art scene highlights” starting next week.

1 comment:

  1. I am sorry that I did not meet him...It has been very lonely working as an artist in the surrounds of Grahamstown and I would have loved to have met him and shared some ideas with him. I really do hope he makes a success of his career as well as opens up the visual arts in Zambia. All the very best.