By Andrew Mulenga
Contemporary Zambian art is perhaps one of the most scarcely covered areas of interest not only in terms of media exposure but also with regards researched books, exhibition catalogues and biographical books.
Concerning the latter, the prevailing predicament indicates that despite Zambia’s art scene having enjoyed considerable vibrancy over the past 50 years, none of its key players have had their biographies published in book form. For instance, apart from rare archival material on the founding fathers of contemporary Zambian art such as the late Henry Tayali or Akwila Simpasa, no books have been written about them. Similarly, Zambian greats that are still alive and working like the sculptor Flinto Chandia whose contribution and influence remains immeasurable have no books published on them.
At present, in case you want to read the biography of a Zambian artist in print, there are only two publications to turn to, The Lechwe Trust Collection Catalogue and Art In Zambia by Gabrielle Ellison, while both can be acknowledged as well-intended efforts, they only provide for snippets of biographies, a page each, therefore Livingstone-based artist Agness Buya Yombwe’s autobiographical Kudumbisiana (Dialogue): ‘She is not an artist’ scores a first as a stand-alone, detailed artist’s profile.
Although the publication was intended to coincide with her solo exhibition of recent works held at 37d Gallery in Lusaka late last year, it includes images of some of her earliest works, such as the piece Kneeling Figure (1989), created when she was still at the Evelyn Hone College. The book contains about 140 colour images of works on various themes covering her entire artistic career in a myriad of styles and often unconventional materials.
The word “Kudumbisiana” in her native Tumbuka loosely translates to “dialogue” in the English language. This can be read as her artistic life’s work being a constant “dialogue” with society, addressing its broader concerns such as child abuse, matrimonial harmony, traditional customs, faith and so on.
The phrase ‘She is not an artist’, which also serves as the book’s subtitle is self-referential in that it is a personal testimony to what happened to her at the launch of her career when she was to stage an exhibition alongside husband Lawrence Yombwe, when the couple were still engaged. The exhibition organisers excluded all her work, save one, Kneeling Figure, citing the rest as handicraft at the same time declaring ‘She is not an artist’.
This is just a morsel of how personal the book really is, it provides never published, intimate insights into her personal challenges and triumphs, her journey as an artist, a daughter, wife, mother, educator, and arts administrator and of course a Zambian woman raised and wed by means of traditionally African cultural values at the trusses of constant modernism. Her tale reveals the willpower and optimism that speaks to many of our Zambian women.
In its general layout, the book foreword by National Arts Council chairperson Mulenga Kapwepwe which leads into Buya Yombwe’s artist’s statement that touches on various aspects of Zambian society such as the declaration of the country as a Christian nation and the general failure of its citizens to strictly adhere to the core values of the faith, this section also argues that in this day and age Zambian culture and tradition continues to provide loopholes for the marginalization of the girl child and women particularly in the areas of education and decision making. She also highlights anomalies within the political arena and governance system citing issues related to tribalism, unemployment, rapid urbanization and the high cost of living to name a few. It is these areas that she believes need “Kudumbisiana (Dialogue)”, Zambians will need to sit down and map the way forward through dialogue.
The artist’s statement is followed by a full biography that mentions her years as an art teacher, locally for 7 years and in Botswana for 10 years, it also highlights her many international accolades and exhibitions. This is followed by an introduction to the artist and her work; it discusses her earliest years going as far as her upbringing even mentioning as a little girl, the first portrait she ever made was an exact likeness of her father, a drawing she had to tear up when her mother for some reason declared it a taboo.
The next thirteen segments serve as short chapters that discuss various aspects of her work; these are broken by colourful samples of work she has created over two decades. These short chapters are followed by yet another biography in timeline form; here you will find another list of accolades, and local and international exhibitions.
|Agnes Buya Yombwe at her studio in Livingstone - Picture by Isaya Higa|
The book closes with a seven-page essay entitled Who Is Buya Anyway, written by close friend and colleague William Miko. Miko and Buya Yombwe’s friendship dates back to her college days when they were both students of the late Martin Phiri, the firebrand who was the mastermind in the creation of the Zambia Visual Arts Council. Phiri rallied only three of his students Harry Kamboni, Agnes Buya Yombwe and William Miko to trigger what would become the most crucial shift in the history of contemporary Zambian art, the episode is narrated in detail in Miko’s essay.
The book’s contribution to the current state of art in Zambia is immense because not only is it a detailed biography of one of country’s leading artists, it also interrogates what we have been taught to accept as art when the author revisits the comment “she is not an artist”. Its general importance to the public is that it has given an understanding into the challenges, agonies as well as joys of being a Zambian woman. To the student of culture it gives an insight into customs such as the mbusa marriage rituals which inform much of the artists work, to the art student it is a guide on how to be consistent in your work and how to inform your work by the broader concerns of society. To the collector, it allows you to own over 100 samples of work by a top Zambian artist. It is surely a clarion call for all Zambian artists to consider having their own biographies published.
The book is available for purchase at the Livingstone Art Gallery, Ceramic Shop at Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula International Airport, The Henry Tayali Centre, Chaminuka Lodge Lusaka, Twaya Art Gallery Intercontinental Lusaka, 37d Gallery, Zambia Open University Art Department and Wayi Wayi Art Studio and Gallery in Livingstone.
Title - Agnes Buya Yombwe – Kudumbisiana (Dialogue): ‘She is not an artist’
Author (s) – Agnes Buya Yombwe with foreword by Mulenga Kapwepwe and essay by William B. Miko
Publishers – Wayi Wayi Art Studio and Gallery
Images – 140
Pages - 72