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Monday, 22 February 2016

Perspectives of urban life

By Andrew Mulenga

Over the years, perhaps the signature interpretation of city life among Zambian painters is the bustling market scene that depicts colourfully clad traders with their stacks of fruit and vegetables, or hawkers with their wares strewn across pavements.
One Zambia One Nation (2015), oil and acrylic
on canvas by Christopher Simbule
A host of cityscape artists from maestros such as Poto Kabwe to snapshot painters like Raphael Chilufya and Albert Kata or the ever entertaining Mulenga Chafilwa, the urban market scene has been a long-time favourite. Now, judging from his recent work, Christopher Simbule can be added to the lists, but what is exciting is that he brings a whole new touch to the genre.

A good example is the painting One Zambia One, the title in itself, derived from a nationalist slogan evokes notions of a Zambian utopia but so does the whole scenery when taken in. The composition splits the painting in half horizontally, with a market scene in the foreground and an urban skyline with towering skyscrapers in the background. The high-rise buildings, although meant to be in the background, are not faded out as is often the rule of perspective, instead they are bold and just as vivid as everything in the foreground lending a frame to the painting, and one of the buildings has a golden cross on top of it that draws the eye like a focal point, perhaps the building is a church alluding to the declaration of Zambia as a Christian nation.
The painting’s foreground may be even more interesting, unlike the average market scene that depicts littered surroundings, it appears exceptionally clean and gives the impression of an airport instead of a market place, all the individual figures in the painting appear well dressed some even over-dressed, the stalls are fully stocked and the shoppers have both hands full with parcels, by all means, it perpetuates a positive extrapolation of city life, perhaps how a perfect African city is supposed to be.

A painting entitled Another Day is yet another cityscape that reflects the daily hustle of
Another Day (2015), oil and acrylic on
canvas by Christopher Simbule
urban life. More than half the painting is covered by multi-storey buildings, a chaotic skyline with a multi-point linear perspective that again casts tonal gradation to the wind. In effect the buildings subdue the foreground giving the painting an abstract impression. A closer look reveals that the painting is framed by two ominous looking characters, one to the left with a hat and cigar and one to the right with a hard brow line. These characters have a similar line of sight as the viewer and their eyes seem to be fixed on the small group of people up and about their daily lives in the city, maybe they intend to snatch a handbag from the lady concentrating on her phone or from the gentleman in a suit, who knows. The perspective is so cleverly laid out that again it is only under close scrutiny that one would notice the groups of people at the base of the buildings. Essentially, as the name suggests, the painting depicts just another day in the city, with merchants, shoppers, passers-by and pickpockets.
 The Club, another of Simbule’s urban scenes gives a glimpse of nightlife. This too has an interesting composition that places the viewer as an observer in a night club, sitting at a table full of drinks, with cell phone in hand.  In the immediate background is a group of about 12 revellers, all male, save for one in a short, tight yellow dress who appears to be the only one in the group that is seated. Their eyes are all fixed on the game of pool in the middle of the composition, behind them is the silhouette of a live band that stretches from one corner of the canvas to the other and frames the top of the painting. The painting no doubt mirrors the party scene that has become the essence of city life any many cases. But again in artistic terms the composition is a play on perspective in four distinctive layers from the observer in the foreground, the pool table, the revellers behind it and the live band in the back.

In the three paintings reviewed here, Simbule’s horizontal perspectives can be easily sliced into layers because they have a deceptively naïve composition that is further accentuated by the geometric nature of his subject matter as well as the flatness of colours and occasional disregard for tonal gradation.
The Club (2013), oil on board by Christopher Simbule
“Well, all the cityscapes come from my imagination and are not based on actual cities, but are supposed to remind you of some place, and these paintings I like to play around with perspective, you know foreground and background” explains the artist.
Simbule is in fact a multi-media artist who is also a worthy sculptor that works with found objects and papier-mâché from time to time, but depending on his mood or drive, he will switch from painting to other materials.

As for his proficiency, the artist can boast a solid art foundation having attended the Mzilikazi Art Centre in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe where he attained a two-year Fine Art Diploma in 1992. For the record, this is the art centre that laid the ground for the late Zambian virtuoso Henry Tayali who showed there between 1964 and 1965 at the age of 15 becoming the first African to exhibit in Bulawayo. Like Tayali, Simbule is testament to the long existent cross-pollination between the Zimbabwean and Zambian art scenes.

Before attending Mzilikazi, Simbule attended Founders High School which he explains laid a very strong emphasis on art education. Born to a Zambian father and Zimbabwean mother, Simbule and his siblings moved to Zimbabwe when his parents divorced, but his stay in Zimbabwe would end up being a good turn on his part.
“The goodness when I was in secondary school in Zimbabwe, we had a full, professional art studio, right in the school that we used to attend four times a week. Also every week we used to display our work at Mthwakazi Youth Centre,” he explains.

He says in Zimbabwe every township had a youth centre where art would be displayed regularly and this is what gave him gallery confidence. By the time he started exhibiting in the Bulawayo and Harare National galleries after college, he had already gained confidence as an artist. He recalls it was shortly after this period when he decided to return to Zambia to see his father, now a retired Zambia Airforce pilot who was flying local routes with Zambia Airways.

“I remember it just like yesterday when my father took me to the Lusaka show grounds to show me where my fellow artists were found. It was Valentine’s Day 1993 on a Sunday just like this year. This was my first time at the Henry Tayali Gallery,” he recalls.

Untitled cityscape (2015) oil and acrylic
on board by Christopher Simbule
He remembers being received warmly by the senior artists who were still trying to get the building expanded at the time; these were the early days of the Visual Arts Council (VAC).
“Even though they were busy they were all very good to me. Most of them are late deceased now. All the legends Martin Phiri, Godfrey Setti, Eddie Mubanga and Lutanda Mwamba. Its only David Chirwa and Smart Banda who are still alive. Smart was the gallery attendant and he was ordered to show me around,” he says.

He recalls that he immediately enrolled with Imiti Ikula Empanga (loosely today’s seedlings are tomorrows forests), VAC’s youth programme where the founding chairman, Phiri would personally assist the group with free materials.
“A was having a nice time working at VAC but a year later, my father died and I found myself disorganized always traveling from Zambia to Zimbabwe trying to get things right. I haven’t been to Zimbabwe since 2000 though,” he says.

Simbule was born in Mbala in 1971, he is a happily married father of four girls and like his late mother, and his wife is a medical practitioner. Dependant on art alone, one can only imagine how he gets by with huge family obligations, seeing there are no support structures for artists like him no matter how gifted you are. How artists survive in between the sale of a painting remains a mystery. All works shown here can be viewed and purchased from the VAC at the Henry Tayali Gallery in the Lusaka showgrounds.

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