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Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Zambian art scene, emerging power house - Wilkinson

By Andrew Mulenga
Internationally recognised economist Betty Wilkinson is renowned for her expertise in financial inclusion, public management systems and rural development across Asia and the African continent, but on the Zambian art scene she is also well known as a voracious art collector and all round friend of the arts.
Art collector Betty Wilkinson at the
Lusaka National Museum, Zambia
Last week she flew in from Manila, for a job interview and was willing to take a moment to chat about her passion for art. Speaking at the Lusaka National Museum where she was found enjoying Twashibuka, the on-going graduation exhibition by Zambia Open University (ZAOU) students, she gave insights into what she thinks about the Zambian art scene, why she started collecting art, as well as what it is that draws her towards particular works.
“Let me start with a funny story of when I first came to Zambia in 1991. So we arrived in the country and my husband was an artist, then he says I am going to check out this Visual Arts Council where he bumped into William Miko. When my husband introduced himself as a sculptor, William put two blocks of soap stone and some chisels on a table and asked my husband to prove it, and he did, he carved an elephants head from the two pieces to which William responded, yes you are an artist, this was the beginning of a long-time friendship,” she said remembering the 1990s when she lived and worked in Zambia.
She explained that she developed an eye for art through interaction with her great grandmother who was a painter, although her mother also had a strong influence as she used to take Wilkinson and her siblings around museums and art galleries when she was a child growing up in Pasadena, California in the United States.
“When you are young, you don’t understand the value of this. What I realized growing up is that you develop an eye by looking all the time, which is why when I came here to the museum today, I almost wept with joy when I saw a group of four classrooms of school children coming in for a tour. I realized that in Zambia too, young children are being exposed to art, they are seeing art, experiencing it and feeling it,” she added.
She stresses that despite having a great-grandmother who was an artist as well as having been married to one, she does not possess any artistic talent; however, she is a very visual person, who knows what she likes when she sees it.
“When I came to Zambia, the first thing that struck me when I started looking at art is what a gift Zambia is to the world. Artists are extremely visually expressive in whatever media, and so I used to spend time with artists looking at what they were doing and how they were doing it. Then I would ask them how is the work connected to their history, family or world view, I realised that sometimes it’s just about rich expressions of daily life. So expressions of your world, expressions of your life, this is uniquely strong in Zambia” she said.

Although Wilkinson’s collection spans an array of work from all over the world, she has about 50 paintings and sculptures by Zambian artists on permanent display at her home, making the bulk of her collection. During her years in Zambia, she became a collector because she fell in love with the art but also because she had the resources and there were artists that she wanted to encourage their developmental stages.
“Another aspect that has been important to me as a collector is getting to know artists personally, I’m fortunate this is a developing art scene so all the artists have been accessible over the years. Also being around artists is fun, when they are working, I remember how Lawrence Yombwe would use actual grass to paint grass instead of a brush, I was fascinated by this,” she added.
She admitted that many times she has felt in the wrong when she buys a work by a Zambian artist and carries it abroad so she has found herself in the habit of donating them locally, citing them as examples of Zambian heritage.
Wilkinson is pleased that Zambian pupils are being
exposed to art galleries and museums
“There are some works that I believe should not leave the country, this is why I often donate work to the Lechwe Art Trust the trust is one of the unique aspects of the Zambian art scene, you actually have a fundamental collection of art development in the modern scene, no place else I know of has this, over the past 40 to 50 years you have outstanding representations of artists from this country,” she explained.
Wilkinson summed up her thoughts by pointing out three aspects of the Zambian art scene that she is pleased with at the moment.
“First is the advent of the open university, if you can have 50 graduates from all the provinces every year, people will realize how important art is and that it can be central to their lives. Second is the emergence of new galleries, 37d gallery is an important one, of course there has been a lot of agreement and disagreement about the gallery, in my view there is room for everyone,” she explained.
“Third is the aspect of children visiting art galleries like I have seen here, perhaps this is also because there are  more teachers getting higher education in art, also you have an education system that is beginning to support art more actively, all these things are very exciting.”
She had been talking to European and South African collectors recently and a good number of them have taken interest in visiting Zambia because they believe good things are happening here.
“I think the African Art Museum in the Smithsonian will have to wake up and see what is going on here. I also think with the increase of Chinese investors in Zambia we will hopefully see them collecting Zambian art. The Zambian art scene is without doubt an emerging power house. I’m here to interview for a job, if I get it I will make it my business to work on supporting the documentation of artists through books and online media,” said Wilkinson.
She is currently back in Manila awaiting the results of the said job interview and is hopeful that she will be able to return to live and work in Zambia. For 12 years she worked for the Asian Development Bank as Director of the Public Management, Financial Sector and over the last 35 years, she has worked worldwide as a banker, a donor representative, a field researcher and policy advisor, and a developing country government senior official. Her academic qualifications include a degree with honours in Business Economics from the University of California, and graduate studies at Cornell University in Agricultural Finance.
Meanwhile, on 23 January, during its annual general meeting in Lusaka, the Zambia National Visual Arts Council voted in a new National Executive Committee. According to a press statement published this week, the new executive is as follows: National Chairperson: Geoffrey  Phiri, National Vice Chairperson: Kate Naluyele, National General Secretary: Oliver Sakanyi, National Vice Secretary: Othiniel  Lingwabo, National Treasurer: Adrian Ngoma, and the Committee Members being, Sydney Siansangu, Sarah Chibombwe, Albert Kata, Ngandwe Mwaba and Tom Phiri. The release states that with immediate effect the new leadership intends to find a corporate organization or NGO that would be willing to help renovate the Henry Tayali Gallery, reach out to schools and other organizations in creating awareness of the visual arts, partner with Hotel and Tourism Institute and form a memorandum of understanding, encourage more visits to the Henry Tayali Gallery through quality exhibitions and strengthen communication with the National Art Council.
For the moment, the Henry Tayali Gallery in the Lusaka Showgrounds is hosting  Vision Galore 2, a solo exhibition of paintings by Zenzele Chulu,  the show also introduces Neil Shaw, a filmmaker from Cape Town, South Africa who will be documenting Chulu’s Schematic Tantrums project.   

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