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Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Lessons to learn from ‘Colour n’ culture’

By Andrew Mulenga

Augustine Kagimu and Montford Chinunda, two promising Lusaka-based painters – a Ugandan and a Zambian respectively -- recently held an exhibition entitled ‘Colour n’ culture’ at the Henry Tayali Gallery in the Lusaka showgrounds from the 19th to 31st of March which raised a number of interesting issues in the areas of mentorship, imitation, determination and exhibition preparation.
After roughly a year of planning, the young artists hoped to show about 30 works between the two of them, but come opening night, less than 20 pieces were displayed in the gallery because the Visual Arts Council’s exhibition committee rejected most of the paintings by Chinunda declaring the works bared too much of a likeness to that of his mentor Stary Mwaba. Evidently, during the selection pieces a few days before the opening, the word “plagiarism” could be heard reverberating among the committee members at the gallery.

The Face Behind Plagiarism, 2016
(acrylic on canvas) by Montfort Chinunda
Remaining with only two approved works a night before the opening, Chinunda was compelled to create two more to at least replace his many rejected works; this is after he earlier decided to pull out threatening to cancel the show all together.

Working overnight, Chinunda was able to create two abstract paintings; one entitled ‘The face behind plagiarism’ in response to what he observed as victimisation and “The African Goddess” a huge canvas that he completed towards 11:00hrs in the morning of the opening day.
“Towards the opening I was very emotional because my work was rejected; imagine they were telling me that it was an act of plagiarism. I even wanted to quite but I was encouraged by my friend (Augustine) and a few other artists encourage me,” narrated the 25-year-old in an interview at the end of the exhibition.  

Despite the fact that he has been practicing as a visual artist for some years now and has exhibited extensively, like many of his mentors’ former apprentices he has often been observed as an artist who is neglecting to depart from the style of his coach.

The African Goddess, 2016 (acrylic on canvas)
by Montford Chinunda
This raises the question of; how long should it for an apprentice to fully shed the coating of his or her mentor, or should this even happen at all. It also raises questions on whether Zambian artists discuss issues around mentorship, imitation, art movements and indeed plagiarism. Seeing plagiarism is considered a professional fraud is the word itself not too strong to apply in Chinunda’s case?
One of the best examples; the work that was rejected was Nchimunya Mubotu a portrait of a young contemplative young lady in a seated position. While the subject is depicted with pictorial accuracy, the background is a blurry abstraction of undulating colours, a style which does indeed evoke Stray Mwaba’s. Among Mwaba’s signature themes are portraits inspired by notions of youthful anxiety, which often feature an adolescent boy or girl staring vacantly ahead as if lost in deep thought these would every so often have shadowy figures lurking in the background or towering above them as if to personify childhood fears. Mwaba’s style has won the appreciation of many Zambian and Euro-American collectors and has placed him among the top selling Zambian artists, which leaves no surprize that his apprentices may want to emulate it.

Nchimunya Mubotu, 2015 (acrylic on canvas)
by Montford Chinunda
Anyhow, Chinunda maintained that he did not see this recent happening as a glitch but insisted that he considered it as part of the learning process. Besides practicing as a visual artist, he has been involved in many other activities such as teaching art informally at the Kasisi Orphanage in Lusaka. During his school days, he was chairman of an art club at Kalomo High School and was once awarded the best artist in the District Junior Theatre Art Festival by the National Theatre Art Association of Zambia.
While his fellow exhibiting artist, Kagimu’s work may also show hints of inspiration by other artists, he did not face the same predicament as Chinunda and all his paintings were approved by the selection committee in the first round.

Dancer, 2015 (acrylic on canvas)
by Augustine Kagimu
Kagimu’s paintings show an aptitude for colour usage. These bright colours and large format canvases played a significant role in the otherwise gaping studio space that was hard to fill due to the decision to offload the bulk of Chinundas work from the exhibition.
In Dancer, one of the more impressive of his works in the exhibition, the 28-year-old reduces the human form to a series of triangular and rectangular shapes all the while suggesting the nonrepresentational image of a dancer which is further highlighted by simple white lines that outlines the head, arms and legs.

While he does exhibit this proficiency in painting by day, Kagimu is creative director in an advertising company who also dabbles in photography, film-making, motion graphics, print where he puts together magazines, books, pamphlets and brochures together. Academically, he holds a 2011 BA (Hons) Graphic Design, Nottingham Trent University; he also attended the KBU International College, Malaysia and the graduate of International School Of Lusaka, Zambia.
Faith, 2016 (acrylic on canvas)
by Augustine Kagimu
Indeed there are lessons to learn from Chinunda and Kagimu’s show. As much as they are considered upstarts on the Zambian art scene, the opening night was a resounding success if entertainment and attendance are anything to go by. On the night, more refreshments and snacks were flowing than can be usually found during the openings of exhibitions by so-called senior artists. Surely, there must be something this young duo is doing right, and there is no harm in the senior crop learning a thing or two in terms of event organising.

All in all, the exhibition exposed a lack of synergy on the part of Zambian artists. It reveals that young artists need as much guidance as possible and when their work is rejected by bodies like the VAC exhibitions committee; the reasons should be put across to them as amicably as possible. Chinunda’s predicament also shows that there is a general lack of art debates, artists are clearly not discussing their work or debating issues around mentorship, copyright and indeed “plagiarism”. The fact that art education at higher learning institution level is inadequate in Zambia is more reasons for bodies such as VAC to go out of their way in promoting gatherings for professional guidance, particularly for the less exposed younger crop of artists.

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