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Tuesday, 26 April 2016

The ‘Donation’ – Pt. 1

By Andrew Mulenga

In case you have not yet seen it, ‘Donation’ the on-going exhibition at the Lusaka National Museum that honours the outgoing Norwegian embassy in Lusaka’s donation of art to the Lechwe Trust a charitable organization for the visual arts in Zambia committed to reining in outstanding works against sale abroad is still showing for the next few days.   

For a major collection of art that has been accumulated for just over a 20 year period, 40 individual pieces does seem small, more so if these works belong to a foreign embassy that has been one of the biggest supporters of the visual arts in Zambia, having played an active role through funding artists workshops, exhibitions and scholarships by way of its bilateral agencies.

Togetherness, 1982, white and grey
marble 113 x 34 x 24 cm by Robert Nyirenda
But it can be understood that a single building – which is not a gallery or museum – can only have so many works on permanent display. Undeniably, during their stay the Norwegians accumulated more than five times the volume of work in the collection, seeing to a large extent ,works by Zambian artists may have found themselves in the personal collections of diplomats that have rotated at the embassy over the years and have understandably wound up in Norway or other parts of the world which is why it may be seen as a plus that work by some of the country’s most influential artists of the past few decades will not leave the country but should stay here in the provisionally safe custody of the Lechwe Trust.

While there is a generally held perception that contemporary Zambian art is essentially figurative and characterized by quixotic representations of everyday life, a genre that has over the years become the Zambian signature in fulfilment of the preferences of foreign collectors, particularly those from the greater diplomatic community such as the Norwegians themselves, the collection is a strange mix of sentimental rural scenes and radical abstract deconstructions that bare complex philosophical underpinnings when it comes to the two dimensional work. But with regards the three dimensional work, vis-à-vis the sculptures and ceramics, all of them have a radically abstract impulse even though they were created by artists with an incredible aptitude for fully representational work. For instance, Flinto Chandia’s sculpture Here I am is a combination of two curvilinear marble splinters and an orb, or his Mother and child (1999) which includes two elliptical shapes that represent the heads and a single, ivory-coloured main section that represents the bodies and evokes the appearance of two snuggling figures. Another set of equally powerful sculptures is a sophisticated wooden piece by Friday Tembo (1962 – 2004) entitled They love each other, but they are shy (1998). Tembo was the founder of Ulendo art studio, a sculpture workshop in
Breast-feeding Mother, 1993, acrylic on
canvas, 120 x 79 cm, by Julia Malunga
Lusaka’s Linda Township, a high density slum. He taught his many students how to work hard woods such as ebony, mubanga and mukwa that was preferably used as supports for pit latrines because of its non-corrosive qualities, when the residents of Linda began the transformation of their sewer systems to septic tanks; they did away with the old wood preferring brick and concrete. Tembo and his band of apprentices would then harvest this discarded wood for use at the studio. Two of his students John Miti and Jesat Mbewe also have works Africa World Cup (2009) and Zilile Ng’oma (2005) respectively in the Norwegian collection. The sculptures also feature a series of abstract marble carvings by David Chirwa that feature his distinguishable style that is characterized by a combination of course and smooth textures on their surfaces. Eddie Mumba one of Zambia’s foremost subtractive sculptors who is also a lecturer at the Evelyn Hone college has a fascinating selection of wood and metal pieces in the collection, one of the most interesting being a large porcupine meticulously fashioned from reclaimed metal bars. Robert Nyirenda (1958 to 1998) who started working in wood at the tender age of 12, came to Lusaka in 1968 and started working in soap stone and later granite and marble also has work in the show. His style is particularly distinctive because he worked in an era – particularly in Zambia -- when power tools were extremely expensive and therefore out of reach for artists. His works have a course mallet and chisel feel to them with distinct surfaces that bare a charming jaggedness. Andrew Makromalis a versatile artist who is also one of the country’s very few ceramists has two earthenware vessels in his familiar misshapen style as part of the collection.

As earlier alluded, the two-dimensional works in the collection are both representational and sentimental with a little exceptions, these being a few abstract paintings by Vincentio Phiri, Patrick Mumba and William Miko. Phiri is a celebrated abstract expressionist on the Zambian art scene; all his three works Back Yard (1997), Power of Love (1997) and Wandengeya Road (1997) are in his distinctive, totally abstract manner reducing the value of his paintings to swift lines and kaleidoscopic colours that evoke motion. The works in this collection are a rare example of the artist branching away from his preferred circular brush and palette knife strokes.

Similarly the works of Mumba, a Master of Fine Art Graduate from Rhodes University and a lecturer in Fine Art at the Evelyn Hone College in Lusaka is another one of Zambia’s leading abstract painters that have adopted a totally nonfigurative style he has two very different works in the collection, one is from his Messages from Our Ancestors series and features tiny, multi-coloured boxes embellished with an array of idiosyncratic symbols conceived by the artist himself and the other is a haphazard explosion of colour and line that totally eliminates the assumption of any shape or form.

Miko, also the curator of the exhibition, possesses a Master of Fine Art degree from Middlesex University he is also a senior Fine Art lecturer at the Zambia Open University. Not only is he an academic and outspoken interlocutor of the visual arts but one of the country’s leading full and semi-abstract painters. While he is a well-rounded realistic painter and sculptor, his single work in this collection is one of his distinctive crowd scenes executed in his “mark-making” style, a technique that comprises making multi-coloured slashes of paint on canvas, his work Market Place (1989) is a typical example of the style.

Here I am, 1997, ebony, sand-stone, metal,
122 x 71 x 48.5 cm by Flinto Chandia
Also in the collection are a series of drawings by Shadreck Simukanga (1955 – 2004) one of Zambia’s most influential artists, a master draftsman, skilled painter and art teacher under whose hands some of the country’s most prominent young artists have passed. All three figurative works were done in the late 1980s these are The Shoe Repair, a Mother and Child ensemble and a landscape that features a bushy outcrop.

Style Kunda’s paintings, Township and Chatting respectively demonstrate how the artist seamlessly shifts from a representational to abstract technique. Considered a veteran, Kunda remains one of the few artists that have been active consistently over a 40 year period.

Dean Nsabashi another of the country’s veteran painters expresses himself in acrylic on canvas, often picking everyday life as his inspiration with women and children as his subject matter, Feeding the community, his only piece in this collection is a typical example.

Dabson Njobvu a self-taught artist who spent over a decade in East Africa, is a rare oil paint virtuoso identifiable by his meticulous attention to detail and penchant for landscapes with gullies, rivers, forest thickets and village scenes. One of his typical renditions is Mother and child breast feeding which is in this collection. Njobvu’s work is not the only one with a nursing subject, Julia Malunga’s (1964 – 1997) Breast feeding mother (1993) is themed along similar lines and executed in her spotted-colour technique it is a charming mother and child ensemble. Although she died at the age of 33, Malunga remains an influential figure in Zambian art history as she is the only female chairperson of the Visual Arts Council of Zambia. Malunga studied Art & Design at the defunct Africa Literature Centre in Mindolo, Kitwe and worked as a graphic designer in the media industry.

The collection also has six prints by three pioneer artists namely Gijsbert Witkamp, Cynthia Zukas and Henry Tayali (1943 – 1987). Witkamp’s The Wall (1986) and Shape of the house (1987) are two specimens of his mastery in the usage of negative and positive space. Witkamp arrived in Zambia from Holland in 1976 and has been active on the art scene ever since taking up many apprentices in printmaking at the Evelyn Hone College printmakers workshops in the 1970s. During his MA Anthropology studies, he did extensive research on indigenous Zambian cultural ceremonies with particular interest in the Makishi of North Western Province. He is also passionate about documenting the Zambian art scene and his well-researched texts on his Art in Zambia Blog give an insightful glimpse in to the Zambian art scene.

A 1999 lithograph of three calabashes is the only work by Zukas in the collection. Although she is known for depicting colourful pastoral scenes in oil and watercolour that are inspired by a small family farm outside the city of Lusaka where she often takes sanctuary, her true passion is that of printmaking, she passionately tutored many artists during the Evelyn Hone College workshops in the 1970s and subsequently donated her own press to the institution. Zukas has been active on the Zambian art scene since 1964 and through the Lechwe Trust she has relentlessly supported the visual arts through scholarships, commissions and exhibitions. Her contribution in promoting art has not gone unrecognized, Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II of England awarded an MBE to Zukas, in acknowledgment of her services to visual art and to charitable work in Zambia.

Two untitled 1978 and 1982 crowd scenes as well as, The madalas by the fireside (1982) and The Chief and his people (1985) mark Tayali’s presence in the collection. The four works show a subtler side of the artist well known to be an all-rounder, dabbling in sculpture, painting and academia. Tayali launched his career in the early 1960s in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia at a very young age, upon returning home to Zambia he later proceeded to study a B.A. (Fine Art) at Makerere University in Uganda and an M.A., Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, Germany.

The “Donation” to the Lechwe Trust will consolidate a collection of over 200 works by Zambian artists that date back to the 1960s further reinforcing an already splendid collection of contemporary Zambian art.

*This article is an abridged version of the text for the exhibition catalogue Donation written by Andrew Mulenga; look out for a follow-up article that features remarks from ambassador Ofstad, Cynthia Zukas, William Miko and a Zambian artist based in Norway.

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