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Monday, 4 April 2016

“Visual Voices” echo beyond exhibition

By Andrew Mulenga

The just ended exhibition, Visual Voice that was held at the former German Embassy building on United Nations Avenue in Lusaka and featured work by a broad range of Zambian artists provided a short-lived, but vital platform for showcasing art.
It included Artists of various ages and career levels, paradoxically, the youngest and most unproven artist in the show, 22-year-old Mwamba Chikwemba ended up carrying the day in terms of sales, selling all the work she had on display, whereas the more senior and seasoned artists mostly saw the close of the exhibit without hearing the chime of the cash register.

African Market, 1977, mural
(detail) by Henry Tayali
Nevertheless, what integrated the artists on the other hand is that assertion that they all possess an outstanding creative proficiency in painting, sculpture, pottery, printmaking and multi-media installations and primarily their work speaks directly to issues of everyday life.

The title of the exhibition Visual Voices  was absolutely befitting of the artists whose collective work resonated in a single voice, a visual harmony. This harmony of Visual Voices declared one message; it stated Zambian artists - despite their many needs and challenges – to a larger extent no longer genuflect towards the preferences of a mainly Euro-American collector base who has determine how ‘African’ or indeed ‘Zambian’ art must look like. Therefore, the exhibition did not include idyllic village scenes that depict women with pots on their heads by the stream, mundane wildlife depictions or figurative African market scenes. While the main feature of this show was a 1977 mural entitled African Market, by Henry Tayali, the painting was executed along Tayali’s own terms. He exerted his own agency and created a totally abstract representation of a crowded African market, identifiable only by the vibrant colour reference and the many circular forms that represent multitudes.

German Ambassador to Zambia Bernd Finke and
National Arts Council Chairperson Mulenga Kapwepwe
view Henry Tayali's 1977 mural, African Market
Similarly, the other artists in the show appeared to probe and challenge the problematic notion of representation as well as archetypes of discourse that pigeonhole Zambian artists to the point of parochial simplicity. Much of the work maturely played on artistic purpose and the pursuit of ‘Zambian’ or ‘African genuineness’. In this regard it can be added that, much of the work generally addresses notions of cultural politics and likewise the politics of aesthetics. For too long, Euro-American patrons, whom to a certain extent have performed an important role in developing the contemporary art scene in Zambia from the late 1950s to the early 1990s, it is critical to acknowledge and analyse the ways in which they also subjugated indigenous creative expression and dominated the art scene in less favourable ways by shaping, as surrogate citizens, what they thought 'African art' or indeed 'Zambian art' ought to look like. As such, local Zambians were not given enough room to assert their own agency in terms of their own knowledge production as artists.

People coming out of nature to build a new world, 2003,
concrete and tree, by Charles Chambata
As Senegalese curator and art historian Ngone Fall pointed out in her 2003 essay Power Game, that was printed in the Abale Workshop exhibition catalogue published by the defunct Rockston Studio Gallery: “In many countries, the power of the art scene is in the hands of art producers, curators, publishers and gallery owners who encourage the development of people’s critical mind, give an artistic and financial value to art and sometimes shape the taste of the public. In Zambia, the power seems to be in the hands of ‘art lovers’ of whom I wonder if they don’t like images of Africa more than art from Africa. When art works become exotic fruits, remaining an ‘authentic’ Africa out of time, then we are no longer talking about art but about fantasy and obsession.”

Chimbwi In Forbidden Love, 2016, acrylic
on canvas by Agness Buy Yombwe
Needless to say the Zambian predicament in has been compounded by the vexed question of funding towards the visual arts, both public and private. There remains need for an increase in the commissioning of works of art, the building of galleries and the introduction of art in public higher learning institutions as well as the general acceptance of art as a tool for economic growth and national development. Although the Visual Voices exhibition did not attract the preferred attention of the Ministry of Tourism and Arts’ top brass, it did attract a good number of school and college tours as well as international delegates from the Inter-Parliamentary Union conference. But indeed the most important visitors would have been a senior entourage from the tourism and arts ministry complete with the ministers and permanent secretaries themselves, perhaps they could have been convinced to purchase the old German Embassy building after being shown that it can serve as a provisional arts gallery or cultural centre. The German Embassy in Lusaka recently shifted to new premises putting the building it occupied since 1977.

Meanwhile, Cynthia Zukas’ retrospective exhibition entitled 50 creative years in Zambia opens at the Red Dot Gallery in Ababa House along Addis Ababa Drive on Tuesday, 5th  at 17:30hrs and runs until 25th April.
Chimbwi In Forbidden Love, 2016, acrylic
on canvas by Agness Buya Yombwe

Torso, 2016, marble by Arthur Ziggy Daka

A viewer admires miniatures by Lombe Nsama


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