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Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Zukas’ show a journey into the past

By Andrew Mulenga
“Cynthia Zukas’ 50 Creative Years” the eponymous solo exhibition by the veteran painter and printmaker at the Zebra Crossing Café, Ababa House off Cairo Road in Lusaka celebrates the artists 50 year artistic career on Zambian soil.

Reproduction of a 1971 poster from
Cynthia Zukas' first solo exhibition in Zambia
The display of prints, paintings and on-site sketches dating from as far back as 1965 is not only a celebration of an illustrious career, but it gives an intimate insight into the artists personal life as an artist and a journey in to time that affords viewers a glimpse of how the transforming Lusaka art scene over five decades.

Particularly through reproduced exhibition posters and photographs the show reveals a Lusaka art scene that has transformed drastically over the years. Whereas the main exhibition venues in the capital today are The Henry Tayali Gallery, 37 d, the Lusaka National Museum, the Alliance Francaise  and the Zebra Crossing Café, Zukas’ exhibition conjures the obsolete spaces such as the Lusaka City Library, the British Council, Mpapa Gallery, the Anglo-American Centre and Marco Polo all very active places until the late 1980s. As much as the archival posters reflect a flourishing art scene, it was not always like this, and Zukas actually played an integral role in creating harmony through the early organizations such as the now defunct Lusaka Art Society (LAS) and Art Centre Foundation (ACF) the precursors of the Visual Arts Council. Her roles in these two notable bodies from the early days of contemporary Zambian art are often overlooked.

Cynthia (left) with Lusaka Mayor Fleetford Chirwa during
the opening of her exhibition at the City Library in 1971
Born in 1931 in Cape Town, South Africa, Zukas attended the University of Cape Town where she obtained a BA in Fine Arts. She came to Zambia as an academically-trained artist and the art scene she found in the newly independent Zambia was “hard to describe”, categorically “because it was like two worlds, it was a hangover from the federation, the Cultural Services Department were doing their own thing involving indigenous Zambian artists and the local whites ran the LAS the sole arts organization at the time, a group she joined in 1965. At the time of Zambia’s independence, interaction between whites and blacks was still very minimal, more so on the contemporary art scene.

Picking Coffee I, (acrylic on canvas) by Cynthia Zukas
“I hadn’t been here very long and I saw an advert in the papers that there is going to be a meeting for the LAS, the chairman at the time was the local rep from the British Council, the first few years the British Council was very active, so I thought right, this is my introduction to the art scene here. So I went to this meeting of the Lusaka Art Society,” explains the artist who came to Zambia accompanying her husband Simon, a political activist who was formerly banished by the British Colonial government (of the then Northern Rhodesia) but later invited by the country’s first president Dr Kenneth Kaunda to help in post-colonial nation building.

“I had only been here a couple of months and to my utter surprise I was immediately made secretary (of LAS), and I was pretty surprised to find at their annual art exhibition which was open to everybody, still there were no Zambians or no indigenous Zambians at all if you want to use that word. Now one really lucky thing that happened also the same year (1965), I met Bente Lorenz, she had been here before me at least a year or more but before independence,” explains the 85-year-old.

Too many mouths to feed,
etching by Cynthia Zukas
She in turn roped Lorenz in to become chairperson of the LAS and the duos first task was to try and widen the society vis-à-vis integrate it with both black and white Zambians. Zukas points out that it was not easy, the few Zambian artists and craftsmen looked with suspicion on the LAS. For the next annual exhibition in 1966, they literally had to scour whatever arts and craft they could find locally. According to Zukas through the 1960s, the Zambian government continued to generously sponsor the arts including LAS which received an annual government grant.

“The government was very interested in cultural development, both (Simon Mwansa) Kapwepwe and (Kenneth) Kaunda were very vocal, the Department of Cultural Services had a generous grant”. In addition, the first few years after independence the Department of Cultural Services also supported “annual National Arts Festivals”, although Zukas “cannot remember when they stopped but for the first three or five years they were very good, they got off really to a very good start”. The biggest of these events was in 1967 when the department organised “a festival to celebrate the third anniversary of independence” recalls Zukas.

Stone Cottage, acrylic on canvas,
by Cynthia Zukas
Nevertheless, after the Zambian art scene was integrated to a certain degree, Zukas continued to practice as an artist, holding her first solo exhibition at the Lusaka City Library in 1971 in a show that featured what would later become her signature style. Paintings and prints that depicted pastoral life in peri-urban Lusaka or expressions of urban life in the late 1970 and the 1980s that were characterized by transport and  essential commodity shortages typified by citizens, more often women and children in long queues.

As her exhibition title suggests, Zukas has been active on the Zambian art scene for 50 years and through the Lechwe Trust she has relentlessly supported the visual arts through scholarships, commissions and exhibitions, her true passion has remained that of printmaking, over the years she passionately tutored many artists during the Evelyn Hone College workshops and subsequently donated her own press to the institution. Her contribution in promoting art has not gone unrecognized such that Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II of England awarded her with an MBE, in acknowledgment of her services to visual art and to charitable work in Zambia.

Trees In Winter, acrylic on canvas, by Cynthia Zukas
In case you have not yet seen “Cynthia Zukas’ 50 Creative Years”, it runs until the end of April. If one was to point out a single flaw in the exhibition, it would be the lack of a catalogue. Surely there would have been no better time to have a detailed, autobiographical catalogue from Zukas that would not just serve as the 50 year account of an artist, but would provide a historic record of contemporary art in Zambia that could also serve as reading material for students of Zambian and by extension African art history. Meanwhile “Donation”, the exhibition of 40 works by various Zambian artists is still on display at the Lusaka National Museum and will remain on display until 22 April, 2016. Meanwhile, Lawrence Chikwa’s solo exhibition “Back & Forth – underground/into the light” is currently showing at Modzi Arts Gallery in the Swedish School along Alick Nkata Road in Lusaka and will run until 2 May. 

Walking Home II, etching by Cynthia Zukas

1 comment:

  1. This is a very enlightening article. Gives a very good historical perspective of art in Zambia.