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Monday, 23 May 2016

Giving it up for art

By Andrew Mulenga

As a career, art  is generally considered a nonstarter, even in countries that have well organized support structures such as effective cultural policies, sound art education systems, commercial art galleries and art museums, so there is no surprise when you introduce yourself as an artist and the first question is  “yes of course, but do you have a real job?”.

Chikwemba with one of her large format paintings
Actually, Mwamba Chikwemba, a 22-year-old from Lusaka’s Matero Township who happens to be a graduate of the National Institute of Public Administration, decided to quit working for a leading international chain store after only one year, opting for a full time occupation as an artist.

“After completing my diploma in public administration, I found a job and worked for the whole of 2015, but I made up my mind and decided that I want to dedicate my whole 2016 to producing art and just see how it goes,” says the painter, who has coupled this challenge of self-employment by being one of the few female artists in a male dominated Zambian art scene.

Her paintings stand out for their enormous canvases if not for their charming subject matter which often features closely cropped portraits of young women whose enchanting smiles are buffered only by Chikwemba’s kaleidoscopic palette. In addition her brushstrokes are nonchalant lending a jovial playfulness to the work.

Afro sisters I acrylic on canvas
by Mwamba Chikwemba
“I like earrings and jewellery and this reflects in my work, when someone buys my work they actually buy a piece of me but also if you see most of my works the subjects all have Afro, natural hair styles. I want to see the old hair styles returning, like plating of hair or braiding not this Indian and Brazilian hair. I want to question why did we stop our own styles and why are we buying Brazilian hair”, she explains.

Perhaps the young artist is enjoying a spot of beginners luck or she just has a gift that puts her a cut above others, her work not only caught the eye of a collector who purchased two of her paintings from the Henry Tayali Gallery in Lusaka at the beginning of the year, but also those of the judges in charge of local selection for the Barclays L'Atelier art competition, a prestigious international art competition for promising young artists across the African continent. She submitted a work entitled D.O.D or simply Date of Death. The work is a shift from her signature portraits; it depicts the feet of a corpse and references the tags that are placed on a dead person indicating their date of death for identification in the mortuary.

Afro sisters II acrylic on canvas
by Mwamba Chikwemba
In March this year she also caught the attention of William Miko who curated the Visual Voices exhibition at the old German Embassy building in Lusaka. Mwamba was the youngest artist in the show which featured some of the biggest names in Zambian contemporary art, during the show her works were among the star attractions, again she was able to sell yet a few more paintings, one of them going for a handsome K18,000 (eighteen thousand kwacha). During the show she was a particular favourite of German Ambassador to Zambia Bernd Finke and the German embassy's Head of Cultural Division, Isolde Aust.

As much as she can be labelled one of the most promising young artists, her artistic journey did not entirely have a smooth beginning.

“It’s been a journey, because my mother was not very supportive of my art, especially when I was in primary school she used to tell me to stop because she thought it as a waste of time, but my dad was very supportive. But in January this year, I sold my first painting, and when I gave my mother some money I told her that it was from the same art that she did not want me to do,” she explains.

Her mother has clearly changed her mind towards her daughter’s decision to take up art; she was also in attendance during the Visual Voices exhibition. Chikwemba also indicates she may not be the only art is in the family.

Afro Sisters III acrylic on canvas by
Mwamba Chikwemba
“I discovered I had an artistic ability when I was in grade 5, whenever my teacher needed a drawing on the board she used to call me to draw it. I am the first born in a family of 5, my brother used to draw and we used to compete but he stopped and I continued, but I have a little sister in grade one she likes drawing a lot, I think she is also following my way, I hope so,” she says.

Although she is primarily self-taught, she has undergone informal mentorship under a number of senior and mid-career artists within Lusaka that have helped boost her confidence. 

“I used to do art at school from grade 8 to grade 12 in 2012 when I just completed I came here to the Visual Arts Council and became a member, then I met Mr Zenzele Chulu and asked him where I could find art lessons, he volunteered and used to come on Saturday for a small fee,” she recalls.

After Chulu’s classes she continued practicing from home, and later met David Makala who invited her to his place in Chilenje for art lessons and Caleb Chisha also instructed her on how to blend and shade, she says he was very instrumental in teaching her how to create portraits because previously she would only paint flowers and still life.

D.O.D acrylic on canvas by
Mwamba Chikwemba

Chikwemba only started exhibiting in 2014; she participated in the Lusaka 100 exhibition at Manda Hill Mall as well as the Independence Day exhibition. Currently she remains highly motivated and claims she is in it for the long run, she also hopes to raise funds that will help see her into a university in Zambia or abroad.

“I don’t intend to stop being an artist just because my parents disagreed or in future when I get married my husband tells me to stop, I won’t. Like I said I was not fully supported at first as an artist, so I know these challenges,” says Chikwemba.

Her works can be viewed from the Henry Tayali Gallery in the Lusaka show grounds as well as Twangale Park off Kafue road in Lusaka.

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