By Andrew Mulenga
The speech by Minister of Tourism and Arts, Jean Kapata on the handover of 40 artworks by Zambian artists from the Royal Norwegian Embassy to the Lechwe Trust collection on the 8th April 2016 at the Lusaka National Museum calls for a moment of reflection as it unpretentiously gives an insight into government’s, and by extension Zambia’s perspective on the arts.The minister was not present during this otherwise important event, but instead of interpreting this fact as casualness on her part, understandably she is a very senior government representative and important party official who cannot make it to every arts event, even one as notable as a gesture of farewell from one of the biggest supporters of the sector in Zambia. Fortunately, the speech was read on her behalf by the similarly high-ranking Permanent Secretary in the ministry of tourism and arts Stephen Mwansa who did not waste time to emphasise he would recite it as it was, with no alterations in adherence of protocol.
It opened with a brief eulogy to the outgoing Norwegian embassy declaring it a true friend of the Zambian arts and one of its leading supporters. The speech further expressed that the Zambian government through the ruling party takes the arts as a serious sector of development.
|Tourism and arts Permanent Secretary Stephen Mwansa |
reads the speech on behalf of his minister Jean Kapata
during the opening of the donation exhibition at the
Lusaka National Museum
The speech claimed to this effect the Livingstone art gallery, Maramba Cultural Village and Masala Cultural Village are in place and others were under construction in all provincial centres and the ministry through the department of arts and culture was providing training for handicrafts design.“The government has also embarked on putting in place or reviewing appropriate legislation to accelerate development and enhance coordination in the cultural sector. Of particular importance is the arts, culture and heritage commission which seeks to bring together all the major players and stakeholders under one institution to spearhead growth and development in the sector,” continued the speech.
Kapata’s speech also stressed the art’s critical role in society and apart from entertainment; works of art such as the ones being donated were a mirror of society that provided valuable information about what is happening in the country sometimes providing solutions to daily social challenges. It also lay emphasis on the arts being a source of livelihood and underlined that they were a valuable depository of the country’s history and heritage and therefore a unique source of information. Kapata underscored that the donation of artworks from the Norwegian embassy could not be measured in monitory terms and was therefore priceless. On behalf of the Zambian government she thanked the Norwegians for the continuous support over the years and stressed that it was a sad moment particularly for the creative sector.“Zambian art has without any doubt developed to a very admirable level, if what we have on display here today is anything to go by. Only the other week, we witnessed yet another excellent exhibition at the old German embassy. Last year, Lechwe trust which is about to receive this wonderful donation, mounted part of their ever-growing collection at the American embassy”, read the speech.
“All that art and the beautiful pieces mounted here will be packed in a metal container because as it is, there is no suitable home for them. Allow me to end therefore, by appealing to your Excellencies from both Norway and Germany, to consider as a parting gift the donation of your old embassies to the Zambian people for use as national art galleries. I can assure your Excellencies that with a permanent and secure home for this wonderful work; the Zambian art scene will never be the same again”.Musing over the minister’s speech, however, one can pick out the fact that the government has -- to a certain extent -- shown commitment to the arts. But as any observer or insider in this sector might be aware, not much has been done to back the speech-making. While the minister points out that: “placing the arts in the same ministry with tourism and prioritising the sector as the major driver of the PF government’s ambition to create more jobs for our people, especially youth”, frankly there has been no improvement in the livelihood of the Zambian artist or the arts at large. Perhaps this professed youth empowerment through the arts is happening in rural areas within the miniscule crafts sector, in the urban areas young contemporary artists are still languishing, and one case in point would be the youth who hang around the Arts Academy without Walls (AAWW), an affiliate of the Zambia Visual Arts Council in the Lusaka show grounds. The AAWW will provide a good example of youths who survive on the fringes of uncertainty on a daily basis; their art space is a rented place to which they individually contribute, many pay through their teeth and may all soon find themselves on the streets with no space to work as they go for months without selling a single sculpture or painting.
Nevertheless, Kapata mentioned the reviewing of legislation to accelerate development of the arts and the cultural sector as critical stressing the importance of the arts, culture and heritage commission. Similarly, in his September 2015 parliamentary speech, republican president Edgar Lungu stated “The Minister responsible for Tourism and Arts will bring to this House the Arts, Culture and Heritage Bill aimed at harmonising institutional arrangements in arts, culture and heritage to reduce overheads and promote cost effectiveness”.He went on to announce that parliament had already supported the initial funding to create a national arts, culture and heritage commission as reflected in the 2015 budget in which an amount of K3, 500,000 was approved for the purpose. President Lungu stated that the newly created commission would improve the coordination, administration and management of the arts, culture and heritage sector in the country. A month after his speech, the president officially opened the National Art Exhibition at the Henry Tayali Gallery in October 2015 and signed the visitors book, in it, leaving remarks that tallied with his speech. “Let’s create a living for our people out of their talents by making art an economic activity”, wrote Lungu.
But following the president’s declarations, it can be reasoned that government support for the arts has become annoyingly tiresome rhetoric, what with parliament being dissolved hope for supportive legislature of the arts hangs in the balance once again. Truthfully, detailed information about this arts commission as well as the arts bill is fleeting, such that arts insiders are not able to trace the developments or give an assurance as to when everything will be put in place.Once more, returning to the minister’s speech, for Kapata – on behalf of government -- to literally beg foreign embassies to donate their buildings as art galleries her ministry does seem to be aware that these facilities are lacking. But does the ministry not question why these departing embassies are continuously donating their works to the Lechwe trust, a private institution with no gallery space and not to the Zambian government through the Livingston Art Gallery, the Henry Tayali Art Gallery or indeed the Lusaka National Museum, Copperbelt Museum or Livingston Museum?
The answer is simple, the ministry of arts as well as the custodians of heritage in Zambia vis-à-vis the museums remain disappointingly fragmented even with talk of a commission the museums still fall under the Ministry of Chiefs and Traditional Affairs. Furthermore, because not much has been done to support training, these institutions lack the professionals to handle important works of art. Certainly this could be why departing embassies deem it safer to donate art works to a private trust that will store them safely in a metal container than leave them in the hands of institutions who do not really know what they are doing.
Nevertheless, as a patriotic and passionate devotee of the arts, one can only wish the Ministry of Tourism and Arts and the government all the best in their hand-out seeking endeavours and pray that the Norwegian and German embassies respond to the humble request to donate their buildings as art galleries, perhaps that will be a step forward, even as the arts continue to ride in the back seat of the ministry and the national arts, culture and heritage commission hangs in the balance.