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Wednesday, 1 June 2016

An innocent measure of skill

By Andrew Mulenga

When Gilbert Nsama became a member of the Visual Arts Council of Zambia (VAC) in 2010, he was half way through a three-year Aircraft Maintenance Engineering studies at the Zambia Air Service Training Institute (ZASTI) in Lusaka.
Nsama is trained in Aircraft Maintenance Engineering
but cannot find a job in aviation
“At first it was my cousin Martin Chanda – a Swiss-based Zambian artist -- who connected me to a few artists in Lusaka and also dad encouraged me and showed me the Henry Tayali gallery, but I think interacting with other artists at the Arts Academy Without Walls (AAWW) is what is really helping me develop and find myself as an arts,” says the Luanshya-born artist who has also been coached by painter, Caleb Chisha as well as sculptors Nsofwa Bowa and Charles Chambata.

The ambitious young aircraft engineer was convinced that being a member of VAC would be a nice by-the-way activity when he is not busy fixing or maintaining aircraft, but six years down the line, the 29-year-old has been unsuccessful in finding a job within the aviation industry and has taken up the occupation of a full-time artist, a prospect which is not without its own challenges.
Proud African Lady, 2016, oil on
canvas, by Gilbert Nsama
“I haven’t thrown my qualifications away; art is keeping me occupied until something comes up in aviation. But I won’t stop art. Zambia has no national airline so I’ve been applying to foreign airlines and private companies locally. I even tried the Zambia Air Force (ZAF) during the last recruitment but the names were not released, I think they will be released after elections, still I don’t know if my name will be there,” he explains. Ironically, he attended ZASTI on a government bursary even though he is not able to find a job.

He works as both a painter and a sculptor choosing oil for his canvases and a variety of soft and hard woods for his carvings although he appears to be struggling for collectors or benefactors, in fact he was only able to make his first sale in March this year during The Foxdale Court Arts Day in Lusaka’s Roma suburb. The piece was one of his signature carvings of ornamental wooden shoes, shoes which are often the joke among his peers at the AAWW. Fortunately, he remains resilient and brushes the taunting off for what it really is, mockery.

African Beauty, 2016, jacaranda wood,
by Gilbert Nsama
While a close analysis of Nsama’s work does indicate that he possesses a notable degree of proficiency as a painter -- which manifests in his admirable colour usage and realistic touch -- the work appears rather disoriented when it comes to subject matter. The depiction of little children taking a bath is pretty much an exhausted cliché that has perhaps been used too many times; similarly he is in the habit of wrapping his subject matter in the texture of a brick wall giving the viewer the feeling of peeping through a hole in the wall to gaze upon them. As much as one may not want to encroach upon the artist’s style, something does not seem to add up, is he doing this out of impulse or is he showing the viewer that he has the ability to paint the exact likeness of a brick wall in several of his works with considerable ease.

Also, his portraits of women with titles such as Proud African Lady and Happy Masai all seem too credulous, calling to mind airport art or the Sunday-market crafts genre popular among foreign tourists on a constrained budget. Similarly his sculptures also appear to be adrift, again despite the fact that he does exhibit competence in his preferred media of soft and hard woods. With titles such as True African Beauty and The Beauty within Me in Jacaranda and Rosewood respectively, the works exude a degree of shallowness. What is the artist really saying, what is he sharing with the viewer, is he conjuring seemingly redundant notions of ‘African beauty’ that existed in a time long before his own? If so, to what objective?

Sunday Bathing, 2016, oil on canvas
by Gilbert Nsama
It is one thing for an artist from Northern Zambia to create portraits inspired by women from the Masai of East Africa or the Dinka of Sudan, but did he really sit down and ask himself why his work is being informed by these tribes from distant lands, in countries where he has never set foot.

Of course it may be accepted and possibly even understood when an artist categorized as a self-taught artist is creating work on assumed impulse without adding any conjectural or indeed theoretical values to it. But again it raises questions towards the sincerity of the more experienced and exposed artists whom surround him and by extension every other Zambian artist. Do they interrogate their own work deep enough before they have it displayed? Even by critiquing it in their small cliques prior to hanging it on exhibition walls.

It is high time that Zambian artists stopped being dishonest with one another, if they see a questionable piece in a colleague’s studio space, they should ask why she or he chose a particular theme, what is its relevance within a particular social, political, environmental or cultural framework, Zambian or other.

Notwithstanding, Nsama is just one of many young artists with great promise that is trying to find a foothold within an art context that scarcely puts critical thinking or academic arts qualifications at the fore of practice. For now, what Nsama is providing is an honest, yet refreshing measure of creativity, optimistically the Zambian art scene is yet to see the best of him; surely he will find his way, hopefully before he returns to his professional career as an aircraft engineer.

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