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Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Simbule put to rest

By Andrew Mulenga

Like many deaths, that of artist Christopher Simbule overwhelms the mind with so many unanswered questions, speculations and deep reflections on the haunting futility of life.

Christopher Simbule during the
Foxdale Art Day in March 2016
On the morning of Thursday 26 March 2016 his dead body was discovered within the Lusaka show grounds not far from his favourite watering hole and temporal dwelling. As much as it may seem inconsiderate to speak judgmentally of the dead, anyone -- such as this columnist -- who knew Simbule personally may attest that in his last days he appeared increasingly troubled to the point of taking up the same alternate lodging at a popular club where he also served as a provisional caretaker in exchange for artistic studio space.  

With the above-mentioned there is no surprise that in the couple of days before his burial at Mutumbi Memorial Park on Saturday 28 March, much has been said within the visual arts fraternity. In whispers at the funeral artists found themselves questioning their personal lifestyles, general welfare and comradeship. They found themselves questioning their individual backgrounds and debating among themselves how much they know about one another, do they have relatives nearby in case something happens to them during long, late nights in their common studio spaces -- for those who choose to burn the midnight oil as it were.
One Zambia One Nation (2015), oil and acrylic
on canvas by Christopher Simbule
Furthermore Simbule’s death raises more universal questions; as individual members of humankind are we loved more when we die? Is personal welfare totally one’s own business whereby if one does not shout out for a helping hand even when at times it is plain for all to see that one is in need of support? Surely why should one’s friends, relatives, employers or professional bodies purchase a costly coffin, provide hired transport, funeral services and several days catering – as is the accepted custom in most of Zambia’s cultures -- when they probably cared less what one was eating when she or he walked among them?

Nevertheless, in Simbule the Zambian art scene loses a multi-media artist who was a worthy sculptor preferring to work with found objects and papier-mâché, but depending on his mood or drive, he would often switch to painting. Moreover, as one of his key artistic legacies Simbule leaves his own interpretation of city life among a host of Zambian painters. Whereas everyday township panoramas and bustling market scenes have long dominated the cityscape genre, his works brought an excitingly refreshing touch to it.

The Club (2013), oil on board by Christopher Simbule
His paintings had a unique style of composition in which he would inventively split paintings in half often employing multi-point, linear perspective, habitually casting tonal gradation to the wind. His cityscapes often perpetuated a positive extrapolation of African city life.

He will also be remembered for being very active during group efforts and collaborative undertakings such as helping coordinate the 2015 Journey in History project, a UNICEF funded project that involved a painting that stretches more than K1.5 metres and was created by around 2,000 children from all 10 provinces of Zambia. Similarly, in March this year he was the key coordinator of the Foxdale Court Art Day in Lusaka where he was in charge of the contemporary art display by various Zambian artists as well overseeing the Kid’s Corner where he ran creative activities for children.

He possessed a solid art foundation starting in Zimbabwe at Founders High School which laid a very strong emphasis on art education at the time it afforded him the opportunity of displaying work at the Mthwakazi Youth Centre. He later attended the Mzilikazi Art Centre in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe where he attained a two-year Fine Art Diploma in 1992; the same art centre that laid the ground for the late Zambian virtuoso Henry Tayali, after college Simbule exhibited at both the Bulawayo and Harare National galleries.

Untitled cityscape (2015) oil and acrylic on
board by Christopher Simbule
Simbule was born in Mbala in 1971 to a Zambian father and Zimbabwean mother, Simbule and his siblings moved to Zimbabwe when his parents divorced, but his stay in Zimbabwe would end up being a good turn in terms of his artistic career.

After college he decided to return to Zambia to see his father, by now a retired Zambia Air Force pilot flying local routes with Zambia Airways. In 1993 it is his father that took him to the Lusaka show grounds to show him where to meet other artists this would be his first time at the Henry Tayali Gallery.

Here he would also meet senior artists during the early days of the Visual Arts Council (VAC), legends such as Martin Phiri, Godfrey Setti, Eddie Mubanga and Lutanda Mwamba, all deceased. He immediately enrolled with Imiti Ikula Empanga (loosely translated as today’s seedlings are tomorrows forests), the council’s youth programme.

A year later, his father passed away and the artist found himself in a state of disorientation, always traveling from Zambia to Zimbabwe, although he had never gone back since 2000 until the time of his death.

Besides his artistic legacy, he will be remembered as a loving father and affectionate husband; he leaves behind a wife and four young daughters. Dependant on art alone, one can only imagine how he managed to take care of huge family obligations, seeing there remains no support structures for artists. Artists’ welfare as suggested earlier still remains a thorny issue, how they survive in between the sale of paintings remains obscure. To view or purchase Simbule’s work visit the Henry Tayali Gallery in the Lusaka show grounds, a charming example of his cityscapes can also be found in form of a large mural in the a passage way at Foxdale Court. Among his close friends the ever jovial artist will be remembered for his favourite catchphrase “Nice one biggie”.

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