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Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Of Makishi Mona Lisas and Last Suppers


By Andrew Mulenga

(This article was first published in the Bulletin & Record Magazine - 2014 - under a different title)

In 2011, a young artist, Ignatius Sampa created ripples on the Zambian art scene when he daringly introduced the public to radical images of characters from the Makishi masquerades and Mukanda initiation rites in caricatured portrayals and renderings of not only everyday life but of famous paintings by Leonardo Da Vinci like it had never seen before.

Ignatius Sampa, 2013, Mwana Pwo,
oil on canvas
In fact, his Makishi Last Supper (after Leonardo Da Vinci) was bought by the Lechwe Art Trust, making him the youngest artist to have work included in the prestigious collection of Zambian art overseen by Cynthia Zukas at the age of 20. 

A time honoured, sacred custom the initiations rites of the top-secret Mukanda society and its masked characters are revered by the Luvale, Chokwe, Luchazi and Mbunda people of North Western and Western provinces of Zambia as custodians of male initiation.

But about a year after his witty entrance onto the scene, Sampa vanished, casting aside his brushes and canvases falling completely off the visual arts radar. The rumours that he had quit art for good and either taken to the bottle or opened his own liquor retail business at the height of the infamous Tujili jili (bootleg spirit sachets) period were tossed here and there, and the young rogue artist was hard to trace having switched several mobile phone numbers.

Ignatius Sampa, 2014, Culture and religion,
oil on canvas
Last year, however, Sampa bounced back reappearing at the Art Academy Without Walls (AAWW) in the Lusaka Showgrounds where he had previously made friends. He set up studio space and started to work once again, all the more with a somewhat renewed enthusiasm.

But again he became inconsistent sometimes disappearing for a week or longer as he had now landed a job as the resident graphic designer at the Food Lover’s Market in Levy Junction Mall. Even amidst these brash disappearing maneuvers, the artist remained busy in the background.

Sampa now has a huge body of work that could easily be ready for a solo exhibition, but he is in no hurry to show it.

Ignatius Sampa, 2013, Makishi Last Supper, oil on canvas
“Now I’m just painting because art is what I love doing. I’m not painting to sell at all, maybe later but not know, yes I will put a work in an exhibition now and then but I’m not really thirsty to sell. Sometimes people will offer me money for a work but I won’t sell it because I want to be looking at it myself”, he recently said with a slight air of narcissism.
Surely if you visit the one room space he has converted into living quarters in the Lusaka Showgrounds, just behind Riflemen -- the army run civilian’s pub -- you will find stacks of fascinating Makishi themed paintings regrettably hidden from public view and enjoyment.

Ignatius Sampa, 2014, Culture lessons, oil on canvas
It is here you will find paintings such as Mwana Pwo, one of the most celebrated among the masked characters that represent the “ideal young woman” or “purest maiden”. Sampa portrays Mwana Pwo as the Mona Lisa. But the similarities between Sampa’s and Leonardo’s depiction of Lisa Del Giaconda ends at the posture, enigmatic smile and partially, the outer garment.

He does not mimic the eerie background of the Italian master that depicts some imaginary landscape with glacial mountains, winding paths, and a bridge. In his version, the background undoubtedly shows the Mosi-Oa- Tunya (Victoria Falls) and a few shrubs. Most likely, the artist was trying to further “Zambianize” the portrait by giving it this backdrop.

Ignatius Sampa, 2014, Dinner, oil on canvas
By many western schools of artistic thought, the Mona Lisa is considered Da Vinci’s greatest work and a symbol of picture-perfect beauty, likewise, Mwana Pwo in the Makishi culture represents the ideal maiden and Sampa appears to be toying with this concept. 

Another clever painting is Culture and Religion. It shows the Pope in a brotherly embrace with a Likishi, with one arm across the shoulder of the other, they face their backs towards the viewer while waving at a multitude from a balcony.

As the title and the picture suggests, Sampa is proposing that “foreign” religion and “local” traditions should work hand in hand, one beside the other.

Ignatius Sampa, 2014, Exchanging culture, oil on canvas
In Dinner, he portrays a Likishi couple at a table having a western style candlelight dinner complete with a bottle of red wine and tall stemmed wine glasses. The candlelight bounces off the wall of the traditional mud hut in which the couple is dining providing a dramatic visual effect of stark contrast between the dark and light areas of the painting.

Exchanging Culture is a wedding scene. The blond, blue-eyed bride of European extraction is veiled in a frilly white wedding dress as per western tradition – or indeed the surrogate custom borrowed in present day Africa -- and the groom is the kind who’s mask faces the sky. The couple is being wed before a large crowd of Makishi and before the crowd is a large three tier wedding cake on the groom’s side while on the bride's side there appears to be a large batch of the Zambian polony-like vegetarian delicacy Chikanda .

Ignatius Sampa, 2014, Expression of Dance,
oil on canvas
This the clever and often quirky way that Sampa plays around with clashing cultures and dissimilar traditions, and as far as never being short of surprises goes, he does not disappoint.

Sampa’s choice of concept has not always sat well with everyone though. He once alluded to being harassed by artists whose traditional homeland is North Western province and regarded him as an outsider who has no right to dabble in the Luvale, Chokwe, Luchazi and Mbunda people’s sacred customs himself being a Northerner.

Sampa confesses that this intimidation is what partially led to him quitting the scene for a while, but then he remembered that he has the entire artistic license and every right as the next man to refer to use Makishi culture as reference material to inform his artwork.
His ethos can be summed up in what he once said of his Makishi Last Supper, "All the last supper paintings I've seen have 'white' people in them, so I thought I should make one that is more African, in fact, more Zambian, and for me there is nothing that represents Zambia more strongly than the Makishi".

Ignatius Sampa, 2014, National team, oil on canvas
The paintings mentioned here are just a handful of what he currently has in stock both at home and at the cubicle he used to occupy at the Art Academy Without Walls AAWW, so if his type of work tickles your fancy and you can find him in the right mood, he just might be able to let go of some of these fascinating paintings for a reasonable price while he still ponders what next to do with them.

Apart from a residency at the AAW in 2010 when he joined the Visual Arts Council of Zambia (VAC) and the August Studio workshops for up-coming artists held in the Lusaka show grounds Sampa has had no formal training in art.

Ignatius Sampa, 2014, Moving culture to another level
(oil on canvas)
He first started experimenting with art when he observed his brothers and sisters working on their art projects for final secondary school examinations at their home in Chunga and during his early teens he received some guidance from Dominic Yombwe. He looks up to another young painter, Caleb Chisha, who showed him the ropes when he just joined the AAW but he says his use of colours is inspired by the palette of Lawrence Yombwe of Wayi Wayi Art Studio and Gallery in Livingstone.


At 23 Sampa’s talent puts him in good stead; we can only hope he begins to treat art with the seriousness and commitment that deserves, hoping he can assume a more professional and less pastime type of approach. His potential is boundless. - ENDS

Ignatius Sampa, 2014, Family Portrait, oil on canvas

Ignatius Sampa



7 comments:

  1. Thanks for reposting this, Drew. You could facilitate a wonderful dialogue with Sampa and Lawrence Yombwe on why to incorporate symbols of traditional initiation ceremonies in contemporary art.

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    1. That sounds good. What form would you suggest the dialogue would take?

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  2. Andrew. I love Sampa's painting and have one in my possession. Do you know if any of his work is on the market and where it could be found? CHeers
    Jesper

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    1. Hi Jesper, if you are in Zambia, the best thing would be to swing by the Henry Tayali Gallery they should have some of his work. If not, kindly inbox me and lets take it from there

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    2. Hi Andrew,
      I Went there the other day. Did not find any and nobody really seemed to know. If you are aware of pieces please let me know. I am out of Zambia for a while now but can arrange for pick-up through other people. You can reach me on jsundewall@gmail.com
      Thanks!
      J

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    3. HI Jesper, I thought so. I must admit there is a bit of disjointedness in the way things are run in terms of documenting works and so on. I will be in touch soonest. Thanks

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