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Monday, 19 June 2017

The artist, the Makishi and the hit and run driver

By Andrew Mulenga

(This article was first published in The Bulletin & Redord Magazine, February 2015 edition)

In 2014, through this writer, The Bulletin & Record, heralded Ignatius Sampa a 23 year old Lusaka-based painter as a creative prodigy, the next big thing on the Zambian art scene, and rightly so because the youngster created ripples when barely two years ago he adventurously introduced caricatured portrayals of the Makishi costumed figures from the Mukanda initiation masquerades of North Western Zambia.

Ignatius Sampa, Adventure, 2014, acrylic on
canvas (Private collection, Lusaka)
Of course it could not be foretold that through a late night hit and run road accident in Lusaka, the same year will in fact claim the life of this young man who enjoyed perfect physical health and a lively social life.

But the word that has been doing the rounds on the art scene since the fateful November day of is that the Makishi were finally fed up of Sampa’s shenanigans.They were tired of disrespectfully being portrayed in renditions of Da Vinci’s Last Supper and Mona Lisa, riding Harley Davidson motorcycles,doing the Salsa or playing the violin and so by otherworldly means claimed the artist’s life by physically manifesting the death in a fatal accident.

“Mudala mizimu za Makishi zina kwiya na ma paintingi” (big man, the spirits were not happy with the paintings) said a close friend and fellow artist who shied away from  being mentioned but confirmed that he once warned his friend against going too far with the portrayals especially because he was not from the region and may have not have understood how respected the Makishi were.

Sampa had made himself synonymous with these figures sacred to the Luvale, Chokwe, Luchazi, Lwena and Mbunda people so much that he was often called “Mufana wa Makishi”loosely translated as “Makishi boy”.

Also known as the Akishi in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo they are believed to be spirits of the deceased.
In the 1990 book Makishi, Mask Characters of Zambia by Manuel Jordan, John Picton from the University of London writes: “[…] they embody the spirits of important and memorable deceased individuals and as such they are treated with due reverence”.

Nevertheless, about two years ago when the artist just burst on the scene confessed that he was approached by fellow artists from the North Western region who advised him to stop and warned him against the continuous adulteration of these sacred figures that are evoked by means of masks depending on which ritual or ceremony.  The Makishi’s individual roles and hierarchy differ, some represent royalty, some are for protection, some are for fertility. For instance in the book “Ceremony!”, Tamara Guhrs  writes: “Kayipu  is the King of the Makishi, mask associated with the chief. If a chief’s son or nephew is being initiated, Kayipu must be made” and Chikishikishi is a likishi “with a pot of burning coals on his head. Disciplining function, supposed to eat up evil elements in society”. But Sampa represented them whichever way he wanted.

Ignatius Sampa, Coat of Charms 2014,
oil on canvas
His very last painting is unfinished needless to say, but it ironically depicts a Likishi that appears to be running off with a painting and an easel. Is the painting a manifestation of the Makishi snatching the art from the artist but doing so by taking his life? Was Sampa’s hand possessed into painting a physical manifestation by means of a metaphor? Who knows?
But the chatter remains adamant the spirits did claim his life and as such, one may argue that no artist will be seen going down this experimental path any time soon. While the Makishi will remain a favourite subject among Zambian artists, there is doubt that anyone will attempt to depict them the way Sampa did.

Whatever the case, his disturbing deathwill  forever evoke deep reflection on the sheer futility of life, the loss of a young man with incredible promise who will remain one of the great young revolutionaries of the Zambian art scene.
His professional art career only spanned 3 years including a long period in which he had disappeared from the scene altogether, only to return to his brushes early last year. In his last days he was working non-stop as if preparing for a solo exhibition.

In his last interview when asked what he intended to do with all these paintings during an interview for the Bulletin & Record his response was: “Now I’m just painting because art is what I love doing. I’m not painting to sell at all, maybe later but not now, 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”.
On his Makishi Last Supper these were his words: "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”.

Sampa's last work, a Likishi running
away with an artwork

Among his very last works are Coat of Charms a play on the Zambian Coat of Arms which he explained was almost rejected from showing in the Zambia Jubilee exhibition because it was considered too controversial, the work nonetheless is a good example of his boldness and Adventure, a painting that depicts a likishi on a motorcycle cruising the open road embodies the artists free spirit.
The artist Ignatius Sampa


  1. How sad. He had a great future as an artist.

    1. Yes Mr Zimba. It reminds us of the futility of life and that we should cherish every moment and celebrate every new day. Thanks for passing by the page :)