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Thursday, 12 April 2018

Don’t worry be happy – Kopeka’s "art populaire"

By Andrew Mulenga

(First published in the Bulletin & Record Magazine, Zambia in 2013)

A week before the much hyped 20th UNWTO (2013) general assembly artists and craftsmen – both government and self-sponsored – from all across the country thronged Livingstone and worked around the clock anticipating the estimated 5,000 (five thousand) delegates between the twin venues of Victoria Falls Town in Zimbabwe and Livingstone in Zambia to disembark from aeroplanes with sack loads of money to buy every trinket that they had to offer.

Bernard Kopeka, Don't Worry Be Happy, 2013
However, not everyone was excited at the rumoured prospects. Bernard Kopeka, a 49-year-old artist who is one of five that run the Mosi-Oa-Tunya Art Centre could not be bothered by neither the panic nor hysteria brought about by this international event, for him, it was business as usual.

“Yes I am looking forward to the UNWTO, but what I know is that we have been artists all along even before the UNWTO we were artists. Yes maybe they (delegates and tourists) will buy our work but the idea is just to work as we usually do, if we get sales then that will be a bonus,” says Kopeka as he applies some final coats of PVA house paint to the portrait of an elephant. He uses this kind of paint because unlike the professional paints used by contemporary artists, it is inexpensive and also easier to come by. Of course this does make his work lower in price, not to say that the influential American abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock used house paints straight from the tin but his works cost a fortune even before his death, but such is the irony of art.

Bernard Kopeka, 30 years of marriage, 2013
Kopeka paints on large format, stretched canvases making his works that average two metres in height visible from the main road, the Mosi-Oa-Tunya highway, these along with some anatomically inaccurate sculptures – that are so unattractive one wishes there was a law against such art – easily catch the eyes of passers-by, luring them into the art centre.
Nevertheless, Kopeka is not responsible for the unsightly statues; it is one of the four friends with whom he runs the centre. He is a painter through and through having picked up the trade from a cousin as a young boy in his home village in Mpulungu District in the early 1970s just before he dropped out of school in Grade 7. In his early days, he started out drawing cartoon strips on any paper he could lay his hands on but later developed his skill into painting when he migrated to the Copperbelt.

In 1987 I left the village and went to Ndola, there I found an artist who started coaching me in Chifubu Township near Fibobe Primary School, that’s when I met Mr Rodgers Mushinki who was an artist with ZCBC departmental stores,” he explains.

Bernard Kopeka, Akalindula, 2013
Kopeka would work under Mushinki’s apprenticeship for the next five years until the road beckoned once again and he decided to migrate to Zambia’s tourist capital in 1992 after a lot of encouragement from folks who saw his work and advised him that Livingstone is where the money is because of the many art and crafts collecting tourists that visit the city.

But when he got to Livingstone, the beginning was not as smooth as he anticipated. Sales were slow and the fact that he married shortly after demanded for a larger income compelling him to seek employment as a ‘Chigayo Boy’ or hammer mill operator.

However, Kopeka did not last long at the hammer mill, his creative vocation continued to call and he found himself quitting work to take up painting as a full time occupation once again. This time he was even able to make his former monthly earnings in two days.

The open studio of Mosi-oa-tunya art centre in Livingstone
“Ever since I got married there is nothing else that I do. It is just art, sometimes I don’t sell anything for a month and we end up doing some sign writing  jobs here and there, or even the small wall hangings keep us going because they only cost K50 (fifty Kwacha),” explains the artist who now has four children, the first born being an eighteen year old.
He openly cherishes the support that he now gets from his wife who has set up a small cross boarder trading business that allows her to operate a market stall whenever she returns from Zimbabwe to order goods.

But, although in 1992 Kopeka spent time learning new techniques with the acclaimed painter Vincent Maonde who was running an art club at the Livingstone Museum at the time, Kopeka’s work is still considered art populaire (folk art) as the Congolese would call it. 

Mr Kopeka uses water-based PVA paints
Not only because it is sold like a commodity in the open air which qualifies it to be called Jua Kali (hot sun) as the Swahilis will say, referring to the place where it is manufactured but because of the seemingly repetitive and almost identical subject matter the work possesses.
Artists such as Maonde with their Evelyn Hone training in the 1970’s and further exposure in the United Kingdom and the United States practice contemporary art in the western idiom, producing what is often termed as “high art” because it is sold mainly in galleries and on commission.

“I have come to learn in my years as an artist, that even the environment in which we sell our art determines the final price of our work,” says Kopeka “Someone will look around our ‘gallery’ and say ‘no reduce the price, I can’t buy it for this price’, even when he likes the work,” his large paintings go for anything between K1,000 (one thousand kwacha) to K2,000 (two thousand kwacha).

As the UNWTO drew to a close, sales at the Mosi-Oa-Tunya Art Centre were still very low but Kopeka could not be bothered, he was still in the jovial spirit that is reflected in the colourful outbursts reflected in the caricatures of carefree, dancing villagers in his paintings with aptly titled labels as Don’t Worry Be Happy and Good Times. It is business as usual.

Bernard Kopeka, Good Times II, 2013

Mosi-Oa-Tunya Art Centre  in Livingstone

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