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Saturday, 6 July 2019

A confident, passionate, Alina returns with first solo

By Andrew Mulenga

She participated in her first exhibition at the age of 11, but it is in 2013 that she captured media attention as a bashful 17-year-old during the 20th UNWTO general assembly’s main art exhibition at the Livingstone Museum; she was the youngest in the show.

The same year, she announced her intention to study art and take it up professionally despite her being a straight-A school leaver who managed to attain the much-coveted “six points” that would be able to get her into the study of natural sciences.

Certainly, the following year in 2014, she enrolled for a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Ceramics Studies and Art for Advertising at the University of Namibia, the same year, she was awarded a one-year cultural scholarship to study art at the then Armstrong State University in Savannah, Georgia, in the United States. Her studies culminated in a graduate exhibition at the National Art Gallery of Namibia (NAGN) in Windhoek, Namibia.

Returning to her Livingstone hometown after graduation, Alina Mateke or Lina as she is fondly called among close friends and family, she shares her developmental trajectory over the last four years, in an untitled homecoming solo exhibition, the first in her career. The ongoing exhibition, which opened at the Livingstone National Gallery on Friday 14th June and runs until the 15th July, features work from 2015 to 2019.

While her work offers a wide range of techniques that she has explored over the years, as influenced by her education as well as the artists she has met during her travels, perhaps the most charming pieces in the body of work is the series entitled “I am a woman” which comprises four pieces: “I am confident”, “I am passionate”, “I am brave” and “I am free”, they are semi-autobiographical.

“I am confident”, 2019,
charcoal and acrylic on canvas
(60cm x 45cm) by Alina Mateke
According to the artist’s statement provided by Mateke, these particular works “symbolize her journey from adolescence into adulthood and her exploration of what it means to be a woman. Having faced various pressures and the struggles life has to offer, such as loss, loneliness, fear, inadequateness and instability resulting from her frequent travels, she has come to learn that despite the struggles young women face, they must remember their strengths as women; confidence, passion, bravery and freedom.”

For these works, she combines monochromatic portraits in charcoal embellished with colourful flowers in acrylic to create an enchanting contrast. The works also draw inspiration from her pencil portrait commissions and an orchid and sunflower tryptic that are on display in the exhibition.

However, while Mateke’s artworks; particularly the hypnotizing “I am a woman” series may be captivating, with their rich and elaborately painted flowers and subjects who’s stares look out almost seductively to the viewer, a vibe imaginably enhanced by their lyrical titles, one should be reminded here that the works speak to the artist’s personal experiences; they cease therefore to be a mere bouquet of pretty portraits.

Furthermore, although they tell Mateke’s story, they also tell the story of many young women in that they are not self-portraits, that is to say, it is not her in the portraits. The portraits are composites, seamlessly fusing images from several models. They comprise features from numerous young women, a nose from here combined with eyes from there, lips from this one and cheeks from that one. Except, she does it in such a genius way that you the viewer cannot tell.

They are nice to look at as they stare back at us with calm but intense gazes, they might even be described as obsessive portrayals of beauty, but they have a much more deep-seated meaning. It can be argued therefore, that these works lend themselves to deeper theoretical conversations around the art of portraiture. Conversations that should be encouraged among artists, art lovers, critics, students and scholars, seeing that portraiture enjoys an exalted reputation on the Zambian art scene.

“I am brave”, 2019, charcoal and acrylic
on canvas (60cm x 45cm)
by Alina Mateke
Take for instance the National Arts Council’s (NAC) prize-giving event that was hosted at the Bonanza Golf and Housing Estate in Lusaka on Sunday 16th June, an occasion that attracted an impressive number of senior government officials, the corporate community, golfers, artists and the media. Near the entrance of the clubhouse was a noteworthy display of paintings, sculptures and mixed media artworks by various artists set up by the Visual Arts Council (VAC).

The featured artworks were inspired by several themes ranging from traditional ceremonies to daily life; it included both abstract and figurative works. Among the figurative pieces, were elaborate portraits of President Edgar Chagwa Lungu, two of these later found their way into the evening’s main event and were the highlight of an animated art auction conducted by the Minister of Sport, Youth and Child Development, Moses Mawere—whom it must be added, did a tremendous job that would leave any professional art auctioneer from Sotheby’s or Christie’s green with envy.

One was a drawing by upcoming artist Laban Mwaba that sold for K10, 000 (ten thousand kwacha) and the other was a painting by the well-known portrait artist Caleb Chisha of Iris Kaingu and “Date My Family” fame which sold for K25, 000 (twenty-five thousand kwacha). NAC and VAC must be commended for this pop-up gallery and auction effort, hot on the heels of the inaugural Arts Business Forum it is surely the way to go and truly articulates NAC’s “2019: Year of The Arts” and “Celebrating and investing in the arts” slogans.

So before we get back to Mateke, why are we making mention of this event again? It is to stimulate debate that the Zambian art consumer has an amplified liking for portraiture. If not, why were portraits separated from other artworks? Within the Zambian context regardless of one’s rank in the art consuming society, be it the casual, curious or well-versed art enthusiast, many do not see art beyond the portrait.

Which is not a bad thing, but this does border on banal insularity as artists are often belittled and measured by how well they can replicate a photograph. The portrait is everything, which is why the nonprofessional’s first question to an artist remains, “so you are an artist, can you draw me?” On that score, you can ask any artist, to be honest; most artists find the question annoying if not offensive because they see themselves more than someone who just possesses the ability of drawing people’s faces.

“I am passionate”, 2019
charcoal and acrylic,
on canvas by Alina Mateke
It is no surprise therefore, that figurative portraits of a head of state would be separated from other works of art and auctioned off. However, we should ask what is it that the Zambian art consumer sees in these portraits? We should also ask the artist, what is it that inspires them to sit down and pour over their canvases and pieces of papers for long lonely hours to depict—in many cases—the faces of famous people they will never even meet. Whom does the portrait empower? The person portrayed? the viewer? Or indeed the artist by lining a coin or two in her or his pocket?

Mulling over all these questions, we should try to move away from the analysis of likeness in portraiture but also consider the cultural and socio-political implications of portrait making. What are the power relations between the artist who has painted a portrait, the viewer and the person within it? This is whether the portrait was a commission or not. In addition, we should always interrogate the visual agency of art and its ability to change the mentality of the populace.

Further readings of portraits such as those in Mateke’s “I am a woman” series may subliminally speak to several women’s empowerment movements that fall under the “feminism” umbrella, seeing they are clearly sonnets that inspire confidence, passion, bravery and freedom in young women. What is the deeper reading of portraits by other artists? Should we not be reading them more than just portraits?

Nevertheless, this year, Mateke has worked on over 20 commissioned portraits alongside an interactive project called Project Nam through which she hopes to create a dialogue between the Namibian Community and the Country’s Social Influencers. Some of these and other private works can be viewed on her social media platforms. But fortunately, alongside her “I am a woman” series, visitors to the Livingstone National Gallery will have the opportunity to see what she calls her “pencil sketches”, in essence these hyper-realistic portraits can be described as photographs made using a pencil. Some of these portraits constitute the 24 works that are on display. According to Mateke, she is displaying 24 works because that will be her age at the close of the year 2019.

“I am free”, 2019, charcoal and acrylic,
on canvas by Alina Mateke
Again Mateke is not all about charcoal and pencil, during her studies, she discovered her love for Ceramics and nurtured it alongside drawing. She has since undertaken four internships, where she has worked under the mentorship of some internationally acclaimed ceramists such as Sarie Maritz and Jacqui Van Vuuren as well as award winning graphic designer Tanya Stroh and most recently ceramic jewellery designer Elke Le Roux in Cape Town.

In addition, she is not all about globetrotting. During the course of her studies abroad, she was involved in the local art scene, notably, in 2015, she participated in the “Insaka International Artists Workshop” alongside other Zambian and international artists in Livingstone.

Anyhow, Mateke’s remains an inspirational story of how childhood dreams can be achieved with the full support of parents, that is, parents who do not force careers on their children.  From the beginning of her journey, she has had the full support of her parents, Vimbi Mateke, an educationalist and Clare Mateke a Biologist and artist.

Being an artist, it is her mother who encouraged her to start exhibiting at an early and being a teacher, it is her father who inspired her to start teaching at Lubasi Hope Orphanage, when she completed grade 12. Before she left for university, she helped children in reading and maths, the work at the orphanage is what later got her a teaching assistant position at Acacia International School in Livingstone. For now, there is no telling whether what is next for Mat eke whether she will stay home or return to Namibia where she already seems to be established. In any case this is just the beginning of her story. 

Artist, Alina Mateke - the work is
an exploration of what it
means to be a woman