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Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Maonde’s Utopia now showing at Zambia Ultra Art Gallery

By Andrew Mulenga

“Utopia” is the title of Livingstone-based artist Alumedi Maonde’s ongoing solo exhibition opened at the Zambia Ultra Art Gallery at Garden City Mall near airport roundabout in Lusaka on Saturday the 13th of July and will run until the 19th.

According to several dictionary explanations, the narrowest definition of “Utopia” is an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect. However, if one were tempted to broaden the definition by bringing it closer to home, beloved Zambia is a “Utopia”, if the lyrics of our cherished National Anthem are anything to go by that is.

Transformation of women into masks
- acrylic on canvas by Alumedi Maonde
As citizens of this dreamland do we not stand and sing that Zambia is a “Land of work and joy in unity”, are we not “like a noble eagle in its flight” and are we not “All one strong and free”? Surely that sounds like something people who live in a blissful utopia may sing. But then again, perhaps the Zambian Utopia is a figment of the imagination that only dwells in the lyrics of a national anthem?
But then maybe Zambia actually is a physical Utopia, albeit to a select few. It is a utopia if you are a prominent politician who is flown abroad for medical treatment at the expense of the underprivileged taxpayer who herself cannot access quality healthcare.

Zambia is a utopia when you are an underperforming member of parliament who is no longer appreciated by her constituency but you enjoy the Utopian benefits of a member of parliament.

Correspondingly, Zambia is not a utopia if you are among the innocent students at a leading public Zambian university and a trigger-happy Minister of Higher Education has made the indefinite shutting down of universities her favourite pastime at the slightest student’s movement activity.

It is not a utopia if you are a trader whose stall was gutted at City Market two years ago and you are still struggling to make ends meet as you wait for “Boma Ilanganepo” (government to intervene). Neither is it a utopia if your small business relies on electricity but you are constantly hit by what is now being called “load management” and still the revenue authority still wants its share of your money.

Zambia is not a utopia if it is rife with a souring debt situation, that is seemingly becoming uncontrollable, if freedom of speech and the press is perhaps on its lowest ebb since independence or if political indifference is the order of the day.

Shadows of childhood - acrylic on
canvas by Alumedi Maonde
Dear reader, please ignore the last seven paragraphs. This article is about Maonde’s ongoing exhibition. It is not supposed to be about the author’s twisted ideas on Zambia being a utopia based on the national anthem, or how he alleges that some Zambians might be living a better life at the expense of others.

Nevertheless, maybe Zambia is not a utopia after all, seeing utopia is synonymous with ideal place, paradise, heaven, Eden, Shangri-La, Nirvana, Elysium, Bliss, Ichalo Chipya and a host of other places that tend to exist only in fantasy, fables, poems, hymns, Holy books and of course the National Anthems.

Maonde’s “utopia” however, is a body of work that investigates different aspects of life as experienced on the African continent and Zambia in particular. According to the artist, it permeates a poetic interpretation of cultural and social experiences that are not neutral to the influence of foreign, predominantly western ideas and traditions. Most importantly, Maonde’s Utopia represents a journey into his own subconscious and dreams, both of which heavily inspire his work.

For this reason, the work is intimate, in that it taps into the inner recesses of the artist’s instinct by whatever means. Consequently, the work might be described as emotive and intuitive, connected to its creators psyche. As such, the artworks are therefore cathartic on the part of the artist, a tourniquet of creativity that allows for an outpouring of his inner being, his dreams or nightmares.  

Even so, the subject matter in many of the works is not exclusive to the artist’s personal reflections and dreams. They can easily be related to society’s everyday happenings. Take for instance the painting “Transformation of women into masks”.

Utopia - acrylic on canvas
by Alumedi Maonde
The painting outwardly has a double meaning. It may refer to the masks of heavy makeup that women wear on a daily basis in order to beautify themselves, boost their confidence, support the billion dollar cosmetic industry, or for whatever reason it is that make-up is applied. Alternatively, it might be the transforming of recognisable facial features into African masks. African masks being one of Maonde’s favorite motifs. According to Maonde, for his abstraction, he borrows this style from the Zambian modern master, Akwila Simpasa who used it frequently in his work as can be seen in several of his works on display at the Lusaka National Museum and some private collections.
One good example of Maonde’s reference to Simpasa is entitled “Utopia”, a work that shares its title with the exhibition. The manner in which the panting is rendered is not unlike Simpasa’s 1972 work entitled “Christiana Happy Face” that is on permanent display at the Lechwe Trust Gallery in Lusaka.  
Again, another subject concerning everyday matters is the piece entitled “Shadows of childhood”. It is a conversation around the slow-ticking time bomb of homeless children who sleep under bridges by night and are found at traffic lights by day. The current situation is that children are giving birth to children and raising families on the streets right before our eyes. They are always intoxicated with the makeshift glue and sewer (excrement) foam called jenkem that they sniff all day.

These children make one ponder over societies shifting moral codes, a testament to the disintegration of the extended family. A social problem that nobody—especially politicians and ministries in charge of social welfare—seems to care about but hopes that one day we will all wake up and find they have disappeared. For Maonde to place a work such as this in the exhibition provides for an interesting rhetorical device to reveal the paradox of homeless children, “Shadows of childhood” is an oxymoron in an exhibition entitled “Utopia”.

Nevertheless, although Maonde remains experimental in his art production and this is his first solo exhibition, he has been practicing on the professional art circuit for over a decade, possibly his entire adult life. Professionally, he sees himself as a product of the defunct Art Academy without Walls where he used to participate in the drawing and performance workshops programme from 2003.

Patching up a marriage - acrylic
on hessian by Alumedi Maonde
If anything, he is making something of a comeback. One of his most productive years was 2007, not only was he a finalist for the once prestigious Ngoma Awards in the best upcoming artist category, he was part of the  4th Insaka International Artists workshop and took part in Zambezi Creations group show, featuring artists from Livingstone, Choma and Monze at the Henry Tayali Gallery. Other group exhibitions that he has featured in are Art In The Sun at the then Sun Hotel and Zambia-China Afroriental, Beijing.

Currently he is enrolled as a third-year BA Fine art student at the Zambian Open University (ZAOU) where predictably he is one of the best in his intake. He is one of the few artists of his generation that have decide to enrol in the university after already wetting their beaks on the professional art scene. According to Maonde, enrolling in ZAOU has helped sharpen his intellectual skills in the areas of critical theory vis-à-vis art; he argues that artists who are known to disparage the institution in comparison to universities abroad do not know what they are missing.

Maonde’s show is definitely a must see, either from an art lovers perspective or that of a collector. Collectors should expect a moderate price bracket for an artist of Maonde’s calibre, in fact now would be the best time to add him in your collection. Visitors to the Zambia Ultra Art Gallery at Garden City Mall should expect to see at least 30 of the 40 artworks that he has brought in from Livingston. (This article was first published in The Mast newspaper's (Zambia) print edition).
Although he has been active for
over 10 years, this is Maonde's first solo

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