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Sunday, 18 November 2012

Is race a determining factor in art sales?

By Andrew Mulenga

In a short space of time, basically since 2010, when he caught the public’s eye at the age of 24 with “… and the dream came true” a painting of President Obama with Martin Luther King exhibited at the Heroes and Heroines exhibition during the Black History Month at the Lusaka National Museum, Caleb Chisha has rapidly established himself as one of Zambia’s most gifted young painters.

If Wishes Were Horses, 84 x 90cm,
(oil on canvas) by Caleb Chisha
His work at that exhibition was just a sign of things to come:  an affectionate engagement with the time-consuming process of painting and strict precision coupled with bold intensity of colour that he is now fusing with a deep imagination, giving him an extraordinarily unique visual style. His latest works, now showing alongside an artist simply named Fifo at the Zebra Crossing Café on Addis Ababa Drive in Lusaka suggest Chisha’s potential of being the country’s ‘next big painter’, an assumption that even Serena Ansley, the Café owner and art enthusiast agrees with.

Chisha, who left for Denmark on Thursday on a privately sponsored, three-month working tour whose details he was not too enthusiastic in disclosing, shared a few insights on his latest work speaking from his small studio space at the Arts Academy Without Walls, a makeshift artists workspace and popular hangout for established as well as upcoming painters and sculptors alike.

“I can say I have improved big time. Because since we last talked I never even had my own touch, but now, I can safely say I am becoming confident and developing my own touch. I think I have improved a lot,” said the Ndola-bred painter who migrated to Lusaka in pursuit of better prospects in art, a more positive twist to the infamous ‘Zimandola’ nickname given to the scores of sharp-witted, Bemba-speaking youths that migrated to the capital in swarms to hustle for a living as homeless youths, pickpockets, bus conductors, thugs and ladies of the night when the Copperbelt experienced a long-standing economic downturn shortly after the privatisation of the mines.

 “Last year I had a lot of commissioned works but this year I’ve been turning some of them down because I’ve been working for exhibitions, I’ve spent most of my time on exhibition work,” said the painter whose new found style, is an expressive language that is quite distinctive and is characterised by an aesthetic that mimics cut and torn canvases rendering layered meanings.

Incest, 85cm x 115cm, (oil on canvas),
by Caleb Chisha
“That’s my new touch, I am trying to reveal the hidden truths, and things people want to ignore and pretend are not there. So I paint a torn canvas to reveal the real world, things that people do not want to be seen,” said a self-assured Chisha.

A good example of his new work is If Wishes Were Horses. It is the image of young girl seated on the floor having her hair plaited in the manner that township girls do. She is deeply absorbed in thought with a pensive expression on her face, because in actual fact, she is not having her hair plaited. The person plating her hair is imaginary and appears as phantom-like figure under a canvas that has come to life. In the sides of the picture, the artist imitates the wooden inner mounting of the actual painting.

“For an African child it is believed beauty is in the hair, but as a poor girl she cannot afford to be taken to the hair salon, she can only wish to go there, so that is why when she is deep in her imagination there is that figure coming out of the canvas and plating her hair”, explained the artist of this particular work.

But as captivating as his work might be, it is a week since the opening and Chisha still has not sold a single of his 20 or so paintings whereas Fifo on the other hand has managed to sell about seven although their price tags are of relatively similar value. Formerly based in Malawi, the little known Fifo, has been working as a full time artist for only three years and this was her very first exhibition in Zambia meaning she did quite well for a virtually unknown, Mukushi-based artist who has suddenly attracted collectors in Lusaka, unless of course she travelled with them from Mkushi.

“It’s not easy when you are exhibiting with a white person; you know those guys (people of European decent) support each other. Even the people who bought Fifo’s works approached me and told me how much they liked my work but they never bought anything. But Anyway, it’s a one month exhibition, I am sure I will sell something before the end of the show, “explained Chisha of his sales predicament.

Chisha is probably the first artist on record to openly speak out on a dilemma that artists have been murmuring about for some time, except they never get the nerve to say so in the press, probably for fear of losing potential buyers. Race is pretty much a determinant in the purchasing of works and we often ignore to confront the issue of marginalisation of works by Zambians who are not of European decent when shown in an exhibition that attracts or involves the latter.

In simpler words, it is the colour of the artist’s skin and not his or her pallete that determines the sales in an exhibition, of course one cannot really put a finger on it, but it cannot be entirely ruled out.

I can do it, 53 x 67cm (oil on canvas)
by Caleb Chisha
Racial fragmentation, a topic that is tackled head-on in countries such as South Africa and Zimbabwe where identity politics is very much a part of their visual and verbal discourse in comedy, theatre, and the visual arts, is avoided as much as possible here in Zambia, including in the media. This very newspaper’s mission statement for instance is quite sensitive when it comes to referring to individuals by their racial heritage, one cannot be addressed as a ‘black’, ‘white’ or other.

Anyhow, Chisha may have a point, in February at the same venue, a relatively playful exhibition of paintings by artists virtually unknown on the Zambian circuit, Helen Gray, Storm Treger, Antoinette du Rand and Linda Castle literally sold out. Similarly, London-based Emily Kirby, who habitually visits her Zambian-based parents had extraordinary sales in May this year, so did Nicole Sanderson and Katrina Ring during the same period. Quentin Allen’s show as absorbing as it was goes without saying.

But these ‘European decent’ sales are not restricted to this venue alone. The Alliance Francaise in Lusaka too has had quite a few shows with a similar pattern, the latest being ‘Dreaming’ a delightful solo exhibition by Carol Aslin.

Chisha’s observation in any case can be interpreted as a cry, a cry if not to ‘his kind’ to start purchasing art; it is the cry for support from a technically unemployed youth who is managing to earn a living by means of his creative talents.

He has had no training beyond completing grade 12 at Kansenshi Secondary school in 2006 and in his last interview he was in a dilemma as whether to enrol for a Diploma in art the Evelyn Hone College or a BA in Fine Art at the Zambian Open University. Of course it does not automatically mean that qualifications from any of the two will help him earn a better living as much as it will help strengthen his academic status.

Is Chisha not an embodiment of the youths that deputy labour minister Rayford Mbulu said needed support at a youth conference which was held under the theme ‘Finding space for youth in trade unions and creating decent job opportunities amidst a global financial crisis’ in Livingstone recently?.

The grass is alway greener, (oil on acrylic
background on canvas) by Fifo
According to a recent story by The Post’s Brina Manenga-Siwale, Mbulu said addressing the challenges of youth unemployment needed the concerted efforts of the government, private sector and trade unions. “We need to join hands in implementing proactive measures to address the challenges of youth unemployment. Our collective effort should focus on tackling unemployment to fight poverty. We need to invest in higher education and vocational skills training and create more decent jobs for young people.”

Chisha is just one of several young artists who spend long, late hours at the Arts Academy Without Walls in the showgrounds and other spaces across the country yet later struggle to sell their work. These youths are doing their part; it does not take a genius to see who is not doing theirs. All in all, it is a crying shame for artists that there seems to be no antidote for an aesthetically challenged audience.
Chisha and Fifo’s exhibition runs until the end of November. Fifo has some fascinating paintings of landscapes and farm animals, mostly cattle on display and employs an interesting use of dead white space on her canvases.
Chisha has a few experimental works on display that one wishes he could have left in the studio as well as a loose end from the art being displayed at My Choice, a décor shop at Manda Hill Mall in Lusaka, painting entitled What’s for Me that had been hanging in the shop for some time.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

2001 AU sculpture continues to serve as notice board

By Andrew Mulenga

Residential Plots for sale, Maids Available, Airtel Clec Promotions presents Zaiko Langa-Langa live in concert, JK Pistol Independence Album Launch, this list of posters reads like one you expect to find on a bus station notice board or in a market place.

The statue by Zambian sculptor Flinto Chandia
was commissioned by government commemorate
the African Union 2001 Lusaka Summit
This is in fact a list of posters placed on a historical monument that was erected to commemorate the African Union Summit in Lusaka in 2001 which stands along Chikwa Road, right at the Addis Ababa round-about, somewhere in between the MTN Head Office and Lusaka Girls Primary School.

Since it’s unveiling before the summit, just over a decade ago, this sculpture by Flinto Chandia, one of the country’s most celebrated artists has lured every manner of poster from political campaign posters to gospel outreach posters, which is quite unfortunate seeing that the work is a public commission. Some of the glue from older posters has hardened so dry that it will take some kind of industrial thinners to remove these stains.

Speaking from his Avondale home early this week, Chandia, gave an insight into the efforts that went into the production of the work which basically depicts two stylized hands holding a map of Africa that is set on a white tablet.

“The work came through cabinet office as part of the AU summit. When they (Government) need artists they come to us through the National Arts Council or the Visual Arts Council. Anyway, I was commissioned to do the work just six weeks before the launch,” he said “But shortly after the work was commissioned what followed was very sad as you can see it just shows you that we have no respect for public works of art. All these art organisations just drive past and don’t do anything about it, I’m glad you are here and we are talking about it maybe we can bring some public awareness to it.”

Admitting that it was not the best thing to do, he suggested that a 6 foot metal fence with spiked railings on the top should be erected around the sculpture rather than targeting the people who are placing posters on it.

“If you move around Lusaka, you find works like Henry Tayali’s The Graduate at the University of Zambia or the elephant I did at COMESA. These are well protected because they are fenced off, in guarded premises but if they were in the open I’m sure they would have faced the same fate as the AU sculpture”

He revealed that even before the sculpture was unveild he encountered a number of difficulties within the procurement system for the commissioning of the work.

“When working with large stones, you need ready cash at your disposal because there are a lot of payments to be made right from the start. You have to hire a crane to start with. To hire a crane is about K550, 000 per hour in Lusaka, and they will always charge a minimum of 3 hours, demanding the money upfront”, he explained. He also explained that he first had to locate a huge stone, but as much as he was able to find it in the Chalala area in Chilenje South, he then had to hire manual workers to cut the huge rock from the ground in order for it to be transported to his studio.

“This is why you need an upfront payment of about K6 million. I had problems with getting the money at cabinet office where someone had already been given the money but he was sitting on the cheque (expecting a bribe from the artist). Cash has to work every day until the job is complete. You see, every time you have to turn the stone you need the crane, and this was in July and it was very cold, you can imagine working with stone when it’s cold.”

Close-up of the plinth
He explained that while some individuals were eager to help get the project started, others were more eager in unveiling the work without fully understanding that six weeks was very short notice for a stone sculpture and the tight-fisted behaviour from some bureaucrats was not helping.

“I told them, you guys are more interested in the president unveiling the sculpture than anything else. And then, I don’t know some crazy guy went on and organised the unveiling meanwhile I was still working on the piece in the studio, total confusion,” he said “So then one of my assistants who happened to pass by the site found everything in progress including a brass band playing in readiness for president Frederick Chiluba’s arrival. So when a convoy came to my place to check on the statue I told them that cabinet office should just tell the president the truth, that the work is not yet ready. So he had to unveil it the following day.”

Chandia observed that there are very few works of public art in Zambia and indeed one can count the ones in Lusaka on one hand.

“Look at the national team that brought the Africa champions trophy. For the first time Zambians are champions why not put something up at football house? It might not happen again in a very long time. Also the same statue can commemorate the fallen heroes,” he said “We have all these roundabouts that we can beautify, the airport turn off, Arcades. We have a number of Zambian artists that can do it; I’m not the only one. When we are abroad we are busy taking photos in front of sculptures but what about here, back home?”

Nevertheless, as Chandia rightfully observes, there are very little public art works in Lusaka, let alone Zambia, so it would only be fitting that the works should be protected some how. We should not be surprised if we find posters on Lady Justice at the court buildings or on the Freedom Statue. The two angular arches that commemorate independence for instance, the one in Matero near the police station and the one on the junction as you enter the Kabwata- Madras area just next to the Mosque have been plastered with posters over the years to the point where they are not even visible anymore. These are issues that the much rumoured arts commission (whoever it is going to consist of) that is to be formed can look in to, to come up with a Public Art Protection Policy of some sort, and also to look into the general commissioning of new works.

But although the public commissioning of sculptures has been sluggish for decades, Chandia revealed that there has been a rise in indivduals he described as “dynamic Zambian businessmen” with new money who have adopted an affinity for adorning their homes and business spaces with works of art. He said these businessmen, from various backgrounds are collecting and commissioning art without trying to haggle too much with the artists, he is happy that they are buying the work for what he believes it is worth.

Before the recent developments of a local market, Chandia used to export his works through Chaminuka Nature Reserve and Safari lodge, under the patronage of businessman and one time voracious art collector Andrew Sardanis. Chandia’s work also features in the Tress collection, California, USA, the Sir Robert Loder collection, UK, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, UK, the Thabo Mbeki Collection, RSA, the Kenneth Kaunda collection and others, one of his works; a curvaceous female torso can be seen at the Lusaka National Museum. He was one of the first Copperbelt artists to make a breakthrough onto the Lusaka art scene at the now defunct Mpapa Gallery in 1978, and later studied fine art at the City & Guilds in London from 1980 to 1983.

He is known for his organic style in hard wood, dolomite and marble.  Chandia grew up in a mining township in Kitwe on the same street as the legendary and much revered Akwila Simpasa, late Henry Tayali’s arch nemesis, an artist he has looked up to for inspiration throughout his career.
While in the UK, he was also a bass player in the chart-topping British pop band Jimmy The Hoover. In June 1983, their hit single "Tantalise (Wo Wo Ee Yeh Yeh)" reached the top 20 in the UK Singles Chart.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Flip, a flipping riveting read!

By Andrew Mulenga
Flip magazine, a much anticipated illustrated publication intended at being a cocktail of outright humour, traditional fables, political satire, short journalistic features and sport in that particular order of importance has been stores for a few weeks now.  
The front cover of Flip
magazine's first edition
It is called Flip because its authors aim at sharing: “the flipside of the official version of the ‘truth’ as we feel that there is more to the events and systems around us than the media has been able to tell us because media in our beloved Zambia is yet to be as free as we want it to be” reads part of the editor’s introductory remarks.
“We benefit from contributions of blossoming cartoonists writers and graphic artists providing a platform of free expression and debate to them and you, the reader”.
The glossy, full-colour, 32-page magazine’s No. 1 October 2012 issue features a caricature of President Michael Sata with a raised fist chanting the words “Donch remember” (don’t remember) on the cover, obviously suggesting that the president cannot remember any of his campaign promises.
The contents of the magazine are divided into a list of two, ‘regulars’ and ‘one-off’ features from wide-ranging contributors mainly cartoonists but it also features the rabblerousing political satirist and former Post Newspaper columnist Roy Clark popularly known as Kalaki.
The magazine kicks off with House Mouse; a full page comic strip with a Tom and Jerry style narrative, except it is not quite as funny, well at least not yet.
It is followed by two pages of Under the Bed; a story illustrated by Clement Nami and loosely based on late kalindula maestro PK Chishala’s hit 1980’s song Pole Pole which speaks of an evangelical pastor who was in fact a sorcerer in his free time.
The next two pages feature the very graphic Massacre at Paishuko which is basically the story of a massacre of members of Alice Lenshina’s Lumpa religious sect in 1964 told by Roy Clarke - a story avoided like the plague among Zambian journalists since the happenings themselves.
A clip from 'Donch-remember'
by Kiss, Kalaki and Chipepo
“On the morning of 7th August 1964 the village of Paishuko in Lundazi District was overrun by armed UNIP militants who massacred all forty-six unarmed and peaceful residents, men, women and children. Many of those who died had been cruelly tortured and mutilated before being horribly murdered. This is one event that is missing from our school history books”, writes Clarke in his first paragraph for one of the few non-humorous contribution in the magazine.
The article may not sit well with Dr Kenneth Kaunda’s admirers as Clarke points out that the Lumpa sect saw the imposition of the infamous State of Emergency that was to last 27 years providing Kaunda with a legal backbone to run a “police state”.
“With these powers Kaunda could circumvent the courts and lock up his perceived political opponents at his absolute discretion. This State of Emergency was finally lifted by Frederick Chiluba in November 1991,” Concludes Clarke. The story is as sombre as they come and features grisly images of massacred women and children as well as a rare yet delightful photo of smiling, young Alice Lenshina borrowed from John Hudson’s book A Time to Mourn (available in Bookworld stores). Clarke’s piece will make interesting reading for any devotee of history.
Clarke’s article is followed by the magazines attempt at an advice column, Ask Celestine that features a letter from a 16-year-old girl who has been stalking her father since she discovered he has a ‘secret’ sim-card that he is hiding from her mother that he uses to contact a younger girlfriend among other things.
Up next are two pages that feature a short story called The Curse of Baraba, a well-illustrated cartoon strip by Nasalifya Simpamba, with bold, voluptuous imagery and earthy colours that give the drawings a very distinctive African feel. The tale is of a young lady who suffers a curse and bears a name that can only be pronounced at the peril of him who utters it. Not the strongest of narratives, but definitely a good show of artistic talent.
This is followed by a very short black and white strip entitled Silent Movie, probably owing to the fact that it has no text to go with it, but it clearly examines child defilement, and has an anti-child abuse advertisement placed just below it. The work is not signed but it is evidently by the hand of Wisdom Fwati, a cartoonist based in Lusaka’s Mtendere compound.
Silent Movie is followed by The Wise Friend another two-page strip inspired by the moralizing African fables of oral tradition which discusses the importance of loyalty in friendship. The humanoid characters in this story have mask-like features that mimic popular African masks, in this case, the Chokwe masks of North Western Zambia. This strip too is full of character, once again executed with earthy colours and strong African imagery skilfully illustrated by London Kamwendo.
A clip from the cartoon strip The blue & white chronicals
by London Kamwendo
After a centrefold poster of Paul Ngozi and a fairly packed, one-page profile of the late Zambian rock star by Tembwe Kamima, Kamwendo returns with The Mystery of the Nyami-Nyami which tells the tale of the legendary river god of the Zambezi River and Kariba Dam. It features an intricately illustrated impression of the serpent-spirit and once again features mask-faced characters such as those featured in The Wise Friend.
The next page features Quick Flip Through Sport and an article titled How Old is A Footballer? by Sugar Edgar Musonda a Zambian based in Canada.
Apparently, Musonda is attempting to write about age fixing in soccer and lace it with humour, but it does not really seem to tickle the ribs. He could have gone the Clarke and Kamima route and should have just written something that is not trying too hard to be funny. It would have definitely worked, and being the winner of a UK Zambians Sports Administrator Award he is obviously good at what he does, if he puts his mind to it, better luck next time.
Nasalifya Simpamba of The Curse of Baraba returns with a typical Kalulu hare fable followed by London Kamwendo’s The Blue & White Chronicles, a hilarious three-page narrative of passenger and conductor relations that features a foulmouthed bus conductor who frequently bad mouths his passengers, something any Zambian commuter can relate to. This one provides for a hearty laugh yet involves very little text and coupled with digital colour editing by 2G Creative, its superb artistry is of international standards, it makes you wonder where such creative types have been hiding.
Next up is The Worthy Suitor, another Kalulu fable, this time by late cartoonist and social activist Davis Chapi who died early this year and was seen as a mentor among many up-coming cartoonists.
The magazine closes with a rib-tickling poke at politicians and their perceived failure to honour election promises. Donch-remember! by Kiss, Kalaki and Chipepo is obviously a swipe at republican president Michael Sata and his PF government citing what the authors perceive as an extension of the “90 days” election promise as well as u-turning on issues such as Barotse, the media freedom bill and Chinese investment.
As much as it is essentially experimental and has been made possible by the help of donors, for only K2,000,  flipping through Flip magazine one realises it makes  a flipping riveting read as you do not even notice you have reached the last page a few minutes after you started reading it. It is published by KBA Innovations, a media outfit headed by the very capable cartoonist Kiss Abrahams who is without doubt Zambia’s top caricaturist following the death of the celebrated Trevor Ford or Yuss (as he was fondly called), a mantle he is supposed to be sharing with the equally prodigious Angel Phiri who took up less comical responsibilities in senior management at Muvi TV. It is available in all leading book stores and supermarkets countrywide.  Zambian magazines are notorious for going under, and we have often been teased for not being a magazine country, regularly opting for glossier South African alternatives, let us hope times have changed and Flip is here to stay.