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Monday, 30 December 2013

Zambia Open University produces first art graduates

By Andrew Mulenga

There was a huge banner that read “Zambia Open University 1st Degree Show” in the foyer of the Lusaka National Museum the past couple of weeks, but in case you overlooked or just missed it and went straight into the main exhibition area, you obviously noticed a curious jumble of paintings, drawings and handicrafts.

Figure Drawing - Study (mixed media)
60cm x 70cm
by Andrew Katembula
But then again this mishmash of art was in fact the narrative of a four-year creative and academic journey experienced by about thirty gradaunds that will be Zambia’s first ever, locally schooled Bachelor’s degree holders in fine art.

“Zambia can now boast of the Visual Arts degree at Zambian Open University (ZAOU). Now we can also pride ourselves with the first cohort of our own graduates in art” stated Billy Nkunika, Senior-Lecturer and Head of Department in a congratulatory word to the students last week.

However, Nkunika, also hopes a good number of staff, books, more modules, art materials, print-making equipment and studio-facilities can be acquired for conducting practical activities to help raise the bar.

Fellow lecturer and unyielding crusader of art education in Zambia William Miko who for the past five years or so has been championing – through the press and public fora -- a cause he has coined ‘Correcting a national anomaly’ in reference to the arts not being of particular importance in the country’s schooling system came out very strongly in his statement for the 1st Degree show.

“The institutions of higher learning that hold-fast to old theoretical educational paradigms and bygone discourse and shy away from incorporating a much broader and pragmatic approach to a pedagogy that includes the Visual Arts, are a hindrance towards any trajectory of national development,” he stated, hurling an obvious jab at the University of Zambia.

Miko described the introduction of a Fine Arts degree course at the ZAOU whose predominant mode of course delivery is a Distance Learning system as awesome.

Gravity Has Respect For Me
(oil on canvas) Sylvia Mwando
“This is what I call ‘correcting a national anomaly’ because Zambia has had no school of art at university level since she attained her independence in October 1964. Now, the course is here and the first ever grandaunts are herein showcasing their art academic pursuits in this Degree Show at the Lusaka National Museum today the 20th of December 2013”.

He implied that the grandaunds are being produced at a time he thought the current political dispensation has begun to take note of the absence of – art – the ‘soul of the nation’ and that the creative industries to which Fine Art belongs is under what he regards a “positive review by Government at all levels: from re-aligning the school curriculum to coagulating arts, culture, museum and heritage sector under one government administrative structure.”

He described as fortunate that the majority of the gradaunds have a teaching background which he feels should make it easier for a torch of enlightenment in Arts Education to shine beyond the walls of their classrooms and lecture rooms.

“Needless to say, the road to this day has not been easy for both learner and lecturer. Each time I saw these brave and self-motivated students arrive for their short residential schooling and examinations in ZAOU challenging hired spaces, I felt strengthened by the words of the late USA President Kennedy who said to the American people: Ask not what your nation can do for you; ask rather what you can do for your nation!”

Prodigal Father (acrylic on canvas)
82 cm x 65 cm Chewe Brian Malama
Miko charged some of the obstacles came from the very people that he hoped would assist such as close associates, friends as well as some of the students who were graduating. He proclaimed that what he and a handful of companions has done, one needed to – in the words of Francis of Assisi – to “labour and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds…” by sacrificing almost everything, including monetary gain or prestige.

“Moved by the ethos ‘Service above Self’ and inspired by our own Art legends like Henry Tayali, Shadreck Simukanga, Martin Abasi Phiri, Prof. Mapopa Mtonga, Jacob Chirwa and countless others, past and present, we thought we could try and build on what the likes of the late icon Nelson Mandela did by teaching the world peace,” he stated not sparing Madiba but irksomely forgetting one of Zambia’s most influential artists Akwila Simpasa in his speech-making.

 “Our task has just been a simple one - starting the first ever Fine Arts degree programme in Zambia, thanks to the ZAOU this ‘national anomaly’ is corrected now and indeed great thanks to you students for believing in me,” he concluded.

Miko is also a practicing artist who recently completed the restoration work of the Njase Murals by the late Emmanuel Nsama in Choma; he is also curator and arts administrator having studied at the Middlesex University in the United Kingdom and counts the likes of South African celebrity artist Zwilethu Mthetwa as his contemporary.

Nevertheless along with collegues he has been under critical attack over the past few years for what some have claimed the teaching or training of half-baked artists. His students, often labelled as his ‘disciples’ have been accused of taking up the course merely to pursue a first degree that will enable them to get promotions within their institutions or government ministries citing their rare appearances in art exhibitions that feature ‘mainstream artists’. But in their confessions, these so-called disciples, particularly the fourth-years cannot be bothered by these not-so-kind contentions.

Self Portrait, by Alex Nkazi
“The period under review here has been educative and challenging at the same time for a distant scholar of the creative industry.  During this period, I have undergone a series of theoretical and studio practice training processes in Fine Art,” Stated 49-year-old Felix Wakyembe who Lives and a Headmaster at Kyapatala Primary School in Solwezi, North-western Province. “The introduction of a live model in our drawing class in studio practice by Mr Miko was challenging to me in the beginning, but later on, it became a good menu for art drawing practice. This level of academic discourse and its theoretical engagement made me take a deeper understanding of my abilities which triggered my skills development in art.”

Felix Maliwa, a 33-year-old teacher of art in Limulunga district, Western Province testified:

 I have acquired a lot of artistic knowledge during my four year study of fine art degree program on MPFA.  Involved were: students’ study tours, studio practice activities and all the assignments in theoretical discourse. These engagements have created a great impact on my life, although residential school durations were always short.  Nonetheless, I have come to appreciate various visual cultures that permeate societies around the world. As a matter of fact, I am now a competently exposed and educated Zambian contemporary artist”

“The past four years have been an eye opener to me in my study of Fine Arts at a higher level. I have learnt a lot in art history, photography, different cultures, drawing, paintings and exhibitions. This has enabled me to interact with various personalities in the arts industry and has also exposed me to insights in the manner exhibitions conducted…” declared Mary Wauna a 39 year old teacher of art at Kabwe Secondary School.

“My four year odyssey has greatly enriched my understanding and appreciation of my culture as an African. Through art, there are so many signs and symbols in African culture, which are symbols, are equivalent to the Western alphabetical literacy. These signs and symbols are so rich, obscure and subtle as they may seem, they tend to convey significant messages to the discerning decoder. For this and more other reasons, I am more than poised to uphold my African identity. Thanks to the introduction of this BFA,” stated Andrew Katembula a 38-year-old Lecturer of art at Evelyn Hone College.
And Chewe Brian Malama a deputy teacher of art at Kasalamakanga Basic School in Mkushi declared: “I have learnt art theories and gained the skills of executing artworks professionally.  The course has also helped me to gain curatorial skills. I would like to thank the ZAOU Management for making the school of art a reality in Zambia. In particular, my gratitude goes to the Dean Mr B. Nkunika, the coordinating lecturer Mr William Bwalya Miko and the Tutor Mr Elisha A. Zulu for being there through all our academic endeavours.”

Monday, 23 December 2013

Variety outlines Artmas exhibition

By Andrew Mulenga

On the face of it, Artmas – a combination of the words art and Christmas -- the Visual Arts Council of Zambia’s (VAC) end of year exhibition looks like any other routine show held at the Henry Tayali Gallery in the Lusaka Show grounds.

But a closer look will reveal that it does warrant our collective attention because it has a few surprise appearances by some artists who have been off the radar for a while, this, coupled with a refreshing  batch of newcomers makes it an enjoyable show worth visiting.

Crumbling at the seams (oil on canvas)
by Nukwase Tembo
Among the more experienced artists, Enoch Ilunga’s work makes an unexpected appearance after somewhat of a hiatus from the art circuit. Once known for his thickly applied paint in a typical impasto style where the paint stands up above the surface, the artist now appears to apply his paint thinly. It is his impasto nonetheless that once stole the hearts of Nordic Europe, earning him successful solo exhibitions at Gallery Viktoria in Göteborg in 1997, and Ugallery in Stockholm in 1999.

Speaking of impasto, this is the technique that the much younger Danny Lwando – who now signs his work as Chilyapa -- appears to have adopted after his own little hiatus from the scene. A good example would be Nyau, the portrait of a masked dancer finished in angular brush strokes or pallet knife.

Among some notable newcomers are Nukwase Tembo, Fr. Eliot Ngosa and Dwain Whitaker. Tembo, known more for her work as an actress than a painter provokes the audience in her painting Crumbling At The Seams which confronts the issue of two-facedness head-on and as she puts it herself: “It’s a metaphor representing society and how it often portrays itself in a sort of ‘holy’ façade, beneath that mask, there’s a lot of dirt that goes on”.

My Bad Xmas by (oil on canvas)
Eliot Ngosa (Fr.)
The painting depicts a young lady with her hair in a bun who is naked save for a Rosary – Catholic prayer beads -- and what is left of a torn, black nun’s habit around her left arm and collar. Her lower torso is only saved from nudity by racy black underwear only held together by a band around her broad hips. Although her body is completed in a shade of brown from the neck down, her expressionless face is in black and white and she has a huge crack on her right lower chin that complements the numerous stretch marks around her waist in some way reinforcing the paintings title. But what may be most striking about the image is the way the subject suggestively clutches her nipples and the white halo around her that gives her a pious aura against the stark red and black backgrounds.

Fr. Ngosa, a young Catholic priest of the Capuchin order who only took up painting a few years ago and out of a driven enthusiasm enrolled for a Fine art Degree at the Zambia Open University about a year ago shows his a painterly hand in My Bad Xmas that depicts a sad young child wiping tears of its face with the back of his hand. As a late bloomer, Fr. Ngosa shows that one can do it if one makes a determined effort to. Unlike his fellow students from ZAOU who for some reason tend to shy away from gallery exposure, he is not afraid to exhibit his work and await the sometimes merciless judgment of more expreienced artists and the public. And good for him, it is only by testing the waters that one can prove oneself, what is the point of painting for the classroom or the closet. The artist also has a large drawing in the exhibition that also reveals another area of strength.

Hash tag addict (mixed media)
by Dwain Whitaker
As for Whitaker, there is not much known about him, although he first caught public attention with his submission to the Lusaka 100 exhibition held at Manda Hill Mall in July, with his hip hop graffiti style he brought something new to the stage.

Of course it has been done many times, probably even before the time of the famous Haitian American Jean-Michel Basquiat, but this is the first time in Zambia we are seeing graffiti in a gallery. Now, to the uninitiated, this is not just the insults-on-the-public-toilet-wall type of graffiti, or the vote-for-so-and-so type of graffiti, it is spray paint graffiti as in one of the main elements of the hip hop cultural movement that began among the urban African American and Latino youths in New York in the early 1980s. What Whitaker is doing, is “throwing-up” if what the Johannesburg graffiti artist Dice from the Transit Killers told this author in an interview back in 2005 is anything to go by. According to Dice to “throw-up” is to spray the outline of a tag -- signature – rapidly in one or two colours just as Whitaker has done in the painting Hash Tag Addict. Just one look at the painting evokes some form of street credibility. Whitaker has two more paintings in the show and with titles such as Star 114 Hash and The Lost Button; he appears to be toying with the theme of mobile communication.

Nyau (mixed media)
by Chilyapa Lwando
The exhibition also has a few good wooden sculptures scattered across the floor particularly by the likes of Esaya Banda. His Elephant Skull made of salvaged wood is particularly a resourceful collector’s item and for a sculpture, its K3, 000 price tag is friendly. As for general pricing in the exhibition, in most cases it is fairly reasonable even to the gift buyers as the show’s curator Zenzele Chulu who is also VAC Vice Chairman explained in a brief interview a day after the opening last week.

“It’s simply an end of year exhibition and we asked artists to submit works that are less than 90cm around because we wanted to accommodate as many works as possible. The whole concept was based on the experience that at the end of the year we need smaller pieces because people tend to carry them off as gifts as they go on holiday”, he explained of the open themed exhibition.

My Cascade by Joachim Kalulu
However, he was not too happy with the show’s opening citing the small numbers of people that came through as a possible draw back to opening night sales. But he also explained that exhibitions are unpredictable and sometimes you can have a lot of people and no sales or a few people and a lot of sales.

Chulu is still confident that both sales and visits will pick up as the show closes in January. He explained that some visitors who could not make the opening actually braved the rains the following day. And reflecting on the year ended, he said it was not the best but he remains optimistic towards 2014.

”To be very frank we are not funded by any entity but the  centre has been able to survive through sales, one month to another even through these tuff conditions we have been able to pay our rent to the Show Society. It has been challenging but we have been able to survive,” he said of 2013.

Swing, the neighbourhood rampage
(oil on canvas) by Raphael Chilufya
He explained that one of the biggest disappointments this year was the annual National Exhibition in October, a huge undertaking for the artists with high expectations of recognizing some sales from the anticipated government “collection policy” which they hoped would have been put in effect by then.

The “collection policy” Chulu speaks of is ideally supposed to see government investing directly into the visual arts by purchasing works for public buildings such as the Government Complex, Parliament, Courts, Hospitals and so on. But such are things probably enshrined in the much anticipated Arts, Culture and Heritage Bill to be implemented by the National Arts and Culture Commission.

“We hope this commission works, you see the changing of names is one thing but changing of personnel is another, if you change the name of a river it is the same water that is flowing in it,” he explained using a metaphor.

Hair Plaiting (pastel on paper)
by Albert Kata
“The benefit should reach the artists in terms of grants, commissions and so on, we have seen it happen in other countries, but if we leave it open and allow every Jim and jack to jump on board here, we may not see the benefit. We have been treading on the same spot for too long, so when the commission comes in it should be a body that will change the outlook of Zambian art forever”.

In addition, Chulu said the coming year looks to be a busy one and that if in 2014 Zambia is going to celebrate 50 years of independence he feels that artists should be tasked to do a lot. He hopes that government and its cooperating partners can invest in the creative sector for the event.

 “It  is going to be the arts that will pronounce the anniversary, talk music festivals, film festivals and so on. Look at Kenya they had Kenya Art 50, they invited big artists just to spice up the event, I feel 2014 should be the biggest year on our calendar,” he said.

Chulu says visitors to the Henry Tayali Gallery next year should not expect an exhibition every month. VAC wants to have a few, but well organised exhibitions that will be timely with the 50 years.

Elephant Skull, (mixed media)
by Esaya Banda
“We are also thinking of a workshop where we will invite artists from our neighbouring countries. When there is a party you invite your neighbours. We are even thinking of a book, maybe something like 50 years of Zambian art” he said loosely modelling the book around 10 years 100 artists Art in A Democratic South Africa. He concluded by saying preparations for the jubilee should start in January and those with the resources should start coming forward, not wait until October.
Artmas runs until January 12 and art lovers can also catch a glimpse of works by the Lungu brothers, Jeff and Jim, Vincentio Phiri, David Chibwe, Adrian Ngoma, Mulenga Mulenga, John Mwandila, Joachim Kalulu, Christopher Simbule, Albert Kata, Raphael Chilufya and others.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Patrick Mumba’s colour engulfs Inters in ongoing solo

By Andrew Mulenga

For those familiar with the painter Patrick Mumba’s work, a visit to his on-going solo-exhibition at the Intercontinental Lusaka will surely be a recognisable explosion of colour as his palette has not changed much since we last saw it.

Street Voters (oil on canvas) 132cm x 92cm
By Patrick Mumba
You should expect the same painterly expression which leaves viewers the freedom to respond to the work purely on the basis of the way the colours and in certain instances the shapes interact. But something that is totally new is where you would expect acrylic from Mumba; he has worked entirely in oils.

During the show’s opening last week, the artist unofficially shared the idea behind the body of work. Mumba explained that the exhibition recounted the trajectory of his journey as an artist, breaking it down into three phases from his early career until the present and in the course of this career, like many artists he has worked in several styles, both figurative and abstract although he does appear to have finally settled for an abstract style.

The 52-year-old often employs a child-like naivety which he applies in varying degrees, but one must not be fooled by this assumed simplicity. Reading between the lines, one can tell that his work is buoyed by years of lecturing and academic training and traces of his BA honours degree from the Slade School of Fine Art in London seep through revealing a mastery of techniques as well as an artistic consciousness that is reflected in his subject matter and titles.

The Letter From My Son (Journey By Bus)-
199cm x 76 cm oil on canvas by Patrick Mumba
Outwardly, a work such as Street Voters I looks like an average semi-abstract market scene. But taking the title into consideration, what comes to mind is the street vendors in Lusaka that appear to be operating from illegal, make shift stalls while city authorities look the other way because the illegal hawkers provided “the popular vote” during the last presidential elections subsequently providing them with the informal “license” to sell where they may.

In Global Warming, the artist obviously addresses the rampant deforestation being perpetrated by the excessive burning of trees for charcoal. Like Street Voters I it depicts colourfully dressed women going about their trade, they too are faceless as the artist deliberately omits any facial features; none of the women have eyes, a nose or ears.

The passionately-charged The Letter from My Son (Journey by Bus) sounds like a sonnet from a father to a child or vice versa but can also be interpreted as a celebration of childhood, an ode to simplicity and innocence. The painting itself mimics a child’s “stick-people” drawing and depicts a bus with five passengers, all of whom are smiling; this coupled with its bright colours makes it a very happy picture indeed.

The Month-end (oil on canvas)
132cm x 95 by Patrick Mumba
The Month-end is an obvious reference to alcoholism and the monthly binge drinking sessions common among many working class people as a once-a-month reward to their hard work. Mumba depicts what appears to be three guzzlers having a drink and they are clearly enjoying three different types of beer, although one of them seems to have blacked out after a few too many.  

The artist provides some playful mischief with MDGs (4 women to one man) in which he portrays a male figure hugging four women as the title might hint. This one appears to be referencing men being outnumbered by women in 2015 and is either suggesting polygamy or promiscuity. To some extent it draws parallels against King with Two Wives, a 2006 painting he exhibited about 7 years ago at former first secretary to Zambia from the Netherland’s embassy Benno Grever’s home in Kabulonga. Not only do these two paintings discuss a similar theme, but they are both executed in a multi-coloured pointillism.

MDGs (4 women to one man) oil on canvas
125cm x 90cm by Patrick Mumba
But MDGs (4 women to one man) is not the only painting that is an apparent sequel to a past painting. Gathering, an abstract of a multitude echoes his 1994 painting Pilgrims which is currently in the Lechwe Art Trust collection. The paintings are so alike except the more recent one has less subtle brush strokes; they appear cruder almost like large smudges, but Mumba’s hand again is unmistakable.

The exhibition at intercontinental hotel is hosted by Twaya Art Gallery and is somewhat of a send-off exhibition as the artist leaves to pursue postgraduate studies early in 2014, which will see him spending over a year at the Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, the same institution his fellow Zambian painter Godfrey Setti attended for his MA Fine Art and subsequently a PhD in Fine Art which he was still pursuing at the time of his death.

Nevertheless, Mumba has not always been pursuing a purely academic route towards his art development, even though he obtained an art teachers Diploma from the Evelyn Hone College and subsequently taught at Kamwala Secondary School in Lusaka before going for further studies and returning as a lecturer and later head of the education Department at his former college. He also chaired and was involved in a number of the five Mbile International Artists’ Workshops, whose legacy culminated in the Insaka International Artists Workshops that have played a significant role in devising a much needed continuum in the development of contemporary art in Zambia, which has no art libraries or National Art Gallery as well as schools of art.

Gathering (oil on canvas) - 188cm x 121cm
by Patrick Mumba
The Mbile workshops were championed by Setti after he attended the Pachipamwe workshop in Zimbabwe.  Setti along with a Namibian colleague would later approach an Anna Kindersley whom through Robert Loder in London would make things possible. It had a dedicated initial working group of Ruth Bush, Style Kunda, Patrick Mweemba and Flinto Chandia.
Anyhow, Mumba’s involvement in workshops, coupled with his vast experience in the lecture studio may have inspired him to build his own purpose built studio called New Residence Gallery which has been active for a number of years now providing space for himself as well as visiting artists.
Global Warming (oil on canvas)
132cm x 95cm By Patrick Mumba

Plastic bottle Christmas tree wows Arcades shoppers

By Andrew Mulenga

No one really knows where we adopted the tradition of decorating evergreen trees during the Christmas holiday, but who really cares, they have very much become iconic symbols of the festive season and don’t we all enjoy the sight of a well decorated tree.

The huge Christmas tree made of
discarded plastic bottles has become a centre
of attraction at Arcades Shopping Mall
in Lusaka
Anyway, this year Arcades Shopping Mall in Lusaka has a very unusual Christmas tree, it does not have any fancy decorations such as candy canes and silver bells but the gigantic tree made entirely of discarded plastic bottles is an eye-catching spectacle – especially at night -- that is apparently attracting a good number of onlookers who eagerly pose in front of it to take photos with their mobile phones.

Placed on the east side of the shopping mall, the plastic bottle Christmas tree is in fact made of 9,000 discarded bottles that are arranged in three conical tiers that are supported by a steel frame. Designed by celebrated Zambian sculptor Flinto Chandia the tree was assembled with the aid of 31 underprivileged children from the Lubuto Library, Mulele Mwana, Chikumbuso, Open Arms and Pestalozzi orphanages.

Built as an environmental awareness statement as well as a decorative piece, the tree is a product of the “Just Imagine Art Workshops” for children organised by The stART Foundation Trust a small Lusaka based charity dedicated to the generation and promotion of visual arts practice and arts education in Zambia.

“The tree was designed by Flinto, and the structure was made at his studio on Malambo Road and from there we transported it to the Swedish school, this is where (artists) Mwamba Mulangala, David Makala and I worked with the children”, said Vandita Varjangbhay at the site a day after the trees official unveiling by Lusaka Province permanent secretary Wamunyima Muwana last week.

She also explained that the process from conceptualization to actualization had been a six month journey of planning and lobbying for support.

The inside of the tree can
be accessed by a hatch door
“While Flinto was working we were looking for a space and we had in mind it is going to be a massive structure and so we will need a lot of space. Luckily when we approached Arcades, they quickly jumped on board and were happy to have us here”, she said.

As for the trees aesthetic itself Varjangbhay said they did not want to adorn it with too many things. The major point of emphasis is the bottles and they really had to stand out. She added that the tree will remain standing until the first week of January.

“Being one of the first projects with children, I was uncertain on the first day but it all went well, we had about seven children that were peer educators and they were giving work to their fellow children. But you know how it is I couldn’t just stand back and watch I had to put my hand s in it, we did the work over three weekends,” said Makala one of the coordinating artists.

He said although the children came from different backgrounds he noticed that when people get together for a community project or common cause they end up working as a unit and he enjoyed watching them work together.

“And I think this is a call to artists when you are working on a collective community project your experience as artists should be put aside, that’s what Flinto did to us and you know that he is very experienced and it was an honour to work with him”, said Makala who is also a notably featured young visual artist exhibiting frequently at the exclusive 37d Gallery where The stART Foundation Trust hosts regular shows.

Makala explained that during the process of transporting the tree from the studio space to Arcades, the team faced a number of challenges and the structure fell apart a few times but Flinto quickly came to the rescue and had the project back on track just in time for the grand unveiling.

“When we brought it to arcades people had no idea what we were up to because it was in pieces. For the first time I saw people reacting positively to something they don’t know, including the media,” he said “In fact it showed us that there are people waiting for such projects of how to dispose or recycle such items and we were approached by a German non-profit organisation that has been looking for someone who can do this type of thing on a long term basis”.
Makala is looking forward to Christmas Day when he will be on site with a key that opens a hatch door on the side of the tree allowing people to take a view of the inside. Meanwhile, Twaya Art gallery at the Intercontinental Lusaka is currently showing a Patrick Mumba solo exhibition, the show is expected to be his last before he leaves to engage in postgraduate studies abroad next year.  

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Nazi Malemas and dreadlocked Mandelas

By Andrew Mulenga

He has 6 paintings hanging in Zambia’s most luxurious hotel, The Royal Livingstone, the preferred lodgings for international celebrities such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Spanish tennis star Rafael Nadal. A hotel that The Post’s Edwin Mbulo reported boasts the most expensive alcohol in Zambia, a "Louis XIII Grande Champagne Cognac" which in 2009 cost US$1000 per shot and at the time only three tots had been sold in eight years.

Artist Yiull Damaso with his work “Mein  Kampf! -
Photo courtesy of the artist
But still, Yiull Damaso is hardly a house hold name in Zambia, most of us have never even heard of him. However, the provocative, Zimbabwe-born artist continues to create controversial ripples in South Africa, his adopted home, where he is well known since his first painting Dreadlocked Mandela caused outrage.

In an interview, he talks about Cog in the Wheel, Spanner in the Works, his latest show held in Johannesburg that featured “Mein Kampf!” and “The Mobfather”, both portraits of South African politician, and Commander-in-Chief of the newly formed Economic Freedom Fighters political movement, Julius Malema. One depicts him as a fiery Adolf Hitler – obviously it borrows from the Führer‘s book that went by the same title – and the other portrays him as the Mafia boss from the Mario Puzzo book. Damaso also talks about his involvement in charity work and sheds light on his Royal Livingstone commission.

“The opening of Cog in the Wheel, Spanner in the Works was excellent! 250 people squeezed into my studio to see the show, sales were also admirable with 14 works going on opening night. It met with my expectations,” he says.

He says he was not fearful in any instant of harassment by Malema’s followers and he does not consider that point until it actually presents itself, and surely it has happened to him before, years ago when he launched his Nelson Mandela series. This series was received with mixed feelings that also caused some controversy.


The Night Watch (2010) by Yiull Damaso
“I am not driven to controversy; my outlook allows me to see things differently to how others perceive them and that is what drives my work,” he says.

Apparently, for his latest work, his subject responded in a way that the artist least expected, probably defeating the whole purpose. Malema told the South African newspaper City Press that: “Artists have got the right to express their opinions about the world as they see it. They have the right to tell their story and they must be encouraged to”.

“I did not expect this reaction from Malema, I thought he would dismiss it (the artwork),” says the artist who believes that Malema does have the potential ability to agitate and sway the masses to his benefit as did Hitler.

The artist believes his pictures of Malema reference the politicians command as an orator and that they are also a caution to the masses not to develop a mob mentality. And without doubt Malema is a crowd-puller. Last month, during the launch of his political party that was symbolically held in Marikana, where 34 miners were killed last year after protesting low wages he addressed an excited crowd of more than 15 000 people – according to South African media. In Marikana, the 32-year-old reportedly killed one of eight oxen slaughtered prior to the event aimed at appease the spirits of the dead miners, he said to have closed his speech by singing a controversial song called “Shoot the Boer”.

Dreadlocked Mandela (1998) by Yiull Damaso
Nevertheless, Damaso’s Mandela series was not dismissed as easily as the Malema ones. At first it was his paintings of the dreadlocked Madiba that angered some members of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and later it was The Night Watch, a 2010 painting after 17th century Dutch master Rembrandt’s painting. Damaso’s rendition depicts Mandela’s half naked corps being dissected on an autopsy table. Apparently, the late AIDS activist Nkosi Johnson is carrying out the autopsy while Archbishop Desmond Tutu, FW de Klerk, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma look on.

The reproduction on the painting on the front page of the Mail & Guardian newspaper in South Africa that same year incited an enflamed response from the ANC.

"The ANC is appalled and strongly condemns in the strongest possible terms the dead Mandela painting by Yiull Damaso," stated party spokesman Jackson Mthembu according to the newspaper. "It is in bad taste, disrespectful, and it is an insult and an affront to values of our society.

"In African society it is a foreign act of ubuthakathi (bewitch) to kill a living person and this so-called work of art … is also racist. It goes further by violating Tat' uMandela's dignity by stripping him naked in the glare of curious onlookers, some of whom have seen their apartheid ideals die before them."

ANC questioned why anyone would dream of a dead Madiba and why newspapers including the Mail and Guardian would put to prominence “this work of rubbish in their publication?”

According to the artist, the South African Government had tried to forcibly stop him from depicting the former President and even went so far as sending two inspectors from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) to confiscate and destroy his paintings.

Woman by Yiull Damaso
“At first I was intimidated, as I am just one person with no backing. Eventually this act only infuriated me and resulted in me offering the works for free if you purchased a toothpick, safety pin or AIDS badge,” he explains “After my DTI meeting, the Mail & Guardian asked if I would like to go public with the incident (the inspectors had given me a back dated Government Gazette that showed I was breaking the ‘Marks and Merchandise act of 1941’ I declined after legal advice from Dr Owen Dean. That is the one and possibly only thing I regret regarding that entire incident, I should have gone public with the way they were trying to shut me down.”

Three years down the line, Damaso remains unrepentant that his depiction of dead Mandela – a man he confesses to love dearly – was merely a clarion call to the people of South Africa, reminding them that their nation’s greatest son was not immortal and they should therefore try to look beyond the inspirational life he has lived.   

In appearance, he is every bit the anarchist as his wide upturned moustache and thin vertical beard lend him a striking resemblance with Guy Fawkes, a character whose stylised portrayal was borrowed for “V” a daring and charming freedom fighter, by illustrator David Lloyd that has come to represent anti-establishment protests globally, after it was used in the graphic novel V for Vendetta and later adapted into a hit movie. Actually he looks like the hero “V” without the over-sized smile.

“My facial hair was just for personal taste, however as time has passed I have aligned myself to some degree with the Anonymous Movement (an international online network of activists and hacktivists that borrow the Vendetta mask). I think my Twitter and Facebook page posts reveal this,” says Damaso when asked whether he is inspired by the character.

And like the protagonist from V for Vendetta, he too is something of a folk hero. Since the late 1990s about the time he started producing Mandela inspired paintings, he also started donating to the Breast Cancer Awareness Organization. In 2006 he undertook to draw cartoons at the Children’s Burn Unit at the Johannesburg General Hospital, as well as donating to the Childhood Cancer Foundation.  In 2011 he auctioned, a major work and the proceeds went to the Light from Africa Foundation. From the auction of his works he has managed to donate R115 000 (just over K62, 000) directly to various orphanages in South Africa.

“Various incidents and factors guide my choice on these factors. For example, I became aware of breast cancer due to my sister’s best friend’s mom passing from it,” he explains on how he was driven towards charity “After some thought and research regarding breast cancer statistics, and realising that in my immediate family of 9 people, six are woman. I stand to lose some of them unless we do something about it. The case of children infuriates me. As adults we continue to procreate without the ability to sustain and regard what we already have. The selfishness is astounding!”

He also says his upbringing firstly in Zimbabwe as an outsider and secondly in South Africa as an immigrant, has forged his perceptions, his reactions and his art. His family left Zimbabwe when he was 12 years old, but he describes his life during the time as incredible, and he I loved it. However, he saw himself as an outsider because he was constantly picked on and physically tormented for a number of years owing to the fact that being of Portuguese and Italian descent did not qualify him as white enough.

“I had similar verbal torment in South Africa briefly but I was old enough and strong enough to handle it and sort it out, however my SA status is questionable. I have been here for 31 years and I still do not have the right to vote,” he complains “My documents/papers are sitting at head office in Pretoria and have been there since January. I had an SA passport, it expired and Home affairs will not renew it. Your guess is as good as mine as to why. My sister’s papers state that she was born in SA which is untrue; she was born in Zim like me. I would have benefitted from that clever mistake…”

Speaking of Zimbabwe, the unbending Robert Mugabe comes to mind. His stance on land issues, his dysfunctional relationship with the west and his recent castigation by Amnesty International in a document published on its website this week entitled Zimbabwe: Human rights agenda for the government, 2013 – 2018 is sufficient fodder for socio-political commentary but Damaso says he has only once, seriously considered depicting Robert Mugabe in his work. After some discussions regarding the work to some friends, their total lack of understanding and reasoning of the image made him put it on hold for the time being.

Nevertheless, crossing the border to Zambia, the artist explains how he landed a commission for which many Zambian artists would gladly donate a limb.

“I was fortunate in meeting with a company here in SA that executes the Sun International interior design work. I have some of their indirect commissions at The One and Only Royal Mirage Hotel in Dubai as well,” explains the artist probably unintentionally revealing that foreign run hotels are at will to commission art from anywhere in the world at the unfortunate expense of our commission-starved local artists. A pitiful fact that one hopes the Zambian arts policy makers will be able to tackle in their forthcoming National Arts and Culture Commission.

“There are 6 paintings at the Royal Zambezi Sun, 3 are in the presidential suite, the rest are scattered at various points around the hotel, bar, conference centre etc. I painted all of them here in SA but was lucky enough to land a roll in a TV commercial being shot at the hotel; this was how I got to see some of them there,” he reveals.

He knows very little about Zambian art or politics so he is unable to comment on how politically astute our artists are compared to him but he is able to make a general observation as well as give a word of advice to all governments on the continent and beyond.

“I don’t know very much about Zambia at all, my apologies. However it is not that the (African) artists are necessarily naïve, but the ruling parties. It seems that many Governments ruling African countries are not open to self-criticism. This is evident in South Africa where intervention occurs frequently if the work is considered to be in any way offensive to the ruling party,” he observes, saying Governments the world over should take a leaf from the way the Canadian Government handled the depiction of their prime minister nude, on a chaise’ lounge with a small dog at his feet.

“The prime minister’s spokesman Andrew MacDougall reacted in a Twitter message: ‘We’re not impressed. Everyone knows the PM is a cat person,” says Damaso.

Artistically he is a hard act to follow, when he is not dabbling in politics, he is a man of many experimental techniques and themes. His work also includes surrealism, still life, seascapes, landscapes, nudes, Japanese anime and customized Converse and Dickies footwear.
His prominent clients include Anglo American, Smirnoff, Swatch, Hush Puppies, Vespa, DC Comics, Marvel Comics, Douw Stein (of The Saxon Hotel) and Pirelli (Race Division).

Damaso was born in 1968, moved to South Africa 1982, attained a National Diploma in Architecture from Wits University in 1991. He started painting in 1995 when he found he could begin to better express myself. He started experimenting with murals and was later described as South Africa’s top muralist by art critic Hazel Friedman in the Cape Argus in 2000, the same year he held his first two solo exhibitions in Cape Town and San Francisco. Since then he has exhibited consistently in South Africa and abroad.