By Andrew Mulenga
Just as the dark cloud that cloaked the contemporary Zambian art scene with the death of Baba Jakeh Chande in Helsinki, Finland barely a couple of months ago was fading, fatality has once again struck and claimed yet another of the field’s brightest stars in Lutanda Mwamba.
Lutanda Mwamba - 1966 - 2014
© Zambia Visual Arts Council (VAC)
The Kasama-born artist died at the age of 48 last Sunday morning, on May 4 at the Care for Business (Cfb) Medical Centre in Lusaka after succumbing to malaria and meningitis in what has proven to be a mystifying double tragedy as he passed away only hours after his mother Agnes Samforonsa Musauni, and their bodies were laid to rest at Memorial Park in Lusaka on Wednesday.
A reserved character by nature, often shying away from press interviews despite his celebrity status within the visual arts and among Lusaka’s Rastafarian community, as an artist, Mwamba enjoyed a remarkably serene but successful life.
This shy character – obviously overshadowed by more confident personal traits – was among a few things reflected upon by one of his childhood mentors Ruth Hartley (formerly Ruth Bush) who taught him at the International School of Lusaka (ISL) in the early 1980s and later employed him at the Mpapa Gallery. Through a personal tribute to the artist, made available by the Lechwe Trust, Hartley shares an intimate eulogy in which she describes the news of his death as deeply tragic and a great loss to Zambia and to Zambian art.
Chuma Grocery, 1993 (serigraph),
22 x 36, by Lutanda Mwamba, Lechwe Trust
“He was a quiet and shy boy of about 14 or 15 years old who appeared rather isolated among the other students. ISL students came from relatively wealthy backgrounds and many were from expatriate families. Lutanda's devoted and hard-working mother, a single parent, lived in Chilenje but she was determined that her son should have the best education she could afford,” she recalls of her days as his school teacher. Unlike the other children Mwamba had a very long walks to school each day.
She explains that with a fellow teacher, from time to time one of them would give him a lift back to his home although he never wanted to be taken all the way. In Chilenje he always had one very good friend, another artist, David Chirwa – with whom he would establish Rockston Studios as grownups in the not too distant future – nevertheless, Hartley would later provide Lutanda with a bicycle to ease his school journeys.
“I noticed Lutanda at once as he showed a natural talent for drawing in my class. When I asked him about his future plans he told me that he hoped to be an electrical engineer. I suggested to him that art was a good way to make a living” recollects Hartley, herself a painter who exhibited extensively in Zambia between 1976 and the late 1980s, a few of her works such as the 1979 painting "Chikumbi Bombings" that depicts how innocent women and children died in a raid by Ian Smith's forces during Zambia’s conflict with Rhodesia can still be seen at the Lusaka National Museum.
Mushroom Pickers, 2003, (Collagraph)
by Lutanda Mwamba
Nevertheless, Hartley was obliged to give up teaching and did not see Lutanda again for some years. A few years later she was working at the Mpapa Gallery that was co-founded by Joan Pilcher and Heather Montgomerie in the Pilcher Graphics building along Cha Cha Cha Road in Lusaka, and while driving, passed Lutanda and Chirwa, she recognised him at once although he was now very tall and had dreadlocks.
“He saw me also and came around to my home that same day. He told me that he had got his GCSE exams but had not been able to get any work at all. He had left home and was finding it hard to afford food. He still wanted to become an electrical engineer,” she recollects.
She would later try to get him work that she thought was more appropriate for his qualifications and abilities but any job proved hard to find.
“Finally after consulting with my partners at Mpapa Gallery, Cynthia Zukas, Joan Pilcher and Patrick Mweemba, we decided to offer Lutanda a trial period as a gallery assistant. Also at this time Lutanda married his wife Mary, and they had their first child,” explains Hartley who left Zambia in 1994 and lost contact with many of her friends and artists only returning in 2012, through Cynthia Zukas and was able to meet Mwamba with his wife Mary, and children.
“Lutanda was such an intelligent, hard-working, and able assistant that he very soon became indispensable to the gallery. There is no doubt in my mind that he played a very important part in the success of Mpapa Gallery and therefore in the success of Zambian art at the time. What thrilled me was that in the context of the gallery, and through his contact with artists like Patrick Mweemba, Henry Tayali, Style Kunda, he began to experiment with art himself and very quickly became one of the best printmakers we had”, says Hartley who served as Mpapa art Gallery Director for a decade and during your term in office you organised several solo and group exhibitions as well as workshops. Yo also co-ordinated the British Council/Vincent Waropy sculpture workshops in 1990 and 1991 as well as the first Mbile International Artists workshop.
In any case, besides the cherished memories Hartley warmly shares there is no doubt over Lutanda’s contribution towards the development of the arts in Zambia.
After he founded the Rockston Studio along with Chirwa in 1985 – which developed into an informal art school -- his skills and ideas would greatly influence the course of the next 15 years from the late 1980’s through to the early 2000s until the studio packed in. He would become not only the coach but guru of some of the country’s most illustrious artists of their generation that included earlier mentioned Baba Jakeh, Martin Chanda, Nezias Nyirenda, David Lewanika, Teddy Zebbie Muhango, Ngamanya Banda, Bar’uchi Mulenga, Kate Naluyele as well as two of his closest friends Vincentio Phiri and Zenzele Chulu.
In fact Chanda who studied at Ecole Cantonale d’Art du Valais, Sierre, Switzerland where he is currently based says: “Lutanda (star) just like his name was indeed a super star, a great pillar of the house of art, he taught just about everyone that came in contact with him, thus leaving an inerasable mark of great artistic wisdom. I will never forget the times he introduced me to the skill of "drawing from the right side of the brain" a method that helped me a lot in understanding any object before the eyes! I will greatly miss his presence, but I will keep the moments I shared with him alive in my memory forever”.
It is this spirit of sharing skills and knowledge that would earn him the nickname “preacher”, because he was regarded as a preacher of art.
What's more, it is Mwamba who while visiting Kasama in 1999 discovered Stary Mwaba, brought him to Lusaka, kept him under his own mentorship and gave him a shot at the Lusaka art scene, which he affectionately remembers from Germany where he is attending a one-year residency at Kunstlerhaus Bethanien.
“I have lost a brother and friend, there is absolutely no artist who has been as influential as Lutanda as far as the current art practice is concerned, a very humble soul he taught and inspired many of us, I for one remain forever indebted to him for having believed in me from the very start,” says Mwaba.
|Home, Linocut, 2012, by Lutanda Mwamba|
Mwaba who recently held a ground-breaking exhibition at the Lusaka Museum that attracted internationally acclaimed Nigerian curator Bisi Silva before he left for Germany explains that through his late mentor he bulldozed his way into his first show at Namwandwe Gallery in New Kasama.
“Without an invitation he took my work there regardless. Even for the first International Mbile Workshop I attended he just picked me and took me, it was really embarrassing to just show up like that without an invitation but that is all part of my story. I am not the only person he mentored and supported by establishing Rockston Studio, he directly and indirectly influenced many like Anawana Haloba the first Zambian artist to showcase at the Venice Biennial, Lutanda has contributed greatly to the current art practice in Zambia, more than any artist living he was a true visionary.”
He says that for the last one year he and the late Mwamba shared a studio space generously provided by Amish Patel at 6 Reedbuck in Kabulonga, Lusaka.
“He told me lately he didn't feel like painting and wanted to do prints, he was really excited about it and had been preparing material for the last 2 years, and he later travelled to Choma for the same and like always Bert Witkamp – who organised a show -- welcomed him”
It is in Choma where he exhibited for the very last time in an exhibition entitled Graphic Art of Zambia that celebrated ligthographic, serigraphic, woodcut and etching printmaking processes, almost forgotten art form not only in Zambia but the world over.
The show was also a historic anthology of the genre and its artists from the 1960s until today featuring Cynthia Zukas MBE and the Lusaka Artists Group – as of 1977 Zambia Association of Artists – collective of Bert Witkamp, Fackson Kulya, Patrick Mweemba, and David Chibwe alongside Lutanda Mwamba, William Miko, Agnes Buya Yombwe, Jonathan Leya, Patrick Mumba and Adam Mwansa. And William Miko, fine art lecturer at the Zambia Open University (ZAOU) who is also Lechwe Trust vice-chairman describes Mwamba’s death as the loss of an asset.
“My thoughts on Lutanda Mwamba's passing on are very sad: It is a very solemn occasion to the visual arts scene in Zambia and the world at large. Lutanda was a guru on the art scene, a versatile artist who could do anything in art,” says Miko “he could do drawings, paintings, sculptures, printmaking, make music, graphic design and animation, etc. The man was an asset to Zambia. We have lost an aesthetic imagery creator and a philosopher of our time.”
Although Mwamba, studied print making at Evelyn Hone College in Lusaka and Reading University in the United Kingdom – in 1989 he was the only artist from Africa to be awarded a prestigious Commonwealth Foundation Fellowship -- and also went on to teach print making at Edna Manley School of Art, Kingston, Jamaica, he tutored most of the Rockston flock in the principles of art and stone sculpture, although his passion remained in printmaking
In which ever material his themes were mainly social but because of his amoebic nature there was no pinpointing him in terms of style as he was always investigating new methods, media and genres expressing them in his own visual vocabulary, however, throughout his career colour remained important. He applied this to an astounding mastery of technique and control of materials.
In reality, because he was versatile by nature he was such a hard act to follow more often you will have to read his signature to know it is his work. For instance there was a period that he would just paint coloured lines on canvas shortly after he recovered from gunshot wounds.
He was shot in the slums of Johannesburg, South Africa in 2000 during a social outing while attending an artist’s residency at The Bag Factory where he exhibited alongside Gabi Ngcobo of Kwazulu Natal and Hanne Tymi from Norway in a show entitled “Departures”.
According to close friends, one bullet was never removed and he carried it within him for the rest of his natural life.