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Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Finding God in the Arts

By Andrew Mulenga

The ambience of delicately harmonized traditional Christian hymns, in soft angelic voices and played back in an enchantingly eerie 175-year-old church building, St. Patrick’s Catholic Church that resembles a gothic castle provided moments of sanctuary for party animals during South Africa’s Just ended National Arts Festival (NAF), annually held in Grahamstown.

Official figures released by Festival CEO Tony Lankester last week show that: “Street parades, a birthday celebration, a dazzling array of international performers from over 40 countries, and over 2800 performances in eleven days all contributed to a record 225 538 attendees”. 

It must be noted that the announced figures for attendees is about four times that of the normally sleepy little backwoods town’s population whose 2011 census counted 67,000 inhabitants, hard to comprehend of course, but you can imagine the hustle and bustle of thrill seeking revellers between dance, drama and music shows.

Joseph Capelle's Stations of The Cross on display
in St. Patrick's Catholic Church, Grahamstown,
South Africa during the National Arts Festival
Nevertheless, providing sanctuary to these pilgrims the St. Patrick’s venue was part of SpiritFest a spiritual component of NAF dubbed “A celebration of the arts in the context of Christian Faith”. The space offered guided, daily meditations entitled Finding God in the Arts with a trained director organised by the Jesuit Institute of South Africa but open to all faiths and walks of life, reminiscent of the Church’s claim that its congregation had always been all inclusive even during the apartheid era.

But what was probably most fascinating in this space was the backdrop, spellbinding paintings by South African artist Joseph Capelle placed right in front of the news on the area that serves as the alter during mass. Usually the preserve of the priest, altar boys and select members of the laity according to catholic hierarchy, visitors had free access to the area and could walk around and enjoy up close contact with the paintings.
Christened a Modern Expression of An Ancient Devotion the display was brought in from the Church of the Holy Trinity, Braamfontein in Johannesburg where they were commissioned by the Jesuit parish priest Fr Russell Pollitt who is now the Director of the Jesuit Institute South Africa.

The 2012 paintings are a contemporary rendition of the 14 events in the last hours of Jesus Christ, commonly known as “the Passion”, depicting his suffering, death and resurrection according to the gospels; they celebrate the core belief of the Christian faith which one might observe is easy to overlook in the hyperactive times we live in today where from the look of things contemporary faith – if there was ever such a term -- seems to focus on physical prosperity rather than spiritual salvation, ignoring Christ’s sacrifice for believers’ sins.

Capelle cleverly references icons, the paintings of the early Christian church that had been used not only to decorate buildings but also to spread the gospel over the centuries. He complements the work with his own short reflections, narrated by Nosiphiwo Mpungose available on an accompanying CD-ROM that further attempts to make the theme relevant to present times. The reflection for the 12th station of the cross that meditates on the death of Jesus for instance would be a typical example here.

Jesus dies on the cross,
2012 by Joseph Capelle
“Jesus dies on the cross, Jesus dies on the cross, and dying in love for all those who are persecuted or victimised in any way, Jesus dies for all. Nobody is excluded he hangs from the cross, looking down on a family escaping from a burning shack, a violent scene that is so common in South Africa because of the lack of electricity and the dangers that some people live with daily or because of a xenophobic attack,” narrates Mpungose in a soft gentle voice “The father leads his family out of danger the mother's hair falls into a cloak enfolding the child in her protection and love. It is the child who cries out in fear and whose prayer takes the form of a leaping flame flying up towards the dying Jesus. Jesus willingly looks towards the pain and destruction, the family looks away. So often we find it hard to accept the violence and destruction for which we are responsible.”

In the paintings the artist also attempts to blur the margins between race and culture which in turn results in an artistic enculturation of the gospel, making it a witness of the incarnation of God’s word into a metropolitan culture, this is partially explained in the artist’s statement.

“The paintings are universal in their depiction of humanity, but are influenced by the African context which is subtly suggested in a number of ways, most especially in the patterns on the cloth of the garments. However, the paintings also aim at inclusivity -- implicit in Jesus’ teachings – and the whole world’s face can be detected, including that of the Jewish women of Jesus own culture. The message of the stations is not constrained by colour, race or culture,” it reads in part.

In contrast to the predominantly grave theme the artist’s palette is a kaleidoscopic outburst, full of life and energy that seemingly compliments the notion of Christ’s resurrection.

In any case, if the work did not succeed in helping one find or at least remember the core principal of Christianity it certainly did serve as a reminder of the origins of art as we know it today. It can be argued that modern art – not in a theoretical sense -- is a spinoff from the practice of the old masters of the European renaissance, from as early as Giotto and Botticelli through to Da Vinci and Michelangelo, artists who regardless of their personal beliefs dedicated a greater part of their careers decorating churches with sculptures and paintings of biblical scenes.

Capelle’s work is also a refreshing reminder of by-gone eras when artists played the sacred role of mediator between God and man, providing believers with images that were revered, only to be found in churches and in the palaces of nobility, during times when it was obviously unimaginable that in the future people will be able to carry them around in their pockets on mobile devices. 

The CD-ROM that was on sale during the exhibition came complete with apps for smartphones, tablets and computers so that viewers can carry the paintings, meditations and music by the University of Johanesburg Choir home with them after the festival.

Besides Capelle’s work Spiritfest also featured 40 Stones in the Wall a faith based initiative by various artists and Ageless Madonna: the transfiguration of Mary of Nazareth by Julia Skeens as part of the visual arts component. The programme’s main activities also included drama and music at various venues with interdenominational choirs, bands and singers from across South Africa.

Several anniversaries met at the confluence of this year’s NAF, the festival itself turned 40, and the Standard bank Young artists Award turned 30 while the nation celebrated 20 years of independence.

It must be noted however that even as South Africa celebrates 20 years of democracy and the fall of apartheid, the reprehensible legacy of racial segregation is still evident. Arguably, Grahamstown may just be a microcosm of the bigger picture. Although there is apparent harmony of class, culture and race during festival times, the small town is rank with unemployment and a few strolls around the central business district reveals a good number of beggars, some who also serve as unofficial car-minders.

When festival is off, the majority of township dwellers from Grahamstown East, the black area of the city only come into town on pay day, as for their white neighbours uptown, they have no business going into the township. They have no markings, but the margins are clear even in all their inconspicuousness. For instance white folks do their shopping from the Pepper Grove Mall where as the blacks do theirs from Market Square Mall.

Unfortunately this underlying feeling of segregation could also be sensed in certain pubs and eateries, many of which are only set up during festival period.

In the author’s experience, identity remains a serious issue in South Africa, when you walk into an establishment expect to be served according to how you are dressed, what language you speak and above all, the colour of your skin, regardless of how much is in your pocket or how big a tipper you are. A demoralizing fact that defeats the whole purpose of the arts.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Zambia National Art Gallery: are we there yet?

By Andrew Mulenga

The promise of a national art gallery has long eluded Zambia, so as the first phase of the Livingstone Art Gallery comes to completion, these are definitely exciting times for the visual arts.

The state sponsored structure situated in the former Livingstone show grounds has been under construction for quite a lengthy period owing mostly to a lack of resources and oscillating levels of commitment from different governments of the day. 

It was almost completed a few days before the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) general assembly last year, perhaps to showcase it as one of Livingstone’s main attractions when Zambia and Zimbabwe co-hosted the international tourism indaba.
However, not even hurried construction works could allow the building to be finished on time and an exhibition that was scheduled for the venue was instead moved to the Livingstone National Museum.

Once again it appears the construction works are in full throttle to meet a new deadline, this time ahead of the country’s 50th Independence Day celebrations. No doubt a befitting time to launch a gallery of this importance which as earlier alluded will be the nation’s first, seeing the Henry Tayali Gallery ran by the Zambia National Visual Arts Council (VAC) in Lusaka is in a rented space.

Members of VAC Livingstone tour the site
The arts mother body National Arts Council (NAC) is expected to officially handover the building and running of the facility over to the VAC Livingstone at an opening ceremony on a date yet to be announced but possibly in October. While the members of VAC Livingstone are a thoroughly enthusiastic group of individuals who pour themselves into their artistic work, most do not simply have the capacity to run a national gallery, well at least not now.

During their tour of the facility early this year -- of which the author was privileged to take part -- the group was still not sure on how they are going to run the facility once it is handed over to them. There were suggestions of turning a large part of it into a commercial restaurant in the prospect of bringing traffic to the gallery others proposed a curio shop or craft market.

But reflecting on their suggestions one is tempted to wrestle with a few questions. Who will be running the daily affairs of the gallery? What will be the main activities – apart from the restaurant? Will it house a permanent collection organised in the manner of African Art, Modern Painting and Sculpture, Historical Painting and Sculpture and Contemporary Art? Will it be exhibiting some foreign shows that are perhaps on world tour? Will there be efforts to link it to other galleries on the continent and beyond? Has NAC provided adequate training for VAC members on how a gallery is managed? Zambians are generally not a gallery-going people, what are there any strategies in place to attract them into this new space? 

Zambia’s first national art gallery will require a full time team as much as the would be custodians are dedicated to run it in their own way, a good number of its members have full time jobs that are equally taxing in the fields of education and museums while they also put in personal time to practice their art making.

In any case, there is no telling what NAC has in store for the opening, one hopes it will be given the grandness it deserves. This is no small thing, for five decades there has been a cry for a gallery so now that Zambia is finally getting one let us just hope the organisers do not make a circus of it, as they did with the shambolic UNWTO exhibition at the Livingstone Museum.

If it is to be opened with an exhibition, the invitation checklist should be as high profile as possible. NAC must get the president to cut the ribbon and unveil a plaque with his name on it, all the senior government officials and ambassadors too must be invited as this is the only sure chance of getting the event onto all the television and radio stations as well as the front pages of the newspapers. Noise has to be made.

NAC should ask itself what it is they want to launch, a gallery of international stature befitting the tourist capital and Zambia’s 50th birthday or a joke. This should also be done bearing in mind that it is easy to have a high profile, government-type launch with all the bells and whistles, but it would be unfortunate for them to hop on to their Sports Utility Vehicles and head back to the capital and leave VAC Livingstone with teething problems that they may not be able to handle. 

Again if there are to launch it with an exhibition it should be all inclusive, featuring artists from across the country as well as historic works, some of which can be brought out of their storage from the safety of museum vaults in Livingstone as well as Lusaka. If historic works cannot be shown on Zambia’s jubilee when will they be shown? But being the treasures that such works are there is not telling how safe they would be hanging in the new gallery which may not have standard security features if details such as the chicken-run-type roofline are anything to go by.
Returning to the running of the gallery, a good model to follow would be that of Zimbabwe, just next door, the sister nation to which Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland lost the opportunity to house the gallery which was eventually built in Salisbury.

Today called the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, it: “is a state owned non-profit making organization that was established by an Act of Parliament in 1953 and falls under the Ministry of Education, Sports, Art and Culture, to promote and preserve visual art in the country through continuous acquisition and conservation of artworks in the permanent collection and other various activities”.

The gallery has a full-time director as well as curator. The curator oversees the gallery exhibitions while the director is a link between the ministry and the Board of Trustees that also includes the mayor of Harare and if they have been running like this for 55 years, they must be doing something right which has seen the opening of two regional branches The National Gallery in Bulawayo and he National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Mutare just 15 years ago. 

South Africa too has a flagship institution, the South African National Gallery in central Cape Town under the umbrella of Iziko Museums, an agency of the Department of Arts and Culture but this is complemented by regional galleries - the Durban Art Gallery in KwaZulu-Natal, the Johannesburg Art Gallery in Gauteng, the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum formerly the King George VI Gallery in Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape which all showcase collections of indigenous, historical and contemporary works from the respective provinces.

Zambia can learn a great deal from both the Zimbabwean and South African models but perhaps there are already plans on how this is going to be done in the interim before the much awaited Arts, Cultural and Heritage Commission is set up through the Arts, Cultural and Heritage Bill.

In his June newsletter, Ackson Tembo, a Chingola-based theatre personality and arts activist, eager as many to hear what the status quo is reminds us that: “July 2014, marks the twenty second month after the announcement that an Arts, Cultural and Heritage Commission was going to be set up through the Arts, Cultural and Heritage Bill.  Can someone please update us on this matter?”

Tembo has every reason to be worried because the new minister of Tourism and Arts has yet to say anything about the bill or the arts in general, as speculated in a recent edition of Hole In The Wall the bill may be officially dead.

The setting up of the bill was announced by the Republican President Michael Sata in a policy statement during his address in Parliament on 28th September 2012.
The intention of the Bill is to harmonise all sectors of arts and culture to operate under one body encompassing theatre, digital art, reading, dance, music, literature, and crafts as well as “art collections that will reinforce the identity of the country and national pride through culture.”

Monday, 14 July 2014

‘Supreme Court artist’ put to rest

By Andrew Mulenga

Zambian presidents have been sworn in standing in between his two lions at the entrance of the Supreme Court, the High Court lawns too are beautified by his African rendition of Justitia, the sword and scale wielding Roman goddess of Justice (Lady Justice). These are the iconic landmarks that are the legacy of sculptor Nobbie Tsokalida who passed away at the age of 70 last week on 2 July 2014 and was put to rest in Lusaka on 4 July 2014.

Despite his considerable contribution, Tsokalida was never a household name within or outside the visual arts circles actually he was a man of humble means having created his major works from a rickety backyard studio in Lusaka’s secluded Desai compound outside Matero Township.

One of the twin lions at the Supreme Court, Lusaka
“I did the lions from my home right here in Desai compound, it took me two years from 1984 to 1986. But when we placed the lions at the Supreme Court the (lions) heads were facing the sky” explained Tsokalida in a 2007 interview with the author “So the chief justice Annel Silungwe told me ‘Mr Tsokalida you will have to re-do the heads’ and so I had to chisel them”.

A year after he completed the lions, he was tasked to create Lady Justice; to this statue too he had to make last minute alterations.

“When I had just finished Lady Justice, the chief justice Annel Silungwe came to my home in Desai with a group of judges, when they noticed her eyes were open, they asked me to have them closed, so I had to re-do the face,” he said.

Lady Justice, High Court, Lusaka
It appears through the ages, the Roman goddess after whom the statue is created has been depicted either with her eyes shut or with a blindfold, referencing that justice is blind and should therefore be dispensed fairly regardless of the individuals brought before the court.

Lady Justice earned Tsokalida a reasonable amount of money and according to the artist, he was awarded K95, 000 (ninety-five thousand kwacha) when the Zambian currency was 2 to 1 against the US dollar. But apparently there seemed to be an irregularity with processing payment for the lions and the prolonged imbursement seemingly tore him apart over a 20 year period, emotionally sapping him of creative resourcefulness. In fact at the time of the interview, his wife explained that he would get so emotional and talk about the issue for a whole day without stopping.

Tsokalida turned to a reclusive life, avoiding mainstream activity for years but the Kachere Art Studios under the guidance of Alexis Phiri made an attempt to support him and possibly revive his creative energy in the late 2000s by engaging him in an outreach programme where he would mentor young artists.

Nobbie Tsokalida 1944 - 2014
“I’ve taught so many people to become sculptors. I have to help, it’s my duty I do not want to die and take these skills to the grave. There is now this Kachere; it has come at the right time. I didn’t have a place to expose myself as I work deep in the compound. Also I am pleased with the quiet piece of land that Kachere has near Munda Wanga (botanical gardens) it reminds me of the old days when we used to work from nature with Cynthia Zukas”, said Tsokalida in his last interview.

A true child of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, Tsokalida was born in 1944 in Mutare, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and moved to Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) with his father who was from Nyasaland (Malawi) in 1954 when he was 10 years old.

He was one of the first pupils at Edwin Mulongoti Primary School in Matero, Lusaka where he was educated up to Standard 6 in 1956. Early in his career as a self-taught artist, he managed to land a job as a sign-writer with the defunct Public Works Department (PWD) which was a competitive employer in Zambia’s post-colonial, nation-building years. 

As an artist, in life he was never celebrated, even in death there is no hope for his honour, but Tsokalida leaves Zambia an everlasting legacy, many more presidents will be sworn in between his two lions and Lady Justice too will continue to blindly gaze over us with her raised sword and scales.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Is the west looking to Africa to ‘heal’ art?

By Andrew Mulenga

After longstanding marginalization, recent trends on the global art scene show there is finally an acceptance and increase in demand to view and collect contemporary African art alongside so-called antique “tribal art”.

On the one hand there has been a string of major exhibitions spanning from the United Arab Emirates, across the European mainland to the UK and USA.

On the other, the business aspect of it all has been exceptionally lucrative with artists still living on the continent earning top dollar from international art fairs and auction houses.

There is no telling where all the interest is coming from or how long it will last, the business of art being as volatile as it is. The scene is still quite speculative as The Telegraph (UK) financial specialist Charlotte Beugge highlights in an article entitled African art: a good investment?, published in May days before London auctioneers Bonhams held its annual Africa Now sale that has been running since 2009 where “Estimates for pieces go from £3,000 to £100,000 (a piece) and prices have been rising in recent years.”

While European museums and galleries are showing keen interest in the top contemporary African artists The Telegraph reports that Giles Peppiatt, director of contemporary African Art at Bonhams observes: “Interest in contemporary African art has exploded, particularly among international collectors, who expect it to be the next market where values increase in the same manner as contemporary Chinese art”.

Possibly, China’s museum boom had a lot to do with this in the early 2000s as it generated a lot of attention when growing government and private investment pushed the total number of museums to about 4,000 according to the World Economic Forum.

In the same way, The Telegraph reports that the African rise has seen some investment from within the continent itself, meaning it is not only the demand from overseas making the prices surge. It can also be linked to the increased interest from African buyers because of economic growth in West Africa and the Sub-Saharan Africa.  

But then again despite such reports there could also be some ideological underpinnings that cause the West-centred art world’s spotlight to veer towards a particular region as British art historian Julian Stallabrass points out referring to the case of China in his book Contemporary Art, from the Oxford University Press a Very Short Introduction series. 

“Global interest was directed at Chinese art in the short term because of the massacre of dissidents in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, which led to a focus on artists who could be read as oppositional,” he writes.

However, Stallabrass also observes that longer worldwide attention for China came as a result of new regulatory markets and the rapid generation of great wealth and inequality with a contrasting average improvement in living standards for most people.  

“Just as capitalism as a world system stepped out from behind the cloak of its defeated opponent after 1989 and, in its rapid transformation, was revealed as the rapacious, inexorable system that it is, so it may be with the art world. The end of its use as a tool in the prosecution of the Cold War has made clear what had already been in development: its core function as a propagandist of neoliberal values,” declares Stallabrass.

Nevertheless, this is Africa’s time but there is no substantial notion that explains why. But there is no harm in throwing about some speculation and perhaps one can be forgiven to ruthlessly suggest that the attention Africa is receiving now can be traced back to the days of slavery.
It must not be forgotten that Africa has always had a cathartic effect on an indisposed Europe vis-√†-vis the West. Whenever the West is in trouble where does it run to? Africa.  
After the discovery of the Americas in the late 1400s slave labour was needed to build the “new world” as well as work in the plantations that fed Europe and supported its economies so it looked to Africa.

The history books also tell us that when Europe had nowhere to turn to after the “Long Depression” of the late 1800s it is Africa’s resources that offered Britain, Germany, France, and other countries unlimited resources to help recover and they quickly conjured the Berlin conference of 1884 and ravenously divided the continent among themselves.
This period would also provide what them with tribal art, ritual carvings and “fetishes” imaginably pillaged from villages to fill their empty museums and eventually inspire an art scene that had run out of ideas. A number of European artists such as the venerated Picasso and Georges Braque dedicated their entire careers mimicking the so-called primitive art later developing movements such as Cubism changing a whole era of art.

Africa also provided a battleground at the height of the Cold War which coincided with the continent’s liberation period and because of choosing sides, heroes such as Patrice Lumumba in the Congo were murdered to pave way for NATO’s interests for instance.

But maybe today the West is looking to Africa once again in the field of art because the only semblance of sanity in it is left among contemporary artists from the continent and its diaspora.
From the look of things, even as its theorists crack their craniums the definition obsessed west seems to have forgotten what art is, what purpose it serves and probably where it belongs, but long and lengthy arguments have been written about these topics. 

Anyway, ever since the French-American artist Marcel Duchamp liberated art from its snobberies by displaying his Fountain, a ready-made urinal -- he probably plucked out of demolished building -- in a New York exhibition in 1917, the ripples of the radical shift in perceptions that he caused continue to give leverage to artists such as Milo Moire the Swiss artist who was turned away from Art Basel the premier international art show last month because she tried to enter the fair space naked as part of a nude performance. Moire gained recent notoriety for her "Plop Egg Painting", paintings created from paint filled eggs that she drops from her vagina on to a canvas. In passing – while on the topic of absurdities -- one might add that Tracey Emin’s 1998 piece My Bed sold for US3.7 million late last month. This artwork is in fact the artist’s unmade bed which was left in this state for four days after she broke up with her boyfriend only to be exhibited as a major work and was shortlisted for the prestigious Turner Prize in 1999.

Such performances and artworks have become the incarnation of contemporary art in the west. Moreover where some critics observe that “Duchamp's work was a protest against the stale, unthinking artistic establishment of his day”, it can be said that contemporary African art is the reverse of this. 

Contemporary African art provides a return to innocence not because it is parochial, wall bound art, but because its producers live in a more tangible reality that is not drowned by ultra-theoretic notions.

An international African artist can be uncorking champagne at a gallery opening in Frankfurt one evening and visiting grandparents in a far flung African village the other all the while reflecting the best of both worlds in their work in her or his work. There are doubts as to whether the act of producing Moir√©’s "Plop Egg Paintings" can be tolerated outside the comfort zone of Europe. 

The phenomenon of the African artist may best be captured in the words of the radical South African artist Kendell Geers during an interview with international curator Katerina Gregos. 

“Rather than speaking about “African contemporary art,” I would rather speak about “contemporary African art”; … the former caters for the international market … in much the same way as African traders have always done. “Contemporary African Art” on the other hand presupposes a sense of the present, of the contemporary spirit and is always fluid and resisting classification… It is more viral and hence dangerous as contemporary art should be” Geers told Gregos.