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Monday, 29 September 2014

Why has it taken 50 years?

By Andrew Mulenga

The local arts fraternity is still savouring the occasion of Friday the 5th of September 2014, when for the very first time on Zambian soil a combined group of 26 students graduated with Bachelor of Arts degrees (BA) in fine arts and Bachelor of Arts (BA) degrees in Theatre arts respectively.

What next for Zambia Open University arts graduates
They were among 400 Zambia Open University (ZAOU) students from various disciplines that with good reason threw their square academic caps in the air after years of study during a colourful event held at the Olympic Youth Development Centre in Lusaka.

But with regards the arts graduates this momentous occasion raises a few questions, paramount among them, is why has it taken the nation 50 years to locally produce its first university graduates in the creative field?

Besides that, one might also ask how well drilled the graduates are and how prepared they are to make a significant contribution? What is next for the graduates?

William Miko, artist cum lecturer at ZAOU and architect of a philosophy he has coined “correcting a national anomaly”, in reference to the long absence of an art degree in Zambia and the general deficiency of art education, attempts to respond to these questions.

ZAOU Fine Art lecturer William Miko
before the graduating art students splashed
him in paint as a performance piece

“It may be difficult to pinpoint why it has taken Zambia 50 years to produce the first university graduates in the arts on her own soil. In my view, the first reason lays in British colonisation and its empire mind-set that was inculcated in our people which relegated arts and culture to its irrelevance,” asserts the British-schooled academic “Even after independence, Zambia still continued using the Cambridge syllabus, whereby, in art education, exam projects were sent to Britain for marking. Generally, until a few decades ago, art was seen as an option subject hence an elective career in the nation. Therefore, our minds still remained colonised in as far as paying attention to our own arts, culture and aesthetic developments were concerned.”

He explains as a result, Zambian academia, despite efforts by a few well-wishers, remained too visionless to realise that educating a nation without the arts at university level was “like running a relay-game course without a baton to pass-on to the next runner hence, national development in the arts remained lopsided.”

“Efforts to establish a full time art degree at UNZA (the University of Zambia) by such dedicated artistes like the late Professor Mapopa Mtonga and Henry Tayali could not bear fruit for some reason,” he adds in obvious reference to the two scholars’ generally believed uphill battle to introduce the arts in the country’s highest learning institution from the 1970s until their respective deaths.

It can be said that the attempt to champion acknowledgment of the arts at higher learning level did not end with Mtonga and Tayali. Miko and colleagues at ZAOU too have not been without critics within the institution as well as the general arts fraternity. A good number of artists that have already enjoyed professional “success” have been known to belittle the ambitious initiative; some questioning the validity of the programmes particularly because they are delivered through distant learning.

Miko splashed in paint as a symbolic
celebration of the introduction of
art at university level in Zambia
“Are these critics surely academic art critics or just commentators on the creative industry?  Some people, even when they are hungry, literally starving to death and you give them the entire cooked chicken to eat, they will still ask for the gizzard. Ask those critics opposed to the introduction of a fine arts degree at university level as to what they have done about its long absence in Zambia since 50 years ago!,” argues Miko “Surely, what does UNISA (University of South Africa) do with its distance art training for learners across Southern Africa? The question of validity of the distance programme can’t be put forward by anyone who has not undergone this level of education and experienced its expanse and intensity.”

He maintains the challenge of distance learning will be overcome at some point and suggests that amount of theoretical engagement and practical dictates underpinning the courses is of high standard.

“Are we going to sit back wallow and glorify the absence of art at university level for fear of being criticised as a nation? No! For now distance delivery is what is available. We are going to have to go further, develop a full time programme in due course either at ZAOU itself or at any other university in the country; in the meantime, this is the only four-year BA degree course available, and we hope to develop an MA degree soon.”

“It is no wonder only countries with higher education in the arts are attuned to the dictates of the mainstream international art scene in today’s world. It’s not enough for artists just to be production lines of “les objets d’Art” called beautiful art. Even if artists have not had an opportunity to go to school themselves, if tertiary level of education exists in their country, their art and practice gets researched and written on, henceforth exposure to a wider audience beyond their limited national boundaries.”

Further defending the distance learning system and explaining that it is used by institutions all over the world, Miko sheds more light on the ZAOU course.

“Students register for their first year semester and take four modules per semester which they study on their own, plus two assignment questions per module which they answer by conducting research and writing essays from their various domiciles and post them back to the university. These are typed and bound assignments,” he explains “The study period is divided into two semesters of six months each in every academic calendar; students start their course with a two weeks long residential school during which intensive lectures are given in both theoretical, studio practice guidance and tutorials accompanied by study tours.”
He admits for fine arts, there is a challenge with practical artwork assignments being sent through postal services, so students can only bring these along in a portfolio when they come to write exams at the end of each semester.

“At the moment students are exposed to some amount of art history both African and Western. Studio practice starts with basic theories on elements and principles of art and design in drawing distinctions and art making practices”.

He argues the graduates have already started to positively contribute to the growth of the art scene through various channels such as generating knowledge through assignments, practical artworks experiments and final research thesis projects.

“These are written thesis papers on various topics usually never researched and written on before. For instance, our first and current distinction graduate Felix Mvula’s thesis topic titled “Aesthetic Concepts in Selected Zambian Contemporary Art,” is a well-researched and written paper worth publishing. These student papers will continue unearthing so much information on the development of Zambian art. Graduates are going to continue imparting knowledge to students and pupils in their various colleges and schools around the country,” he adds.

He claims the graduates, most of them being teachers and lecturers in public and private schools around the country, will be key drivers of the new art curriculum that has been developed by the Ministry of Education.

Graduates at the OYDC with the new Heroes
Stadium in the background
“The ‘Career pathway’ curriculum requires qualified personnel to roll it out in schools, our graduates are a crop of highly trained man-power as at now, a shot in the arm. But some of the graduates work in various Government departments in ministries such as Health, Tourism and Arts, Home Affairs, Science and Technology, others are already practising artists. Their impact will soon be felt in the nation. If these developmental sectors are not the target areas of effecting change, where else can you affect a paradigm shift in a trajectory of arts scene development in Zambia!”

He admits the arts programme is like a child that has just been born, it is yet to crawl and learn to run and improve on its activities as time goes by.

Anyway, bravo and well put by Miko. But, one is tempted here to offer some free advice to ZAOU, the graduates and government, in that particular order, no protocol observed.
ZAOU should first consider perfecting this new degree before they consider the master’s programme that Miko hinted towards probably in an immediate response to the doubting Thomases, he surely has the experience to know that quality is better than quantity, what would be the point of churning out half-baked graduates a-kwacha-a-dozen if not filling the university’s coffers?

If he is serious with “correcting the national anomaly” things such as entry requirements too should be seriously scrutinized at enrolment. It will be sad if the course begins to attract throwaways form other disciplines. Furthermore, one cannot shy away from the reality that government employees are known to be notorious for enrolling in courses to get either a promotion or an upgraded salary, sink back into the bureaucracy and rest on their laurels.
The graduates are justifiably enthusiastic with the new qualifications, up-graded pay and the “BA” abbreviation that may accompany their names on business cards depending of course on ones self-esteem. But let them be reminded that every graduate is a scholar, and every scholar has a responsibility to give back to the communities that they study, in fact on this, some universities are so strict, and students sign a whole section on ethics that accompanies research proposals. So it will be just right to plough back and yes, change the world.

As for government, particularly in the departments mentioned by Miko, it is time to consider retiring the docile, under-educated, jacket-on-chair administrators that have long plagued management of the creative sector like a tumour. It is time to test this new blood of leadership being provided by ZAOU, bearing in mind that next year another set is on its way. Change is inevitable the time is now.

ZAOU ushers in a very stimulating period for the arts in Zambia. Overlooking those of settler heritage, at no time has there been more than 5 degree holders among Zambian artists over the past 50 years.

Until his death aged just 43 in 1987 Tayali was the only artist educated up to Master’s degree level. He had a BA Fine Art from Makerere University, Uganda and an MA from the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, Germany.

Martin Phiri who return from the Central Academy of Fine Art in China with a BA Fine Art in 1985 remained the only degree holder for six years until Godfrey Setti graduated from Reading University with a BA Fine Art in 1991, Phiri died in 1997 while Setti died in 2002 although the latter also pursued an MA Fine Art and was a PhD candidate at Rhodes University during the time of his passing. In the 1990s Patrick Mumba and William Miko also joined this select category. Mumba graduated from the world-renowned Slade School of Fine Art, London in 1994 whereas Miko would study up to Masters level at Middlesex University graduating in 1999. Mumba is currently pursuing an MA Fine Art at Rhodes University.

In 2006 Elisha Zulu returned from the University of Namibia with a BA Fine Art, he is based in Mbala. During the course of the 2000s a few young Zambians pursued university study particularly in Scandinavian Europe, but it is difficult to make an inventory of how far they have gone with their studies as none returned home, their nationality too is up for speculation, one or two could be European by marriage or by creative asylum. 

Monday, 22 September 2014

By chisel and mallet, theirs is a brotherhood cast in stone

By Andrew Mulenga

By chisel and mallet, file and grinder, theirs is a brotherhood cast in stone, literally. Roots of Xpression, a collective of non-conformist, like-minded, up-coming artists got together about six years ago in Lusaka’s Libala South where they put up a makeshift sculpture studio because they felt marginalized by ‘the system’.

Artist, Tom Phiri dusts of
one of his sculptures
The founder members of the mostly dread-locked troupe are Bisalom and Tom, sons of the late influential sculptor and Visual Arts Council founder Martin Phiri, France-based and Zimbabwean-born Agnew Masangu, Doubt Makala, Hagai Mambo and Ntamanyile Sichamba. They were later to be joined by Chifuchi Kandala, Lexton Kunda, Kilarenz Albert and the prodigious metal-worker Othiniel Lingwabo who was still in secondary school at the time.

In fact this group comprised of what were break-away factions from Rockston Studio of the Lutanda Mwamba and David Chirwa fame as well as arts interlocutor Alexis Phiri’s Kachere Art Studio.  They held their first public exhibition in 2008, at the Alliance Francaise in Lusaka in a radically titled exhibition named Oppression. Although these young Turks never sold a thing during Oppression probably owing to poor marketing as well as an over-priced piece here and there, they gave viewers a glimpse of something new. They unveiled a body of stone works that were not inhibiting in their presentation and expression. As much as they (works) were for sale, it was clear that the artists did not care whether they sold anything or not, they merely wanted to show the public what they could do in marble, granite and other hard rock types. Most of the works would have highly polished surfaces on one side with contrasting, rough and untouched surfaces on the other.
Fast-forward to today, this militant group of young artists is still going strong and still working with stone, which is not the simplest of tasks either as an artist’s medium or a means of survival. But these young rebels have now toughened, probably as hard as the stone they chisel and hammer at for living.

Nezias 'Neziland' Nyirenda in his gear
“It is not easy at all, but this is what we do to survive. We buy our stone from United Quarries and we have to hire transport which is quite expensive. And some rocks are very large and heavy that we cannot lift them even in a group so you have to hire a crane”, says Tom Phiri, the younger of the Martin Phiri heirs who prefers to work in marble and granite.
Softly scratching his dread-locks from underneath his large red turban, he becomes something of a geologist and explains that although he enjoys working in granite it is a very hard type of rock to manipulate because it has semi-precious tendencies.

“Granite has veins of feldspar and these can be quite tough to grind or carve” he says
And when working with large stones, one needs ready cash at ones disposal because there is always the need to hire a crane. These charge anything above KR500 per hour in Lusaka, and they will always charge a minimum of 3 hours, demanding the money upfront. Meanwhile, it is not every day that Mr Phiri and team will make a sale and have that type of money at their disposal, but they still soldier on.

A marble torso protrudes
from chipped off rubble
“It is not every day that we work for commissions here at Roxy (short for Roots of Xpression). We just work every day because we feel like working, working is what we enjoy” he says.

Apart from waiting for large commissions, Mr Phiri and team make very creative tomb stones to keep food on the table, some of which can be seen lining the fence of their art studio. He says while the idea of selling the tombstones and small garden sculptures helps, visibility for new markets is a challenge and he wishes they could have a space at which more people could have access to their works.

Mr Phiri launched his artistic career in 2003, shortly after completing school at Kabulonga Boys Secondary school, but found inspiration before this when he was selected to attend a workshop under the mentorship of the sculptor Flinto Chandia. At this workshop he grasped the basics, how to design shapes and form.

“But it is after school that I met Nezias Nyirenda who introduced me to Lutanda Mwamba, Baluchi Mulenga and David Chirwa at Rockston studio which was very active at the time, in woodlands” says Phiri.

A squating figure awaits a buyer 
In fact, today, tables have turned and things are the other way round. Nyirenda, who was once mentor to Phiri, is now taking lessons from his onetime protégé because he has been away from stone as a medium, preferring to work in wood, making functional art and furniture for about 18 years.

“I moved out of the show grounds (Arts Academy Without Walls) last year, what I wanted is to rediscover myself. I wanted to start working in stone once again, because when I started out as an artist, stone was my first medium”, explains Nezias Nyirenda or Neziland as he is so often called.

So I thought where can I go to work with stone, then I remembered Roots of Xpression, stone is their main medium. They are younger than me, but I have humbled myself and I am learning from them, from Tom and especially Bisalom Phiri who often gives me guidance. Being older than someone does not mean you cannot learn from them.

“Here at Roots of Xpression it has been great, I feel energized once again. Here I feel the spirit of Martin Phiri, Rockston and Roots of Xpression all in one, this new beginning reminds me of my early days, when I was the youngest member of the Visual Arts Council in 1990”, he says “Being the youngest I was always sent around to help pick up stuff. When I sold my first sculpture, Martin Phiri told me that it was easy enough to sell a work, but it was important to find out why the buyer chose the work in the first place, and I have stuck to that guiding principal”

A 41-year-old Rastafarian, whom the media once reported as having the longest dreadlocks in Zambia, Nyirenda trained under the apprenticeship of David Chirwa at Rockston Studio between 1990 and 1993 and later took up carpentry and joinery at the Chilenje Trades School which drove his inclinations towards wood. Unlike Tom Phiri and the other introverted members of Roots of Xpression, Nyirenda is never shy of voicing his opinion beyond wood and stone.

The work shack at Roots of Xpression studio in Libala South
“We are very excited that we have a ministry for the arts now, but I feel there is a lot that has to be done. But anyway, the easiest way for government to assist us as visual artists is to come up with a cultural fund like our friends in Zimbabwe have” he says “This fund can be revolving in art studios, probably a KR100, 000 given out every two years to a deserving studio, after all in Zambia there very few, maybe Kachere Arts Studio, Roots of Expression, Arts Academy Without Walls, these can be given out as loans, just so that artists can buy equipment, you know”.

A sculpture by the late Martin Phiri, one of the studio's idols
Nyirenda says although he has been following the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) General Assembly preparations for some time he still feels in the dark about the involvement of the arts.

“All I know is that there is about KR300, 000 set aside for a sculpture at the Livingston airport, but I think it would have been better also for more artists to benefit, artists from all the ten provinces should be given a pavilion to showcase art from all over the country but maybe I am wishing too much” says Nyirenda.

Nevertheless, whether they get help from ‘the system’ or not, it looks like the band of comrades that call themselves Roots of Xpression will be doing what they enjoy best, crafting art out of stone as they listen to the blaring sound of Reggae music for a long time to come.

A pumped 'amandla' fist, the embodiment of their  'stay focused' work philosophy

Some unfinished rock sculptures and the workshop- shack