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Monday, 21 September 2015

Mike Parsons, a retired pilot who took to his brushes

By Andrew Mulenga

One cannot help but smile at the familiarity of the glimmering brown bottle and half-filled pint glass with its likewise recognizable, light amber contents. Framed by an illuminated foreground and a dim background, the bottles label is a fleeting blur, unrecognisable, the bottle could contain anything.

Sundowner 34x43cm oil on
canvas by Mike Parsons
But more than anything the paintings title gives it away as it is aptly titled Sundowner. “Sundowner” was a popular term for an alcoholic drink enjoyed after a hard day’s work, often used by British settlers, and habitually localized as “Sandauni” here in Zambia. On a lighter edge, one might note that the term is known to have been abused and means the total opposite, because ironically during a Sandauni drinks are consumed in large quantities until sunrise.

Nevertheless, the painting in question is by Mike Parsons  (1941-2017) was a naturalized South African, born in Devon, England who lived in Zambia until in his mid-twenties, shortly after independence. Parsons passed away in 2017, but in 2015, he shared his life story and passion for art and aviation with Andrew Mulenga.

“The people of Zambia are my fondest memory and the way of life there. The sundowners, I will never forget, and a man called Masala. He was my team leader in the bush and was always with me,” recalls Parsons who worked as a geological field assistant and lived and worked in bush camps until 1964, about four years after completing at Kitwe High School.

“I remember two occasions that he saved my life. He once plucked me off a collapsing wooden bridge while the Land Rover was sliding towards me. Masala always walked ahead of me and one day he spun around and pushed me out of the way of a king cobra coming at us from the side.”

Parsons’ father was a geological draughtsman employed Anglo American in Welkom, South Africa but was later transferred to the Copperbelt, Zambia which was of course British-ruled Northern Rhodesia at the time. The family lived in Kalulushi which he recalls was a good place to be in the 1960s.

“It was a happy time for me. I remember a thing called the metal bonus. Everyone was getting double pay because salaries were connected to the price of copper. There was lots of money about. Friends who were apprentices were driving Austin-Heelys (sports cars) and Jaguars,” he remembers.

Road to Bethal, 75 x 60cm oil on canvas by Mike Parsons
“I don't remember any racial tensions. Kaunda was not an unpopular choice. I lived and worked in the bush and he stopped all poaching in Zambia by employing teams of armed ex-military people who had the power to confiscate all the equipment of poachers. He was very sensitive about animals and many poachers were left in the middle of nowhere with nothing but their clothes.”

Parsons left Zambia in 1965 to join a flying school in Johannesburg and later qualified as a commercial pilot but later flew a crop duster, settling in Bethal, in the Eastern Highlands of South Africa. Why Bethal? He says it is a very high yield agricultural area and was a good place to be if you are a crop sprayer, he just stayed on after he retired from aviation because friends and family were there too.

Having taken up art seriously in 1980, Parsons is a self-taught artist whose only formal training was a one year apprenticeship with late South African painter Adriaan Boshoff who was only five years his senior. He insists however, that he is not a hobbyist but a serious painter engaged in a never ending battle for a better picture, that is his only goal. He tries to capture light, mood and atmosphere in a painting that more often than not would depict people and figures.

Parsons at work in his studio
“Crop spraying is seasonal work and I had four months every year with not a lot to do. I decided to use this time to try to teach myself to paint a picture. I started painting in the off season in about 1980,” he explains “Right now I feel I wasted many years in aircraft. It is something I thought I wanted to do as a young man but after a few years I understood the job and was bored with it. I ought to have used that time to get to a better picture”.

Light being the philosophy behind his work, he tries to paint the light as he sees it. This perhaps explains his brilliant handling of Sundowner the type of work whose skilful finish can be best appreciated by squinting of the eyes – an old gallery visitor’s trick -- something probably akin to how wine-tasters sniff from the glass and then swirl the sip round their mouth before fully appreciating a fine vintage, one might add.

“I have tried to avoid a ‘style’. There are many painters who settle into a style and then proceed to paint basically the same picture for 30 years. I try to start each picture differently. For my creative process, the starting point is always a drawing or something I have seen or one of my own photographs. Apart from a still life now and then I seldom paint from life,” he explains of his work process.

“I also like the drama of figures in urban landscapes. There are people in almost all my paintings. Composition equals good drawing and good tonal values. If you can get that right, you have a good painting.”
While his subject matter is broad, ranging from landscapes, seascapes, still life and portraiture, even though he denies falling into the trap of having a particular style, upon closer view the thick oil pint impasto of his busy brush and palette knife are unmistakable.

Nevertheless, Parsons lived to enjoy retirement from flying and his paintings are collected mainly through established galleries fetching anything between K2,000 to K30,000 – in Zambian currency -- depending on which gallery is fixing the price, pricing he indicates, is a task that he is neither involved nor interested in.  He has never returned to Zambia since this 1960s but claimed that it remains high on his “bucket list”, he passed away in 2017.

He enjoys the drama of figures in urban landscapes

Sunday, 13 September 2015

‘Culture is the backbone of a nation’

By Andrew Mulenga

After gaining independence from the British Empire in 1964, Zambia’s free citizens’ next step was nation-building, and one of the biggest instruments to be used was the development of an outwardly generic Zambian identity bolstered by a common national cultural heritage. Of course for a nation of more than 72 ethnicities this would be no easy undertaking.

Zambian liberation hero,
Simon Kapwepwe admires
a sculpture
(Photo- 1964 Independence
Exhibition catalogue)
But it may perhaps be why the energetic new leadership quickly identified the importance of arts and culture as a tool, therefore, through the Department of Cultural Services it organised annual arts festivals featuring concerts and exhibitions. Among these exhibitions, two of the most notable ones to occur in the 1960s were entitled the International Art Exhibition and Wood Sculptures from Zambia respectively.

Records indicate that the International Art Exhibition or National Exhibition of Art and Culture was organised by the Livingstone Museum but showcased in Lusaka for locals and foreign guests to the independence celebrations from the 19 October to 30 November 1964.

According to the exhibition catalogue’s acknowledgments: “The International Art Exhibition was the Hon. Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe’s idea. He was responsible for promoting its existence, and the organisers were greatly encouraged by his inspiring public declaration; Culture is the backbone of a nation”. Kapwepwe, who was Minister of Home Affairs at the time, wrote an evocative Foreword for the publication and laid emphasis on national unity.

“Culture is the heritage of us all. Some may be more interested than others in the treasures of the past, but no one can fail to take pride in his country’s participation in the story of mankind as represented in carvings, sculpture, music, painting, and the other arts”, he declared. Of course his reference of the term culture here, was in line with the Oxford dictionary definition of a noun that describes: “the arts and other instances of human intellectual achievement regarded as a whole”. Kapwepwe declared that through culture humanity is in touch with the best that has been known and achieved in the world, and thus the human spirit. 

A Johannesburg model, Colleen Andrews, studies some of
the many Zambian sculptures which have been flown to Johannesburg
for exhibition at the Adler Fielding Gallery this week
(Sunday Times 23-10-66)
“The committee responsible for the organisation of Zambia’s Independence Celebrations determined from the start that there should be an exhibition of art which would combine in one representative show styles from all places and of all times,” he continued in part “And in this context we planned to show the part that Africa has played in man’s story so far. The National Exhibition of Art and Culture will demonstrate the specific contribution of Zambia to this story. I hope that this exhibition will bring you pleasure. It will surely help us appreciate what harmony and perfection are and thus strengthen us in our determination to make them prevail. The men of culture are truly apostles of tolerance and understanding, the guardians of beauty and light, and our hope in this world for unity and concord.”

The photograph accompanying the foreword shows him clad in a loose flowing chitenge-like outer garment that resembles a Toga, covering the whole body apart from the right arm. Coupled with a pair of sandals and a majestic, well-crafted wooden staff the outfit was in itself a fashion statement, a protest perhaps against the suits donned by the former colonial masters. The attire was also something akin to that of the Kente cloth worn by Kwame Nkrumah who had lead Ghana to freedom just over five years earlier.

Cover from the 1966 exhibition
held at the Adler Fielding Gallery
in Johannesburg 
Coming from a restrictive academic system towards locals, as a new nation, Zambia did not yet have academically trained artists or curators in the Western canon, so Frank McEwen from the Rhodes National Gallery in Salisbury, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) was brought in to put up the display, despite the new government not seeing eye to eye with the then white supremacist south. Before coming to Africa, McEwen had lived and worked in Paris and left an important post with the British Council. Modern art giants like Picasso, Braque, Brancusi and Henry Moore were his personal friends and he often shipped their work to Rhodesia for temporary display, so bringing such a character in was no mean achievement. McEwin is also credited for rebelliously allowing children and students from African townships into the Rhodes National Gallery in Salisbury, a place that initially had race restrictions.  

Nevertheless, as for the “Wood Sculptures from Zambia” exhibition, it was first shown at the Livingstone Museum, shifted to the Evelyn Hone College in Lusaka and later shipped abroad. About 30 craftsmen from only three provinces were listed by tribe; Lozi, Lunda Luvale, Mbunda, Luchazi, Toka Leya and Kwanga, but the show was still comprehensively framed as “Zambian”, such were the efforts made for the unification of a new nation. The show’s first stop abroad was of all places, South Africa again despite Kaunda and his comrades being outspoken enemies of the apartheid regime at the time. If the October, 1966, newspaper cuttings from most of South Africa’s major papers at the time are anything to go by, the show was a resounding success, it was covered in the Beeld, The Star, Rand Daily Mail and the Sunday Times.

Cover for 1966 exhibition
of modern Zambian sculpture
The S.A. Digest wrote: “A collection of valuable traditional Zambian sculpture is at present being exhibited in the Adler Fielding Gallery in Johannesburg. The realisation that commercialism was decreasing the standard of wood carving in the country by the Zambian Government to assemble a collection of attractive wood sculpture. The collection of more than 200 sculptures will later be flown to America for several exhibitions there before being taken to Switzerland.”

A Sunday Times headline read: “Kaunda sends S.A. collection of Zambian Sculpture”. The story itself read in part further read: “With the active encouragement of the Zambian Government’s Directorate of Cultural Services, Traditional Arts (Africa) Ltd., has been able to create a nucleus of artists whose work is attracting recognition overseas.” Traditional Arts (Africa) Ltd. was a Livingstone-based company ran by Dennis Erwin who had organised successful shows with the aid of the Livingston Museum director Reynolds.

Under the headline “Unique carving” in The Star, journalist, Mary Packer pointed out that “This exhibition shows three types of Zambian sculpture, in the first place, “classical Zambian sculpture, consisting of old pieces from the Livingstone Museum. The second part consists of contemporary sculpture that, although based on the traditional style, has new concepts. The third and last group shows examples of the mass tourism art”. But Packer seems to momentarily ignore the categorisation, granting the work a much more fetishized, aura and classification. She writes: “Startled at the outset by a gigantic carving of an all-powerful deity, one walks straight into the heart and mind of primeval Africa as symbolized by the greatest collection of Zambian sculpture ever seen here”; adding more emphasis to the works’ perceived primitiveness and ethereal quality, she describes it as “A forest of curiously superhuman shapes that challenge the eye – and chill the blood. They demonstrate the vital difference between primitive art culled from the source and its synthetic substitutes. This vast exhibition (collected from remote areas where the artists still steeped in tradition have been encouraged to continue their hereditary symbolic carvings)”. In one line, she oversimplifies the work as being produced by artists living in Zambia’s remote areas, when in fact artists such as Sililo were at the time based in Livingstone, which was already urbanised, having also served as the capital before Lusaka under Northern Rhodesia after the British South Africa Company decided to shift its administrative headquarters from Kalomo.

The foreword for these exhibition catalogues was written by the Zambian Minister of Information and Postal Services at the time, Lewis Changufu. Although Cangufu may have gone overboard eulogising Erwin for rescuing Zambian sculpture from degenerating and openly declared that the very survival of Zambian handicrafts was entirely dependent on Europe, there is no denying that serious effort and a great deal of support was being provided by government.

“I am pleased to present to you the Exhibition of Zambian Sculpture jointly sponsored by the Traditional Arts (Africa) Ltd., whose dedication to the revival of classical African sculpture has rescued some of Zambian sculpture from degenerating into low quality mass produced curio art. The survival of our traditional sculpture is largely dependent upon the European and American customers who collect African works of art. Unless efforts are made to present to them only works of good quality, there is a danger to these patrons buying anything that may be offered to them, thereby allowing bad works to go outside the country as representative of Zambian art,” stated Changufu.
“I would commend to your particular attention the work of Rainford Sililo. This artist has had a varied career, at one time producing for the tourist market at Livingstone curios as crude and as poor as those exhibited in the LEST WE FORGET section of this Exhibition. Now, under Mr. Erwin’s encouragement, he has blossomed into perhaps the leading Zambian artist and one whose work is in considerable demand. By his development alone a valuable service has been rendered to Zambia yet we are confident that there are other sculptors – and artists who are following hard on in his heels.”
And Barrie Raynolds, the Livingstone Museum director who wrote the curators note stated: “It is important that they be encouraged and guided during these formative years so that they may play their full part in shaping the cultural heritage of Zambia and in developing the art of Africa”.

It is evident that through the 1960s, the Zambian government continued to enthusiastically sponsor arts and culture. According to Cynthia Zukas, who was head of the defunct Lusaka Artists Society in the late 1960s reveals that the organisation was also generously supported by an annual government grant and much of it would be used to specifically fund an annual arts festival.
“The government was very interested in cultural development, both Kapwepwe and Kaunda were very vocal, the Department of Cultural Services had a generous grant. In addition, the first few years after independence the department also supported annual arts festivals,” said Zukas in an interview early this year. “I cannot remember when they stopped but for the first three or five years they were very good, they got off really to a very good start”.

Here, one is tempted to ponder over the words of N'Goné Fall, a Dakar-based independent curator, art critic, and consultant in cultural engineering. In an article entitled State of Emergency: culture in Africa is at a crossroads published in the autumn 2006 edition of Art South Africa, although written close to a decade ago, the words ring true to the fall out in arts and culture sponsorship not only in Zambia, but across the post-colonial African continent?

“The 1960s is remembered as a time of geographical, social and cultural breaking-down. In those busy days, African governments implemented national theatres, national museums, and national performing arts companies. Culture – well funded and privileged – was used as a weapon to fight against western imperialism,” writes Fall who is also a consultant for Senegalese and international cultural institutions as well as an associate professor at the Senghor University in Alexandria, Egypt.
“Two decades later, things started to fall apart. National touring exhibitions stopped, museums closed, funds vanished. Culture was no longer the priority. African politicians blamed it all on Structural adjustments”, she argues.

She points out that meanwhile in the west, exhibitions became really international, featuring artists from Latin America, Asia and Africa. She claims that subsequently workshops, magazines and arts festivals slightly balanced western artistic hegemony but this was not enough.

“We need to bear in mind that the African continent is lacking cultural infrastructure, art professionals, information flows and a real political commitment. The happy days of independence are over. A different context needs to questions and challenge the local and the global, websites and art centres, books, magazines, workshops and networks,” she writes in part “Culture is a vehicle for traditions and ideologies. Today the continent is passively consuming foreign cultural productions. Personally, I am sick and tired of this. We can no longer ignore the fact that African youth are being bombarded with, and stupefied by concepts, ideas and values manufactured elsewhere – all this in the name of planetary fraternity and cultural diversity. It is time to shake our minds and to consider that we are in a state of emergency”.

Although expressed more recently, Fall’s sentiments hold water and are in sync with Kapwepwe’s declaration that “Culture is the heritage of us all” some 50 odd years ago. But how far are we from the cultural vision of the founding fathers?

The arts festivals and revolving exhibitions were abandoned along with funding decades ago, the attempt at a national dress code was short-lived, and efforts for authenticity with regards traditional sculpture were all but thrown out the window, Sililo and his fellow sculptors never really made it onto the world stage. Erwin and Changufu’s attempt to rescue it went nowhere and today you have the very “tourist art” they tried to curb flooding the Sunday craft markets with works from as far flung as Kenya. Some of it is even embarrassingly displayed abroad like the cheap wooden masks that are still on display in the Zambian stand at the Expo Milan 2015 in Italy. So where are we today? Certainly far worse than the 1960s.

Not to say efforts have not been made to redeem support for arts and culture as both a vanguard of national heritage and a viable economic sector. Through policy, somewhere within the “Arts, Culture and Heritage Commission Bill” there lies hope, but the bill is entangled in red tape, tightly wrapped in the lack of political will. The words “Culture is the heritage of us all”, remain a faint and distant echo, the first intense cries during the birth of a nation. 

Monday, 7 September 2015

Gianpiero's host Chali solo

By Andrew Mulenga

The newly opened Gianpiero's Hotel Ltd., on Kasangula Road in Lusaka’s Kalundu residential area is hosting a solo exhibition of recent works by Aubrey Chali, the display of about 20 paintings will remain hanging for a week, after which the prospective buyers will be able to collect their purchases.

Behind A Tribal Mask, 2015 acrylic on
canvas, by Aubrey Chali
The hotel becomes the second hospitality establishment this year, after The Spice, Indian restaurant in Rhodes Park, to offer alternative space to visual artists in Lusaka and because they are providing it as a means of social responsibility, Gianpiero's management will not be charging any sales commissions.

Chali is also expected to benefit from the hotels guest list, since its opening last December, the buffet restaurant that occasionally serves a speciality of Italian cuisine as well as family-friendly pool-side Sunday brunches has fast become a popular hangout particularly among expatriates and the diplomatic community.
Nevertheless, as for the work itself, Chali will be showing slightly new variations of his characteristically decorative crosshatch technique as he is currently attaching appliqué – ornamental pieces of cloth – to his painted canvases.

Togetherness, 2015 acrylic on canvas by Aubrey Chali
“I think diversification is key to development, my wife is in tailoring and fashion designing and she has a lot of chitenge off-cuts which are just gathered and burnt afterwards, so upon seeing the adorable patterns being burnt, the idea of recycling clicked in my mind and instantly, I thought of experimenting on one of my paintings and it made sense, that’s how I developed interest in using the chitenge,” explains the 37-year-old self-taught painter who relocated from Mansa district in Luapula province in search of better prospects last year.

Anyhow, apart from the new technique, the artist’s subject matter has also taken a shift. Instead of his trademark portrayals of scenes from pastoral life, inspired by the peri-urban setting in Mansa, he appears to be experimenting with African mask motifs, a theme that occurs to be a favourite among many African artists when they try to find ways of creating works that are “visually African” or can satisfy the needs of -- mostly overseas -- collectors whose notions of Africa vis-à-vis Zambia generally imply that its visual arts should have primordial elements to them.

Trusted Friend, 2015 acrylic on
canvas by Aubrey Chali
“The more young generation appreciate and understand the African masks of different eras, movements, styles and techniques, the better they can develop, evaluate and improve their own knowledge about the importance of preserving culture in societies,” mitigates Chali as his own honest reason for incorporating tribal masks in to his new work, obviously exploiting the symbolism of the Makishi and Nyau masquerades from North Western and Eastern provinces of Zambia respectively.

Typical examples of work in which he has done this are the aptly titled Behind a Tribal Mask which appears to reference one of the many, large-headed Likishi dance masks from the Lunda Lwena Luvale, as does the figure carrying a vessel on the head in Togetherness.

It must be noted that Chali is hardly the first Zambian artist to appropriate images of the African ceremonial mask. It can be argued that the urge to modify or recontextualize masks in Zambia can be traced back to artists including the enigmatic Aquila Simpasa, Flinto Chandia, Victor Makashi, Patrick Mumba and Lutanda Mwamba engaged witty tricks for resituating tribal masks in new and often satirical contexts. Simpasa’s 1973, large format charcoal drawings The Drummer and The Miner can be seen at the Lusaka National Museum, Chandia’s marble sculpture Amatebeto 1 (2005), Makashi’s Masked Chewa Heritage pastels (2006) as well as Mumba’s Tribal Mask (2007) can all be seen in the Lechwe Trust Collection whenever it is on display and Mwamba’s un-dated Drinkers is in the Post Newspaper’s Collection. More recently Danny Chiliapa Lwando has consistently toyed with the theme including in his most recent show Culture at the Zebra Crossing Café early this year. But perhaps the one who had been more radical in his appropriation to the extent that he appeared to have a sharp critique of traditional masks juxtaposing them alongside subject matter from city life is Ignatius Sampa. Sampa, an exceptional talent who died early at the age of 22 last year was so radical in his mask appropriations that the generally accepted belief in Zambian art circles is that the ancient spirits of the Makishi were angered at his parodies and therefore cast a spell and subsequently mysterious death upon the budding star.

Gianpiero's on Kasangula Road in Lusaka
Nevertheless, viewers should not expect any critical edge from Chali today as his work does not seem to hold a frim theoretical grounding, it is honest and to a large degree decorative, it clearly does not appear to harbour any lofty, or hidden philosophical ideology.

Chali’s first solo was held in September last year but he has managed to keep himself busy between now and then surviving on – as he says – art alone and he can often be found At the Art Academy Without Walls in the Lusaka Showgrounds where he has been occupying studio space with a group of like-minded friends.
“My last solo exhibition experience was a stepping stone to reach higher heights in art circles, it was a success and I thank God for that. Through participating in various group exhibitions, I have met a lot of different people and most import, a lot are my fans and are following me closely and eagerly waiting to see my latest work,” he claims.

Last year the artist was scheduled to take up an invitation to attend an artists' convention in Canada, the International Symposium of Painting and Sculpture in the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean unfortunately, he could not make it due to a botched visa application process through a South African consulate. The trip however is still on for mid-2016, as the Canadians have been able to rectify whatever anomaly occurred and they have subsequently paid for his visa. It will be his first experience abroad and he is excited at the prospects of international exposure, networking opportunities as well as the exchange of artistic skills and ideas.

“So far I cannot complain, my stay in Lusaka has been fair and great. I have made progress both in art and social life, and I have met a lot of good people and my special appreciations go to Christopher Mulenga, the Director at CMM Property for promoting my art works, he has also offered to pay for my air ticket to Canada and of course I sincerely thank Elizabeth Armament, the Director at Gianpiero's Hotel Ltd, the venue for my second solo art exhibition,” adds Chali.