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Wednesday, 28 October 2015

The artist as political commentator

By Andrew Mulenga

(This story was first published in The Bulletin & Record Magazine - Zambia in 2014)

Not all visual artists are stimulated by notions of beauty or inspired to mind-numbingly repeat in pictures what their patrons and viewers would want to lap up.

Donchi Kubeba, 2013 (mixed media)
by Mapopa Manda
Some function on another plane, informing their art production with the inequalities and prohibitions that can be made visible by observing the daily lives of the electorate in comparison to that of the rulers they vote into power.

In Zambia, this type of artist is rare; often taking the trouble-free stance of keeping away from politics, our artists tend to restrict their focus to delicate social commentary which can easily go unnoticed if not explained by the creators themselves.

Perhaps a wise position considering they are always scouring for public patronage hoping of being subsidized by government someday, so it is sensible to avoid biting the fingers before they feed you, whether this day will come or not .

Nevertheless, there is a young rabblerousing Lusaka artist, Mr Mapopa Manda who has cast his fears to the wind and speaks his creative mind with regards his views on politics to the extent that a few times his works have been rejected in exhibitions for being too politically charged and his favourite subject is no other than the president.

“My themes are based on current affairs in line with politics. We cannot all be painting market and village scenes just because this is what the Martin Phiri’s and Henry Tayali’s (two of the founding fathers of contemporary Zambian art) used to do” says Mr Manda who believes his commentary stands for something. “It took me almost two years to discover my rhythm. I’ve developed a mock newspaper style,” he says.

Independence 2013 (mixed media)
by Mapopa Manda
The mock newspapers resemble front pages. He uses a combination of paint and collage, cutting out actual newspaper editorials, text or headlines and sticking them on to the canvases.

He uses The Times of Zambia because he believes it represents Zambia’s political history, whereas he links The Post to controversy and the Daily Mail everyday issues.

He often depicted Zambia’s late President Michael Sata clad in military uniform with grim facial features that project him as a no nonsense authoritarian. Manda intends to push his creativity to the limits and interrogate issues such as the “90 days” election promises.
 “I want to be extradited at some point through my work and I don’t restrict my commentary to Zambia, I have done a version of The Spear after the painting by the South African artist”, he says in reference to a controversial painting by Cape Town based Brett Murray that depicted the South African president Jacob Zuma bearing all. In his version however Zuma covers himself with a newspaper that has a picture of The Spear.
But Mr Manda does not restricted his troublemaking to the canvas. He is known for causing a ruckus during art meetings and workshops where he speaks his mind.

Plot 1, 2012 (acrylic, collage on canvas)
by Mapopa Manda
“I have a problem with arts administrative bodies, I feel like we have been recycling leaders who do not know a thing about art. The National Arts Council has been a failure, an organisation can’t be run by the same people for 10 years,” he points out “The same thing applies to the Zambia Visual Arts Council (VAC), I think we need new leadership, young and energetic guys like me. VAC doesn’t have direction, even in the past all the leaders have only been there to spearhead their own interests that’s according to my own informal research it’s time for young people to rule”.

He does not mind the criticism and censorship he has faced by fellow artists and proclaims one day he will make it big, if not in Zambia then abroad, citing the adage that prophets are never appreciated in their own land.

Lusaka-based artist,
Mapopa Manda
”I have even been labelled a trouble maker, but I don’t mind. I will be a star someday, yes in fact I believe artists belong on the red carpet too, I want to be a celebrity artist,” he adds, which is not unachievable. Artists do get to achieve celebrity status such as the high flying American artists Andy Warhol or Jean-Michel Basquiat, the latter even having dated the singer Madonna at the height of her popularity. Locally we had artists such as Akwila Simpasa whom when outside Zambia mingled with the likes of rock stars Jimmy Hendrix, Mick Jagger and Eddie Grant.

It is still early days in the career of the 31 year old, but Mr Manda is full of energy and coupled with a prolific work ethic these are winning formulas, along with his astute political eye, the art scene is yet to see the best of him.

He has not been formally trained as an artist although he underwent some apprenticeship with the prominent Zambian painter Stary Mwaba. He  has been creative since a tender age but was inspired to take up art after watching the biographical movies Vincent and Theo and The Agony and the Ecstasy about the Dutch post-impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh and the Italian renaissance master Michelangelo respectively. - ENDS

Monday, 26 October 2015

50 years of contemporary Zambian art: an interview with veteran painter, Vincent Maonde

By Andrew Mulenga

Because the field of the contemporary art in Zambia is still fairly young, seeing it only spans about 5 decades, the age of the nation itself, we are fortunate to still have a few of the field’s masters still working and walking among us.

Women in Songwe, 2013, oil on canvas
by Vincent Maonde
One of them is the Livingstone-based painter Mr Vincent Maonde, outstanding among many painters of his generation for his cheerful works of unadulterated rural life with picture-perfect compositions with delicately -coloured landscapes peopled by women at a riverside or children at play are both charming in their humanity and intense in their fundamental simplicity.

The 68 year old enjoyed a distinguished career with the museum’s board covering well over 40 years, now retired; he spends his days under the shade of a mango tree at the house he managed to purchase as sitting tenant.

But as they say, an artist never truly retires, so Mr Maonde does not actually sit wasting the hours away, he is always busy painting while also tending to a small vegetable garden besides which he tends to a patch of maize that he meticulously irrigates all year round. 
Recently, Mr Maonde was happy to share stories of his upbringing both on the Copperbelt and in Lusaka under the repressive British colonial regime and beyond. He also shared his views on art in Zambia from the 1950s until the present.

He explains that he developed a passion for depicting life in a rural setting because he had never experienced village life until he was employed by the museum as a keeper of anthropology and was able to travel around the remotest places in Zambia.

Golden Valley of Jewellery, 2013,
oil on Canvas by Vincent Maonde
“I was born in those round huts in Kabwata in 1947 (not 1949 as stated in the book Art in Zambia), the ones you now call cultural village. When I finished my standard six that’s the time when we had transition and they were trying to integrate blacks into white schools,” explains the portly father-figure known for his outstanding generosity among the younger generation of artists with whom he unintentionally assumes a godfather status, credited for founding the Southern Province Visual Arts Council which he often bankrolled from his own pocket.

“You know we now had a coalition government some went to Kabulonga Boys, I went to Prince Philip which is now Kamwala Secondary School. That time they only had whites colours and Indians. I was the only black from Matero and I was put in form one learning Latin and French because I was very bright”.

Even though Mr Maonde was selected from Matero to attend the then prestigious Prince Philip, his venture into schooling took a somewhat jokey start while living with his older sister in Kitwe on the Copperbelt.

“I started school in 1953. We were sitting with my older brother, bored, we had nothing to do so we just said I think lets go and start school so we went to Saint Francis, it was just a thatched classroom, my brother was picked but I was left out, still there were more than 150 pupils and the teacher didn’t even know who is who, so I could still attend,” he says letting out a hearty billow of laughter.

He recalls that teachers those days were very cruel and when he was whipped with a sjambock (whip made of animal hide) he quit school out of fear because it was the most severe pain that had even been afflicted on him. He however continued lessons by means of the homework that his brother would return with.

“In Kamitondo we discovered another school. I used to play with this naughty Bemba boy called Chilufya we always used to climb the nchenja tree that provided shade for an outdoor classroom. The pupils never knew until one day Chilufya dropped some fruits on the teacher,” he explains. The teacher called the boys down, Mr Maonde froze stiff remembering his last whipping, and the other boy took flight and never returned.

Washing Day, 2013, oil on canvas by Vincent Maonde
“The teacher didn’t beat me. Instead I was asked if I want to start school when I agreed, I was given free books and pencils, but my sister at home never knew until they summoned her as my guardian when I passed number one. At the time I didn’t even know my sir name so I used my brother in laws, Banda. So I started out as Vincent Banda,” he says bursting into another explosion of laughter.

“My sister at this point was very excited, they even bought me uniforms and I was the smartest because she would personally comb my hair, it was strait because my grandfather was Portuguese “.

But later, in 1958, Mr Maonde would return to his parents in Lusaka, whom had now moved to Matero from the tiny servant’s quarters they occupied behind a large house near St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Rhodes Park where his father served a white family as a cook. Of his visits to this home, he recollects very nice meals that they were privileged to have while the majority black Zambians in the townships faced hardships. He also remembers the days being full of incidence.

“Those days (in the late 1950s) you had to cross the yard of the muzungu (white person) at owner’s risk, all of them had these huge dogs; it is as if they were trained just to bite blacks. Also when we were walking around mu mayadi (the suburbs), the white boys would shoot at us with pellet guns, we used to fight back with catapults, there was so much hatred,” he recalls.

He however remembers his European teachers as being very kind, they used personal resources to buy him 6 white shirts, a school blazer, straw hat, socks and shoes that were too expensive for his father to afford even on a cooks wages although the position attracted the highest pay among house staff.

His return to Lusaka would also trigger seriousness in his art. He was quickly identified and encouraged by his art teachers at Prince Philip, whom he says were British and educated even up to Master’s Degree level in Fine Art. It was not too long before he also caught the eye of artist and philanthropist Mrs. Cynthia Zukas MBE.

Market Place, 2013, oil on canvas by Vincent Maonde
“In Zambia the beginning of art started with white settlers, and I joined the Lusaka Art Society when I was very young. Mrs Zukas, I have known her from my childhood, that’s why I questioned her one day this woman how old is she? Because when was in form two she still used to look the way she looks today,” he says “I used to run an art club at Matero Welfare Centre, they would come with the husband and pick me up in the evening and also we used to meet at the Evelyn Hone College that time there were no blacks so they were trying to recruit us, that’s when I met Henry Tayali he was already painting on canvas at the time”

With the Lusaka Arts Society, he would go on painting excursions along the Kafue River, where they would work from nature. They were never bothered by passers-by because blacks were still afraid of whites; but he was already used to them from school. This was just a year before independence and a considerable number of Europeans that could not cope with integration had started to leave the country.

Nevertheless, Zambia was soon independent and a few years later Mr Maonde would complete his Form 5 (Grade 12 equivalent) and subsequently become one of the first black students at the Evelyn Hone College enrolling in 1970 and graduating with a diploma in art in 1973. The permanent job in the museums however did not hinder his progress as a professional artist and he begun to exhibit widely in far flung places such as Gothenburg, Sweden in 1977 and Toronto, Canada in 1979. In 1982 he even secured a 3-year stint to upgrade his academic qualifications at the Rage Gate School of Art & Design.

Mr Maonde says one of the most memorable moments in his art career is when he was commissioned to illustrate a children’s book by a wealthy American family that would later invite him to New York for a holiday and exhibition.

From The River, 2013, oil on canvas by Vincent Maonde
“I just received a call in my office at the museum asking me to come for a holiday. About a week later Zambia Airways called me that they have a ticket for me,” he recalls “I remember when I got to New York they were waiting for me in a convertible Cadillac, it was like a dream, they took me any place I mentioned, I think it was sometime in 1993 I can’t remember but I will have to check my passport. I met the CBS television network president, the director of Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the largest art museum in the US. I went to Chinatown, they even flew me to Niagara Falls in their private jet, when I came back they gave me another assignment and paid me very, very well”.

But looking back at the general state of the visual arts in Zambia over the past 50 years, he observes that, the field has never been taken seriously.

“In Zambia we have a very big problem all the governments that come in have been full of lip-service, look you can’t have a country that does not have a national art gallery, just look at Zimbabwe next door, that’s why they have made progress in art because they have several,” he argues indicating that the efforts of opening a national gallery here in Zambia this month is somewhat a tall story particularly in the manner that it has been handled.
In fact the National Gallery of Zimbabwe “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”.

Fisher Boys, 2013, oil on canvas, by Vincent Maonde
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.

“This thing they have built without any consultation with artists and now they are saying you run it? Artists don’t run galleries, to run an art gallery is a profession on its own. So now artists will have to look for money to pay for electricity, water and so on where are they going to get this money,” he charges.

“I was very happy when I heard government has given National Arts Council (NAC) K2.5 Billion (old currency) because they will do something. But they were just here every week, secretly, you know getting these allowances and doing nothing, we have a big problem,” he says insinuating a hint of mismanagement “The planning has been done from Lusaka, look when government gives you K2.5 billion you have to make sure you finish the whole project within that, government won’t have money to continue giving you they have bigger things to do like build roads and hospitals”.

He says it would be sad if NAC has misappropriated the funds allocated to the gallery and are now expecting the Visual Arts Council Livingstone Branch to run it on empty coffers. He only got to see the team from Lusaka when they needed him to help locate the plots demarcation beacons into the former Livingstone show grounds.

Untitled, 2013, oil on canvas by Vincent Maonde
“We advised them that there is nowhere in the world where artists run galleries that’s why in the beginning the Henry Tayali gallery was run by a board and had employees, I don’t know how it’s done now,” he says.

While he maintains that the arts have failed to flourish because of the lack of significant political will, he feels Zambians in general have always looked down upon the visual arts as a field for failures and that even parents will discourage their children against taking up art professionally.

“We don’t have a strong base you can call a movement because there is also no strong policy, our works are always bought by foreigners, I’ve only sold works to two black Zambians and they are women,” he reveals “You cannot rule out poverty, there is so much poverty in this country look I raised 15 children (including extended family) in this house I thought when I retire I will be free but it’s not the case, most artists paint to sell, they can’t express themselves artistically. If someone paints some giraffes and sells everyone else will start painting giraffes, but there are very good artists quite a lot of them”.

He suggests there is a need of total re-education for Zambians on the importance of art as a career path and subsequently a means of job creation and this can only start with firm government policy.

Meanwhile, Mr Maonde continues to produce magnificent paintings from underneath his mango trees, his collectors mainly American tourists are still smitten by the idyllic rural themed landscapes and village scenes he sells by means of the displays in the Livingstone National Museum and Squires Restaurant at the Zambezi Sun Hotel

Many artists at various stages in their careers have passed under his mentorship and tutelage during his time as the Chairman for VAC Livingstone such as Firoz Patel, Clare Mateke, Bernard Kopeka and his son Alumedi Maonde. Under his leadership VAC Livingstone was consolidated into one of the most organized branches in the country beating Lusaka in membership figures. 

(First published in The Bulletin & Record Magazine Dec/Jan 2015 edition)

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Budding Zambian writer’s sexual violence story bags global award

By Andrew Mulenga

No doubt story telling is a rare ability, of which few individuals are gifted, and to be able to harness this gift and put it down on paper with proficiency for others to appreciate is an even scarcer talent.

Saili - Girls in homes where they can't trust the
people supposed to protect them inspired me to
write a story - Picture by Kwitu Group
It turns out 23 year old, Kasempa-born Nancy Saili, is one of them and her short story The Enemy Within, which was entered in the Global Dialogue young writers competition, recently earned her the number one slot winning the “Grand Prize”, which comprises prize money and the story’s adaptation for the screen to be shown worldwide.

What is perhaps even more interesting is not only the fact that she is based in the off-the-grid town of Solwezi where she has lived most her life, but that Zambia does not necessarily have sufficient support structures to encourage creative writing. Saili scoops the award hot on the heels of Namwali Serpell who also did Zambia proud by winning the prestigious 2015 Caine Prize for African Writing, an honour now considered Africa’s leading literary award, this goes to show that the country’s literary arsenal is not short of talent, an exciting development indeed.

“My story took first place worldwide. Over 250,000 young people from 80 different countries took part in the contest. 20 winners then selected by international juries. The best three of the 20 stories are awarded 1st, 2nd and 3rd prize. This year grand prize was my winning story from Zambia, 2nd went to Mexico and 3rd to the UK,” says the justifiably excited winner.

Nancy Saili of Solwezi, winner of the 2015
Global Dialogues contest took 1st place, 2nd went to
Mexico and 3rd to the UK – Picture by Kwitu Group
 “It is a masterfully told story about sexual violence – a young girl raped by her father – and about coping, healing and the complex relationship between justice and forgiveness. Nancy’s story compels us to ask difficult questions that many of us typically shy away from. It calls upon us to set aside our desire for simple, speedy solutions and to respect in a non-judgmental way the diverse and evolving needs of survivors of sexual violence. As parents, as brothers and sisters and as members of our communities, we thank you, Nancy,” reads a statement from the international panel of judges at Global Dialogues, an international none-profit organisation.

“I have met a few victims and read a number of stories on the same issue. The thought of a young girl growing up in a home where they can't trust the people that are supposed to protect them inspired me to write a story on incest,” explains Saili concerning her inspiration for the short story.

“Sadly for many girls out there, ‘the enemies within’ are a reality. An everyday horror and most times these stories go unreported and the crimes unpunished which is very unfair for the victims. Home should be the safest place on earth. It's not something that should be taken lightly.”

Indeed, Saili reminds us that sexual crimes against children are often perpetrated by people who know and have access to them, such as trusted uncles, aunts, cousins, teachers, house help or even friendly neighbours. By telling stories such as The Enemy Within – although it is fiction – may help bring awareness to the problem and also encourage the victims to instead become survivors when their perpetrators have been brought to book.

Saili pitching an idea during the
Young Cinema in Zambia workshop
Nevertheless, regarding her creative process, she says when she comes across an idea; she will keep it in in her head for a while and then later begin to scribble parts of it in a notebook. When she has enough for a narrative she starts to type and fill it up with more ideas hoping to end up with a story. However, Saili believes there are many stories to be told besides those of imparting awareness on various issues locally and abroad.

“I believe there are a lot of untold stories in Zambia. I think this is a great opportunity for Zambians to tell great stories about our country, the people, culture, especially in a generation where TV has so much influence on people,” says Saili who in her last year of high school was editor-in-chief of the school press club and president of the Young Writers Association of Zambia (YOWAZ).

She also points out that she has dabbled in a bit of poetry now and then and has also written on the environment and that, one of her stories provided the first experience of being published when it passed for publication in the Times of Zambia. Her concern for the environment may come as no surprize considering her professional field of study.
“I had always wanted to study a number of things, Agriculture/Environment studies being one of them. I applied for different programs and institutions and later settled on a Bachelor's Degree in Land And Water Resources Management under the school of agriculture at Mulungushi University in Kabwe … for various reasons… after four crazy years, I earned my degree,” says Saili who graduated last year but has yet to put her papers to use. With no employment prospects, she headed back to her parents’ home where she occupies herself with writing.

She also enjoys taking photographs which
sometimes help inform her writing
“But I would really love to see schools that offer courses in creative writing as well as workshops, contests and school clubs that encourage and develop good reading and writing skills among Zambians,” she says.

Last year, she attended Young Cinema in Zambia, a filmmaking workshop organized by 2015 Mandela Washington Fellow Jessie Chisi, founder and director of the Zambia Short Film Festival. Chisi, organised the workshop in collaboration with the Finnish Cultural Association Euphoria Borealis. Saili describes the experience as inspiring, it was an opportunity for her to mingle with fellow young creatives such as Chisi herself; but she also got the opportunity to interact with media professionals like the ZNBC crew that was in attendance, as well as the likes of innovative young film makers such as Mark Mwanamwalye whose short film created alongside Mosten Mutale and Carla Greiber, “Condomise Zambia” that advocates against HIV infections through condoms won two awards when submitted to ActionAid and Politikens Film Competition in Denmark.
Nevertheless, with her continued interest in writing and film, we are obviously yet to see the best of what. Global Dialogues’ competition is an annual event, if you are up for the challenge you can enter by visiting their website at Global Dialogues films reach over 200,000,000 people online and on TV every year, they can be watched free on the Global Dialogues YouTube channel.

Meanwhile, the 25th BBC/British Council International Radio Playwriting Competition is now open, once again, in partnership with Commonwealth Writers and the Open University (UK). The winners get the chance to visit the UK and get involved in the recording of their play for broadcast on the BBC World Service. 

In 2014 she graduated with a BA in Land And 
Water Resources Management 
from Mulungushi University in Kabwe, Zambia
There are separate prizes for (1) best play by a writer with English as a first language and (2) best play by a writer with English as a second language. A third award – the Georgi Markov prize – celebrates the most promising script from the competition’s shortlist in honour of BBC World Service journalist and writer Georgi Markov (1929-1978). The competition is open to new and established writers living outside the UK. Previous winners of the past two competitions have come from Zimbabwe, Australia, Mexico, Uganda and Jamaica. Visit their website for more details or send you a hard copy of a script, please forward to Theatre and Dance Department, 10 Spring Gardens, London SW1A 2BN.

Excerpt from Saili’s winning story:

“Over the years the emotions have changed from confusion to sadness, the guilt led to shame, the fear led to stressing, stressing led to anger and anger to depression and depression to hopelessness. The traumatic event in which I was violated in the most intimate way possible by my very own father left me with an unexplained fear and attitude toward all men.” …

“The only person I had to forgive was me: forgive myself for not fighting back; forgive myself for always being angry; forgive myself for trusting more than I should have; forgive myself for not knowing what to do in that situation; forgive myself for not wanting to report him. Maybe one day I will forgive him. But I have learnt to heal even though I have not forgiven him. I have forgiven me and can finally smile.” 

Sunday, 18 October 2015

The Bunker, Berlin

By Andrew Mulenga

The Bunker – you can also call it Reichsbahnbunker except, in Berlin, Germany it seems somehow, everybody speaks or at least can speak English -- can be described as arguably one of the most unusual, yet captivatingly absorbing gallery spaces anywhere in the world.

Like many buildings on the Eastern side of Berlin, this structure does not by any means serve its original purpose and has been used for several things over the years from a banana storage facility to a hive of underground nightclubs and sex party spaces for young revellers.

Boasting concrete walls, two metres thick, The Bunker
was constructed in 1943 by Nazi Germany, it now hosts a
private art collection – Picture by Andrew Mulenga
Completed by forced labourers in 1942, it was originally built as a bomb-proof air-raid shelter -- with outer walls of up to 2 metres of reinforced concrete -- to provide safety for at least 3,000 civilians near a train station during World War II. According to a lively young art historian, gallery assistant and tour guide Marie-Therese Bruglacher, the building was also designed to serve as a reminder of the war after the rest of “Germania” was built. Not much is said about Germania in the history books, however, after winning the war, this was to be the gleaming new capital from which the Führer would rule the Greater German ‘World Empire’, and it would be the cornerstone of the civilised world, except things did not really work out as planned.

Nevertheless, today, a 5-floor military bunker in the middle of the Mitte district of Berlin is home to over 700 hundred works of contemporary art that belong to advertising guru Christian Boros and wife Karen. The couple – and their two children --  actually live on the top floor of the gallery, in a glass-walled penthouse and occasionally come down to enjoy their collection, although they have now opened it up to the public and the Bunker runs as a full time gallery, complete with qualified staff and guided tours twice a week.

A viewer takes in Florian Meisenberg's 2011 series
Magic Moments of Homeopathy,
picture by Andrew Mulenga
Boros purchased the bunker in 2003 and began to convert it to house his collection and after four years, he displayed about 130 of his works to the public, mainly installations, and according to gallery statistics, by 2012 the first exhibition attracting 120,000 visitors and over 7,500 tours.
The tours are booked by appointment and from Thursday to Saturday, viewers are charged a small fee and although the works have a theme that is directly linked to Berlin as a city, the Boros collection has pieces made by artists from all over the world. The current display of over 130 select works includes a wide range of media, such as installation, painting, drawing, sculpture, video and photography, the featured artists are Ai Weiwei, Awst & Walther, Dirk Bell, Cosima von Bonin, Marieta Chirulescu, Thea Djordjadze, Olafur Eliasson, Alicja Kwade, Klara Lidén, Florian Meisenberg, Roman Ondák, Stephen G. Rhodes, Thomas Ruff, Michael Sailstorfer, Tomás Saraceno, Thomas Scheibitz, Wolfgang Tillmans, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Danh Vo, Cerith Wyn Evans und Thomas Zipp.

Ink and Sugar, 2007 by Thomas Scheibitz at The Bunker,
Berlin - Picture by Andrew Mulenga
But what is perhaps most striking is that as you walk through the labyrinth of tunnels, large and small rooms, all of different sizes -- despite most of the installation works involving motion, sound and video, looking at the graffiti-riddled, bare concrete walls, one cannot help but try to imagine the previous occupants and uses of the space. Depending on the fertility of your imagination, you can perhaps here the din of 3000 civilians seeking shelter from an allied forces air-raid at the height of World War II in 1943, or maybe you can imagine the shouting commands of soldiers from Russia’s Red Army who used the facility to cage prisoners of war during the fall of Nazi Berlin in 1945, perhaps you can imagine how it smelled in 1957 when fruits were very rare in East Germany and so it was converted into a warehouse for imported tropical fruit from Cuba, and was managed by a state-owned company “Fruit Vegetables Potatoes”, a time it was known as the “banana bunker”. Maybe you can imagine the sounds that echoed in the space when Techno music, fetish parties and drug binges were the norm in 1992 when it gained the reputation as “the hardest club in the world” or perhaps you can imagine “Sexperimenta”, a massive erotic trade fair that took place in the building in 1995 the same year the space was shut down by the authorities because of an outrageous New Year’s Party.

Michael Sailstorfer’s Popcorn Machine 2008,
has been churning out hot popcorn for close
to two years - Picture by Andrew Mulenga
Nevertheless, perhaps it takes a wild mind's eye and animated tour guide to plant such imaginings in your head, but the shear unconventionality of the Boros Collection is sure to keep your mind on the art and nothing else as you walk through the work that comprises a dried tree installation that fills an entire room by Ai Weiwei, the infamous Chinese artist and government critic who gave the world the Beijing National Stadium or “Bird’s Nest” among other things, or you try to get past the spider-like webs of an installation by Tomás Saraceno – whose work actually is inspired by the many species of spiders that he purposefully breads in his studio. As you get drained by walking around the 80 rooms that are filled with art, in one of them, you are confronted by the delicious smell of fresh popcorn, but don’t expect to see a kiosk, instead there is Michael Sailstorfer’s Popcorn Machine (2008), which has continuously been churning out hot puffs of popcorn for close to two years, but don’t try any as the guide warns it is probably tasteless and has been lying there for way too long. The popcorn fills an entire room and like many other installations in the gallery, it is activated by sensors when someone walks in also the gallery is not short of dazzling paintings, some of them quite cheeky like Florian Meisenberg's 2011 Magic Moments of Homeopathy series although portrayed in flat, two-dimensional forms, the two bent over images leave little to the imagination.

Flying Garden 2007, by Tomas Sacareno
- Picture by Andrew Mulenga
No doubt the collection is mind-boggling as is the selection of the artists varied, and in an interview with Kimberly Bradley for ArtReview, when asked about his favourite artists, Boros responded “My favourite artists… haunt me, they crawl over the bedsheets”.

In a different interview with German Curator and Art Historian Axel Lapp, Boros emphasised the difference between his gallery and a museum and also mentioned that he, as a collector does not curate, he instead host’s and that there was a big difference.

 “It’s mainly a private space. It’s a public space only on two days of the week, and even then it’s only half public. I distinguish here very clearly. On Saturday, I don’t have visitors: I have guests. I say hello, they get something to drink, they are not just able to see art here, but they are part of my private space. They are told about the building, they get to hear about my wife and me. When I leave, they thank me. Nobody does this in a museum, and no one says thank you, because he was a visitor – and here he is a guest. This is two days per week and the rest is private anyway,” stated Boros “It would be curating if I made relations between three artists or something like that. I invite the artists over and ask them where they want to put the things that they sold me. Therefore, I’m a host and not a curator”.

And one of Boros official gallery statements reads: “Art is created to be noticed. It should not be allowed to disappear into boxes and storerooms; it should be put on display. Collecting brings with it certain obligations.”

Concerning that last statement, one cannot help but be reminded of the dispossessed Lechwe Trust Collection in Zambia. The Lechwe Trust, an arts charity overseen and founded by veteran artist and philanthropist Cynthia Zukas MBE has no permanent space to accommodate the hundreds of works that it has collected for just over two decades. This collection of mainly sculptures and paintings by some of Zambia’s top artists living and departed, is currently stored in two containers, except for occasions when it is exhibited in hired spaces such as galleries and museums, or in situations like the present where a fraction of the work is on display at the American Embassy in Lusaka. With several works by the forefathers of contemporary Zambian art such as Henry Tayali and Akwila Simpasa, the collection remains a very important preservation of Zambia’s cultural history as many of the works would have wound up in collections abroad, considering Zambia’s lack of a specific collecting policy for works that can be considered important.

But, recent activities, however, indicate the possibility of a permanent space, the Aylmer May Cemetery Restoration Trust is developing part of its land into a business complex in Rhodes Park which may include an area allocated free for the Lechwe Trust gallery, however, the art charity is still expected to raise money to get the project going if indeed the space will be accordingly allocated.
Meanwhile, in case you missed the opening, you can still catch a glimpse of Water, a solo exhibition of paintings by Lusaka-based artist and adventurer Quentin Allen at the Zebra Crossing Café/Ababa House on the corner of Twikatane Road off Addis Ababa Drive, Lusaka, near the Manda Hill footbridge. Allen, who has been traversing the wilderness of the Muchinga escarpment for decades, never disappoints with his breath-taking landscapes of some of Zambia’s most scenic yet inaccessible open spaces, again in this show, he brings them right to your door step and although the economy may be biting at the moment, the artist is known to have a price for every pocket, for an artist of his standing, some works are relatively a bargain, the show runs until 4 November. 

Monday, 5 October 2015

Berlin art scene boasts €700m annual turnover, 6,600 jobs

By Andrew Mulenga

The bustling crowd scenes during the multiple opening events – more than 40 on Wednesday 15 September alone – at the just ended 4th Berlin Art Week evoked an impression of locusts, swarms of them devouring everything in their path.
From the elite VIP black tie opening event of Xenopolis, an exhibition at the Deutsche Bank through to the ABC – Art Berlin Contemporary Fair, that had around 100 galleries from 17 countries exhibiting and selling art in listed halls of a former railway station and also Positions Berlin Art Fair which had 78 exhibitors from 16 countries among other venues, Berlin Art Week is in essence too much to take in or even explore in the 5 days that it is run.

In six days the event attracted more than 100,000
visitors (Photo-Edgar Berendsen)
For the ABC event alone – which had an entry fee of €20 for the opening and €12 for the daily shows -- official statistics show that in the first four days around 30,000 visitors came to the venue alone which included national and international collectors, curators, artists and representatives of museums and art institutions also about 700 guests attended panel discussions that dealt with current issues in the art market and in the 6 days of the combined events, more than 100,000 visitors were in attendance.

Honestly, sifting through the crowds it was easy to get lost in the din, the free flowing champagne and beer, the odd finger snack too and forget why you are there in the first place, to view art. It must be noted, that as organized as it may appear, art patronage in Germany is somewhat complex, with contributors from diverse subdivisions within the public and private sector. Berlin Art Week for instance, was made possible by the Senate of Berlin through its department for Administration for Economy, Technology, and Research. In fact, in the official catalogue for the Berlin Art Week 2015, department Permanent Secretary Guido Beerman gives an insightful analysis not only into the fair but also into the art industry that is the city of Berlin.

“In Berlin there are more than 400 galleries, more than in any other German city. There are over 2,600 active companies within the Berlin art world, with over 6,600 employees, generating a turnover of 700 million euros per year. This means that the entire German turnover for art objects is made here,” he states “The Berlin Art Week is an excellent platform to show itself as being the location with the largest amount of galleries and art production”.

And addressing an international group of curators, gallerists and art critics during a lunch meeting, Michael Reiffenstuel, Deputy Director-General for Culture and Communication at the German Federal Foreign Office explained that his government intends to use the expertise and life experiences of artists and civil society for development.

Vistors at the ABC venue, a converted railway station
that housed around 100 galleries from 17 countries
exhibiting and selling art (Photo - Marco Funke)
“We are looking at the ability of culture and creativity to define a new cultural order, we are trying to increase the cooperation between artists and scientists to explore solutions to environmental challenges,” added Reiffenstuel, who also gave the guests a guided tour of the AArtist in Residence exhibition as part of Berlin Art Week. The Foreign office invites a local artist to live and work at its premises and eventually exhibit the work there.

The group addressed by Reiffenstuel, which visited invited to Germany by the federal government through the Goethe Institute comprised cultural experts from countries as varied as Taiwan, Kazakhstan, Mexico and Zambia to name a few, was also informed that Germany is seriously looking into more ways of reaching out to the rest of the world by means of increased cultural exchange vis-à-vis, artists exchange programmes.

Nevertheless, addressing the group earlier, at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Vlado Velvok, a lecturer at the Weissensee Art Academy in Berlin gave further insights into the importance of the arts within German culture, in a lecture entitled “The German art scene and reflections on the Berlin Art Fair”. In the talk, he also an overview of how the arts are funded and organized in Germany.

“When I came here 16 years ago, Berlin was very different, I’m always asked what it that brings people to Berlin is, and I say it’s the artists. People have been coming in in waves since the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, that’s when we had the first wave, but the city changes constantly you always have to be on your toes or you will be left behind” explained Velvok who is originally from Bulgaria, but moved to the city at the end of the cold war and unification of Germany.
He explained that after the fall of the berlin wall, a lot of buildings on the eastern side of the city were abandoned and left empty, as people moved to the western half, as a result, groups of young artists started occupying these spaces, breathing life back into dead areas which would later develop into arts districts attracting other inhabitants, businesses such as hotels and shopping malls, and when this happened, the artists felt infiltrated and would move to a different space, almost in a nomadic pattern. What was happening in turn was that art was in fact healing dead parts of the city, bringing them, back to life.

“The rent in these buildings was very cheap and the spaces very big and ideal for studio, gallery or performance spaces in Berlin,” he added.

Velvok, who is also a practicing artist apart from being an academic, indicated that artists in Berlin did not flourish in a vacuum but there has been constant and generous support through organised public and private funding.

Art school graduates as well as individuals who work in the creative industries are eligible for a wide range of financial assistance from the German government and that merely the show of a university degree from an art school officially guaranteed you to be labelled a “professional” artist meaning artistic grants and scholarships and can continue receiving benefits from the state, applying for a government grant is the equivalent of applying for a job. Ultimately by so doing, the German government has enviably tackled a thread of unemployment.

In Germany all arts funding is administered on two levels, municipal and state. This is because through research, it has been observed that local arts administrator know the interests of their communities better, they also know the quality and needs of the artists who live there.

Each city administration has an arts ministry that distributes the funding for the local institutions and artists, the cultural minister is often an elected official and usually has professional training in arts administration and is likewise assisted by a staff of specialists for each genre, such as visual arts, dance, music, theatre and film or photography. Independent artists make applications for funding and the decisions are made by the specialists, often with the advice of a jury of the artist's peers.

But this token of German generosity towards the arts also spreads beyond municipalities, states and borders, Zambia’s very own Stary Mwaba spent a whole year in the creative hub of Berlin where he was equipped with a full studio at the celebrated Künstlerhaus Bethanien, where he also got to exhibit among accomplished international artists. This was no mean achievement for Mwaba as he was the only one from the African continent.

Of course the intricacies of the Berlin Art Week and by extension the German art scene cannot be grasped within the space of 6 days, but visiting from a country that is artistically fragmented as Zambia with an equally unappreciated, uncoordinated and unacknowledged creative industry where artistes are left to wallow aimlessly in their creativity with no hope of private or corporate support, one can do nothing but reflect on the German art scene filled with an intense surge of jealousy, imagining how many lives could change for the better with just a fraction of such support and commitment from government. But perhaps things are about to change following President Edgar Lungu’s address to parliament on Friday last week.

“To further promote tourism, the minister responsible for tourism and arts will bring to this house the arts, culture and heritage bill aimed at harmonising institutional arrangements in arts, culture and heritage to reduce overheads and promote cost effectiveness,” read Lungu in part of his speech.

Frankly, an abridged version of the German arts administration model would work well in the implementation of Lungu’s new artistic vision which means the ministry and departments involved will have to employ people from an arts, tourism and heritage background. While a hand full of such individuals do exist, the general administration in Zambia’s potential creative sector are not artistically literate, they are also aesthetically blind and worse still, they do not see the arts as an industry, as for tourism, they see nothing beyond the Victoria falls or individual trips to allowance-inspired tourism conferences.

Nevertheless, a last note on Berlin, in case you find yourself there somehow, as an English speaker, you will be shocked that almost everybody speaks English, perhaps even better than you, also most signs have English translations as well as train, bus and aeroplane announcements, and if you visit the city with the preconceived notion that Germans are austere by character, you will get a rude shock at their warmth. Speaking of German hospitality, media reports indicate that the country is at the centre of the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis because it has been the key player in offering favourable conditions of refuge that better any other European country, which is why for the refugees, all roads lead to Germany.