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Monday, 22 February 2016

Perspectives of urban life

By Andrew Mulenga

Over the years, perhaps the signature interpretation of city life among Zambian painters is the bustling market scene that depicts colourfully clad traders with their stacks of fruit and vegetables, or hawkers with their wares strewn across pavements.
One Zambia One Nation (2015), oil and acrylic
on canvas by Christopher Simbule
A host of cityscape artists from maestros such as Poto Kabwe to snapshot painters like Raphael Chilufya and Albert Kata or the ever entertaining Mulenga Chafilwa, the urban market scene has been a long-time favourite. Now, judging from his recent work, Christopher Simbule can be added to the lists, but what is exciting is that he brings a whole new touch to the genre.

A good example is the painting One Zambia One, the title in itself, derived from a nationalist slogan evokes notions of a Zambian utopia but so does the whole scenery when taken in. The composition splits the painting in half horizontally, with a market scene in the foreground and an urban skyline with towering skyscrapers in the background. The high-rise buildings, although meant to be in the background, are not faded out as is often the rule of perspective, instead they are bold and just as vivid as everything in the foreground lending a frame to the painting, and one of the buildings has a golden cross on top of it that draws the eye like a focal point, perhaps the building is a church alluding to the declaration of Zambia as a Christian nation.
The painting’s foreground may be even more interesting, unlike the average market scene that depicts littered surroundings, it appears exceptionally clean and gives the impression of an airport instead of a market place, all the individual figures in the painting appear well dressed some even over-dressed, the stalls are fully stocked and the shoppers have both hands full with parcels, by all means, it perpetuates a positive extrapolation of city life, perhaps how a perfect African city is supposed to be.

A painting entitled Another Day is yet another cityscape that reflects the daily hustle of
Another Day (2015), oil and acrylic on
canvas by Christopher Simbule
urban life. More than half the painting is covered by multi-storey buildings, a chaotic skyline with a multi-point linear perspective that again casts tonal gradation to the wind. In effect the buildings subdue the foreground giving the painting an abstract impression. A closer look reveals that the painting is framed by two ominous looking characters, one to the left with a hat and cigar and one to the right with a hard brow line. These characters have a similar line of sight as the viewer and their eyes seem to be fixed on the small group of people up and about their daily lives in the city, maybe they intend to snatch a handbag from the lady concentrating on her phone or from the gentleman in a suit, who knows. The perspective is so cleverly laid out that again it is only under close scrutiny that one would notice the groups of people at the base of the buildings. Essentially, as the name suggests, the painting depicts just another day in the city, with merchants, shoppers, passers-by and pickpockets.
 The Club, another of Simbule’s urban scenes gives a glimpse of nightlife. This too has an interesting composition that places the viewer as an observer in a night club, sitting at a table full of drinks, with cell phone in hand.  In the immediate background is a group of about 12 revellers, all male, save for one in a short, tight yellow dress who appears to be the only one in the group that is seated. Their eyes are all fixed on the game of pool in the middle of the composition, behind them is the silhouette of a live band that stretches from one corner of the canvas to the other and frames the top of the painting. The painting no doubt mirrors the party scene that has become the essence of city life any many cases. But again in artistic terms the composition is a play on perspective in four distinctive layers from the observer in the foreground, the pool table, the revellers behind it and the live band in the back.

In the three paintings reviewed here, Simbule’s horizontal perspectives can be easily sliced into layers because they have a deceptively naïve composition that is further accentuated by the geometric nature of his subject matter as well as the flatness of colours and occasional disregard for tonal gradation.
The Club (2013), oil on board by Christopher Simbule
“Well, all the cityscapes come from my imagination and are not based on actual cities, but are supposed to remind you of some place, and these paintings I like to play around with perspective, you know foreground and background” explains the artist.
Simbule is in fact a multi-media artist who is also a worthy sculptor that works with found objects and papier-mâché from time to time, but depending on his mood or drive, he will switch from painting to other materials.

As for his proficiency, the artist can boast a solid art foundation having attended the Mzilikazi Art Centre in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe where he attained a two-year Fine Art Diploma in 1992. For the record, this is the art centre that laid the ground for the late Zambian virtuoso Henry Tayali who showed there between 1964 and 1965 at the age of 15 becoming the first African to exhibit in Bulawayo. Like Tayali, Simbule is testament to the long existent cross-pollination between the Zimbabwean and Zambian art scenes.

Before attending Mzilikazi, Simbule attended Founders High School which he explains laid a very strong emphasis on art education. Born to a Zambian father and Zimbabwean mother, Simbule and his siblings moved to Zimbabwe when his parents divorced, but his stay in Zimbabwe would end up being a good turn on his part.
“The goodness when I was in secondary school in Zimbabwe, we had a full, professional art studio, right in the school that we used to attend four times a week. Also every week we used to display our work at Mthwakazi Youth Centre,” he explains.

He says in Zimbabwe every township had a youth centre where art would be displayed regularly and this is what gave him gallery confidence. By the time he started exhibiting in the Bulawayo and Harare National galleries after college, he had already gained confidence as an artist. He recalls it was shortly after this period when he decided to return to Zambia to see his father, now a retired Zambia Airforce pilot who was flying local routes with Zambia Airways.

“I remember it just like yesterday when my father took me to the Lusaka show grounds to show me where my fellow artists were found. It was Valentine’s Day 1993 on a Sunday just like this year. This was my first time at the Henry Tayali Gallery,” he recalls.

Untitled cityscape (2015) oil and acrylic
on board by Christopher Simbule
He remembers being received warmly by the senior artists who were still trying to get the building expanded at the time; these were the early days of the Visual Arts Council (VAC).
“Even though they were busy they were all very good to me. Most of them are late deceased now. All the legends Martin Phiri, Godfrey Setti, Eddie Mubanga and Lutanda Mwamba. Its only David Chirwa and Smart Banda who are still alive. Smart was the gallery attendant and he was ordered to show me around,” he says.

He recalls that he immediately enrolled with Imiti Ikula Empanga (loosely today’s seedlings are tomorrows forests), VAC’s youth programme where the founding chairman, Phiri would personally assist the group with free materials.
“A was having a nice time working at VAC but a year later, my father died and I found myself disorganized always traveling from Zambia to Zimbabwe trying to get things right. I haven’t been to Zimbabwe since 2000 though,” he says.

Simbule was born in Mbala in 1971, he is a happily married father of four girls and like his late mother, and his wife is a medical practitioner. Dependant on art alone, one can only imagine how he gets by with huge family obligations, seeing there are no support structures for artists like him no matter how gifted you are. How artists survive in between the sale of a painting remains a mystery. All works shown here can be viewed and purchased from the VAC at the Henry Tayali Gallery in the Lusaka showgrounds.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Zambian art scene, emerging power house - Wilkinson

By Andrew Mulenga
Internationally recognised economist Betty Wilkinson is renowned for her expertise in financial inclusion, public management systems and rural development across Asia and the African continent, but on the Zambian art scene she is also well known as a voracious art collector and all round friend of the arts.
Art collector Betty Wilkinson at the
Lusaka National Museum, Zambia
Last week she flew in from Manila, for a job interview and was willing to take a moment to chat about her passion for art. Speaking at the Lusaka National Museum where she was found enjoying Twashibuka, the on-going graduation exhibition by Zambia Open University (ZAOU) students, she gave insights into what she thinks about the Zambian art scene, why she started collecting art, as well as what it is that draws her towards particular works.
“Let me start with a funny story of when I first came to Zambia in 1991. So we arrived in the country and my husband was an artist, then he says I am going to check out this Visual Arts Council where he bumped into William Miko. When my husband introduced himself as a sculptor, William put two blocks of soap stone and some chisels on a table and asked my husband to prove it, and he did, he carved an elephants head from the two pieces to which William responded, yes you are an artist, this was the beginning of a long-time friendship,” she said remembering the 1990s when she lived and worked in Zambia.
She explained that she developed an eye for art through interaction with her great grandmother who was a painter, although her mother also had a strong influence as she used to take Wilkinson and her siblings around museums and art galleries when she was a child growing up in Pasadena, California in the United States.
“When you are young, you don’t understand the value of this. What I realized growing up is that you develop an eye by looking all the time, which is why when I came here to the museum today, I almost wept with joy when I saw a group of four classrooms of school children coming in for a tour. I realized that in Zambia too, young children are being exposed to art, they are seeing art, experiencing it and feeling it,” she added.
She stresses that despite having a great-grandmother who was an artist as well as having been married to one, she does not possess any artistic talent; however, she is a very visual person, who knows what she likes when she sees it.
“When I came to Zambia, the first thing that struck me when I started looking at art is what a gift Zambia is to the world. Artists are extremely visually expressive in whatever media, and so I used to spend time with artists looking at what they were doing and how they were doing it. Then I would ask them how is the work connected to their history, family or world view, I realised that sometimes it’s just about rich expressions of daily life. So expressions of your world, expressions of your life, this is uniquely strong in Zambia” she said.

Although Wilkinson’s collection spans an array of work from all over the world, she has about 50 paintings and sculptures by Zambian artists on permanent display at her home, making the bulk of her collection. During her years in Zambia, she became a collector because she fell in love with the art but also because she had the resources and there were artists that she wanted to encourage their developmental stages.
“Another aspect that has been important to me as a collector is getting to know artists personally, I’m fortunate this is a developing art scene so all the artists have been accessible over the years. Also being around artists is fun, when they are working, I remember how Lawrence Yombwe would use actual grass to paint grass instead of a brush, I was fascinated by this,” she added.
She admitted that many times she has felt in the wrong when she buys a work by a Zambian artist and carries it abroad so she has found herself in the habit of donating them locally, citing them as examples of Zambian heritage.
Wilkinson is pleased that Zambian pupils are being
exposed to art galleries and museums
“There are some works that I believe should not leave the country, this is why I often donate work to the Lechwe Art Trust the trust is one of the unique aspects of the Zambian art scene, you actually have a fundamental collection of art development in the modern scene, no place else I know of has this, over the past 40 to 50 years you have outstanding representations of artists from this country,” she explained.
Wilkinson summed up her thoughts by pointing out three aspects of the Zambian art scene that she is pleased with at the moment.
“First is the advent of the open university, if you can have 50 graduates from all the provinces every year, people will realize how important art is and that it can be central to their lives. Second is the emergence of new galleries, 37d gallery is an important one, of course there has been a lot of agreement and disagreement about the gallery, in my view there is room for everyone,” she explained.
“Third is the aspect of children visiting art galleries like I have seen here, perhaps this is also because there are  more teachers getting higher education in art, also you have an education system that is beginning to support art more actively, all these things are very exciting.”
She had been talking to European and South African collectors recently and a good number of them have taken interest in visiting Zambia because they believe good things are happening here.
“I think the African Art Museum in the Smithsonian will have to wake up and see what is going on here. I also think with the increase of Chinese investors in Zambia we will hopefully see them collecting Zambian art. The Zambian art scene is without doubt an emerging power house. I’m here to interview for a job, if I get it I will make it my business to work on supporting the documentation of artists through books and online media,” said Wilkinson.
She is currently back in Manila awaiting the results of the said job interview and is hopeful that she will be able to return to live and work in Zambia. For 12 years she worked for the Asian Development Bank as Director of the Public Management, Financial Sector and over the last 35 years, she has worked worldwide as a banker, a donor representative, a field researcher and policy advisor, and a developing country government senior official. Her academic qualifications include a degree with honours in Business Economics from the University of California, and graduate studies at Cornell University in Agricultural Finance.
Meanwhile, on 23 January, during its annual general meeting in Lusaka, the Zambia National Visual Arts Council voted in a new National Executive Committee. According to a press statement published this week, the new executive is as follows: National Chairperson: Geoffrey  Phiri, National Vice Chairperson: Kate Naluyele, National General Secretary: Oliver Sakanyi, National Vice Secretary: Othiniel  Lingwabo, National Treasurer: Adrian Ngoma, and the Committee Members being, Sydney Siansangu, Sarah Chibombwe, Albert Kata, Ngandwe Mwaba and Tom Phiri. The release states that with immediate effect the new leadership intends to find a corporate organization or NGO that would be willing to help renovate the Henry Tayali Gallery, reach out to schools and other organizations in creating awareness of the visual arts, partner with Hotel and Tourism Institute and form a memorandum of understanding, encourage more visits to the Henry Tayali Gallery through quality exhibitions and strengthen communication with the National Art Council.
For the moment, the Henry Tayali Gallery in the Lusaka Showgrounds is hosting  Vision Galore 2, a solo exhibition of paintings by Zenzele Chulu,  the show also introduces Neil Shaw, a filmmaker from Cape Town, South Africa who will be documenting Chulu’s Schematic Tantrums project.   

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

African Art and Agency in the Workshop

(Book Review)

By Andrew Mulenga

While African Art and Agency in the Workshop from Indiana University Press’ African Expressive Cultures series will resonate among the general students and scholars of African art history and anthropology because it contains a broad and uninhibited array of researched data resulting from archival material and fieldwork, the book contains compelling case studies of traditional and contemporary art workshops across the continent compiled by leading art history professors as well as practicing artists that will interest an enthusiast of art produced on the African continent.
The book will especially sit well with students and scholars of art in Zambia because as has been continuously stated in this column, literature on the traditional and contemporary arts in Zambia is all but none existent be it of a scholarly or easy-reading nature, so whenever it pops up on the radar it is always an exciting thing, regardless of whom has authored it.

Of particular interest are Chapters 4 and 9, An Artists Notes on the Triangle Workshops, Zambia and South Africa and Lewanikas’ Workshop and the Vision of Lozi Arts, Zambia which mention contemporary and traditional art practice in Zambia at length, the former co-authored by artist and Makerere University lecturer Nambiru Rose Kirumira of Uganda and Dr Sydney Littlefield Kasfir Professor Emerita of Art History at Emory University of the USA, examines aspects of the long running Triangle Workshops originated by British art collector Robert Loder and sculptor Sir Anthony Caro. In this Chapter, Kirumira gives stimulating insights into the types of training as well as interaction that occurs between artists during Zambia’s long-running Insaka International Artists Workshop of 2005. In the framework of the analysis, Kirumira also gives a detailed demographic profile of participants to the Insaka International Artists Workshop of 2005 in a table, complete with participating artists’ country of origin, sex, age, artistic medium and education. The chapter also carries about three photographs that depict workshop activities, nevertheless as much as the research is well put together, one may perhaps find it lacking in that it does not mention the name of a single Zambian artist while the South African artists that initiated Thupelo, one of that country’s versions of the Triangle Workshops are clearly stated. The chapter is summed up by an observation of how the Triangle Workshops have encouraged the globalization of artists through working in groups.

Lozi King Lewanika is
revealed as an artist 
And Chapter 9, Lewanikas’ Workshop and the Vision of Lozi Arts, Zambia, authored by art historian Karen E. Melbourne who has worked extensively in the Western Province of Zambia for the Smithsonian Institute gives a compelling revelation, an arguably untold story of King Lewanika the artist. Melbourne writes: “Perhaps one of the most extraordinary untold stories… is that of an under-recognized African king who audaciously utilized the power of art to envision his nation, Barotseland (now Western Province, Zambia)”. Strictly speaking, it can be argued that this detail, the fact that Lewanika was an artist is little known to the average Zambian citizen. In this chapter, Melbourne reveals that Lewanika not only invented the emblematic carving style of wooden bowls that are internationally recognized as the Lozi style often embellished with the royal elephant symbol, but he also had an artist’s workshop in which he personally trained apprentices in the crafts of carving delicate ivory trinkets and the weaving of basket ware. The chapter also points out how Lewanika had devised an international distribution system of his work as early as the late 1800s. Melbourne divides this chapter into four parts, The Vision of Lozi Arts, Barotseland and Its Visionary King, Lewanika the Artist, Lewanika’s Legacy and the Power of Style. However do not expect to merely read the ode to a King who dabbled in the arts, as the last sub-heading hints, the thoroughly referenced and field-researched piece also provides the history of a proud people in a scholarly tone. The chapter closes with six images that speak to the text.

As earlier highlighted, in broader terms, the book in its entirety is a thought-provoking volume, with over 12 academic essays it is highly recommended, not only for schools, but academic art intuitions, it begs to be in the curriculum. The book is sold and shipped from, but may also be ordered locally from your favourite book dealers by request.

Title: African Art and Agency in the Workshop (African Expressive Cultures)
Editors: Sidney Littlefield Kasfir, Professor Emerita of Art History at Emory University and Till Förster, Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Basel.
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Paperback: 424 pages

Language: English

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Kudumbisiana (Dialogue): ‘She is not an artist’

By Andrew Mulenga

Contemporary Zambian art is perhaps one of the most scarcely covered areas of interest not only in terms of media exposure but also with regards researched books, exhibition catalogues and biographical books.

Front cover
Concerning the latter, the prevailing predicament indicates that despite Zambia’s art scene having enjoyed considerable vibrancy over the past 50 years, none of its key players have had their biographies published in book form. For instance, apart from rare archival material on the founding fathers of contemporary Zambian art such as the late Henry Tayali or Akwila Simpasa, no books have been written about them. Similarly, Zambian greats that are still alive and working like the sculptor Flinto Chandia whose contribution and influence remains immeasurable have no books published on them.

At present, in case you want to read the biography of a Zambian artist in print, there are only two publications to turn to, The Lechwe Trust Collection Catalogue and Art In Zambia by Gabrielle Ellison, while both can be acknowledged as well-intended efforts, they only provide for snippets of biographies, a page each, therefore Livingstone-based artist Agness Buya Yombwe’s autobiographical Kudumbisiana (Dialogue): ‘She is not an artist’ scores a first as a stand-alone, detailed artist’s profile.

Although the publication was intended to coincide with her solo exhibition of recent works held at 37d Gallery in Lusaka late last year, it includes images of some of her earliest works, such as the piece Kneeling Figure (1989), created when she was still at the Evelyn Hone College. The book contains about 140 colour images of works on various themes covering her entire artistic career in a myriad of styles and often unconventional materials.

The word “Kudumbisiana” in her native Tumbuka loosely translates to “dialogue” in the English language. This can be read as her artistic life’s work being a constant “dialogue” with society, addressing its broader concerns such as child abuse, matrimonial harmony, traditional customs, faith and so on.

Front cover
The phrase ‘She is not an artist’, which also serves as the book’s subtitle is self-referential in that it is a personal testimony to what happened to her at the launch of her career when she was to stage an exhibition alongside husband Lawrence Yombwe, when the couple were still engaged. The exhibition organisers excluded all her work, save one, Kneeling Figure, citing the rest as handicraft at the same time declaring ‘She is not an artist’.

This is just a morsel of how personal the book really is, it provides never published, intimate insights into her personal challenges and triumphs, her journey as an artist, a daughter, wife, mother, educator, and arts administrator and of course a Zambian woman raised and wed by means of traditionally African cultural values at the trusses of constant modernism. Her tale reveals the willpower and optimism that speaks to many of our Zambian women.

In its general layout, the book foreword by National Arts Council chairperson Mulenga Kapwepwe which leads into Buya Yombwe’s artist’s statement that touches on various aspects of Zambian society such as the declaration of the country as a Christian nation and the general failure of its citizens to strictly adhere to the core values of the faith, this section also argues that in this day and age Zambian culture and tradition continues to provide loopholes for the marginalization of the girl child and women particularly in the areas of education and decision making. She also highlights anomalies within the political arena and governance system citing issues related to tribalism, unemployment, rapid urbanization and the high cost of living to name a few. It is these areas that she believes need “Kudumbisiana (Dialogue)”, Zambians will need to sit down and map the way forward through dialogue.

The artist’s statement is followed by a full biography that mentions her years as an art teacher, locally for 7 years and in Botswana for 10 years, it also highlights her many international accolades and exhibitions. This is followed by an introduction to the artist and her work; it discusses her earliest years going as far as her upbringing even mentioning as a little girl, the first portrait she ever made was an exact likeness of her father, a drawing she had to tear up when her mother for some reason declared it a taboo.

The next thirteen segments serve as short chapters that discuss various aspects of her work; these are broken by colourful samples of work she has created over two decades. These short chapters are followed by yet another biography in timeline form; here you will find another list of accolades, and local and international exhibitions.

Agnes Buya Yombwe at her studio in Livingstone - Picture by Isaya Higa
The book closes with a seven-page essay entitled Who Is Buya Anyway, written by close friend and colleague William Miko. Miko and Buya Yombwe’s friendship dates back to her college days when they were both students of the late Martin Phiri, the firebrand who was the mastermind in the creation of the Zambia Visual Arts Council. Phiri rallied only three of his students Harry Kamboni, Agnes Buya Yombwe and William Miko to trigger what would become the most crucial shift in the history of contemporary Zambian art, the episode is narrated in detail in Miko’s essay.

The book’s contribution to the current state of art in Zambia is immense because not only is it a detailed biography of one of country’s leading artists, it also interrogates what we have been taught to accept as art when the author revisits the comment “she is not an artist”. Its general importance to the public is that it has given an understanding into the challenges, agonies as well as joys of being a Zambian woman. To the student of culture it gives an insight into customs such as the mbusa marriage rituals which inform much of the artists work, to the art student it is a guide on how to be consistent in your work and how to inform your work by the broader concerns of society. To the collector, it allows you to own over 100 samples of work by a top Zambian artist. It is surely a clarion call for all Zambian artists to consider having their own biographies published.

The book is available for purchase at the Livingstone Art Gallery, Ceramic Shop at Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula International Airport, The Henry Tayali Centre, Chaminuka Lodge Lusaka, Twaya Art Gallery Intercontinental Lusaka, 37d Gallery, Zambia Open University Art Department and Wayi Wayi Art Studio and Gallery in Livingstone.

Title - Agnes Buya Yombwe – Kudumbisiana (Dialogue): ‘She is not an artist’

Author (s) – Agnes Buya Yombwe with foreword by Mulenga Kapwepwe and essay by William B. Miko

Publishers – Wayi Wayi Art Studio and Gallery

Images – 140

Pages - 72

Price- K150.00