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Monday, 20 June 2016

Upbraiding wigs and weaves

By Andrew Mulenga

There seems to be something happening among a handful of artists on the Zambian art scene. An all-female, revolution-like conscious movement albeit one without a transcribed manifesto. Working separately two young artists have taken it upon themselves to defend their femininity by questioning what they observe as force-fed, western standards of beauty.

Status Quo, 2016, collage by Nukwase Tembo
Through their work, Nukwase Tembo and Mulenga Mulenga, 28 and 29 years-old respectively are championing an interrogation of generally accepted notions of attractiveness, a campaign that they hope will remind Zambian, and by extension, African women to regain confidence in their unsullied beauty. A beauty they believe, whose aesthetic has been hijacked as it is now dictated by the modelling industry and mass media.

Both Lusaka-based artists recently had their work selected for the finals of the 2016 Barclays L'Atelier, one of Africa’s most prestigious art competitions that targets visual artists aged 21 to 35. It is Tembo’s piece entitled Status Quo that got her nominated, whereas Mulenga had a double entry with her works entitled Self-portrait and Possessed by disguise respectively.

“My work is addressing the status quo that the majority of black women follow in order for us to fit into the standards of beauty that have been set for us. We have been taught to disregard many things that make us who we are -- beautiful black women -- and have instead taken up the Eurocentric idea of what beauty should be. I feel that this has contributed to the escalating amount of self-hate that is being practiced by the black race,” explains Tembo. 

The focal point of her piece is a slender catwalk model strutting on stage in front of an audience, but what is peculiar about her is the fact that while she is black, she appears to have removed her head, carrying it in one hand replacing it with a sniggering white one, the audience too – individually cut characters from magazines – also appears all white.

Tembo’s image subtly camouflages several issues, on the one hand it can be read as a critique of the international fashion and modelling industries along with their consumers and audiences that often demand certain skin, body, and racial types and on the other hand it can also be interpreted as a parody of predominantly Eurocentric social behaviours that have steadily been globalized through mass media.

Just like Tembo, Mulenga argues that her current body of work questions and investigates female identity and heritage in post-colonial Zambia while exploring her personal interactions with social aesthetics. Her work Possessed by disguise addresses similar issues as that of Tembo’s. It is a mixed media painting that depicts a masked figure as its main focal point and the character has actual hair extensions meticulously woven into the canvas. With this work Mulenga alludes to notions of lost identity and a devotion to superficial beauty.    
Possessed by disguise, 2016 mixed media by Mulenga Mulenga
“The worst form of deception is that of self, black women should reclaim their identity. This work portrays masks and wigs as metaphors for the deception of cultural identity. Black hair is camouflaged in the Zambian society today,” argues Mulenga. “By trying to fit in with mainstream western society, three quarters of (Zambian) women are covered in hair extensions. We have become shadows of a forgotten culture without valuing our rich history of hair grooming”
She says she draws inspiration from her personal experience as an African woman with natural hair, living in a society which castigates its own identity and is influenced by predominantly Euro-Americans and Asian standards of beauty. 

“I’m questioning what makes us black women forgo nurturing our hair to build an archive of identity and yet go on exposing ourselves to synthetic and western styled hair.  How can I wear my black curly hair and be accepted as a modern and informed woman without being entangled by wigs? What happened to narratives of black hair nurturing and patterns,” she explains.

Her painting entitled Self Portrait directly addresses these observations. It features a young lady with a 1970s style afro with a comb sticking out of it, the hair is in fact real human hair collected by the artist, hanging from the subject’s hand are, synthetic hair extensions. The piece continues the conversation that encourages the rejection of synthetic and human hair extensions, the woman in the painting can be regarded as someone discarding these wigs opting for her own natural hair. Mulenga clearly thought outside the box on this work and shares its production process.

Self portrait, 2016 mixed media by Mulenga Mulenga
“I talked to the owner of a hair salon to keep the hair that they cut from the women who visit; the process began in August 2015. To me the material (black hair) is playing an important role, I ask what it means to be carriers of this hair. I am interested in the history that it holds. My research on this topic is still going on, this work is just the beginning of many more to come,” explains Mulenga.

Mulenga and Tembo both raise very interesting arguments as they question generally accepted standards of beauty among African women and in broader terms question the issue of cultural hegemony, the philosophical concept that argues that a culture, with an authoritarian standing, can exert disproportionate influence manipulating how other cultures ought to behave, what they are supposed to consume, what they are supposed to believe, how they are supposed to run their economies and how they are supposed to govern themselves.

Both skin bleaching and hair modification remains popular among African women, who may not fully be aware that they support a multi-million dollar industry. In fact in 2015a popular Afrocentric beauty magazine Madam Noir reported that Africa was the prime market for Indian hair and was estimated to be worth $6 billion a year and rising. However, as much as the blame of influence with regards the straight hair look is heaped on Euro-America, much of the human hair supplied as extensions does not come from Europe or the United States. Perhaps the ever popular Brazilian and Indian soap operas that are household names in Zambia may have a role in the influence to a certain degree.

A brief visit around Lusaka’s Northmead market, one of the Zambian capitals most popular beauty bazaars featuring dozens of small hair salons will reveal that Peruvian, Brazilian and Indian hair are the most prized hair extensions. A 12 inch ball of 100% Indian Virgin Remy hair for instance can cost up to K1, 500 (one thousand five hundred kwacha) and depending on the hairstyle, trendy Lusaka ladies are known to splurge on up to three balls per head, which can amount to K4, 500 (four thousand five hundred kwacha), just over US$ 400 and way over the Zambian general workers’ (category one) minimum wage for receptionists and clerks which is about K1, 100 (one thousand one hundred). 

Notwithstanding, many within this workers category are known to don these expensive wigs which also raises concerns as to whether there is now a culture in Zambia that encourages ladies to live beyond their means in order to either keep up appearances, boost self-esteem or indeed look attractive to the opposite sex. Nevertheless the issue of why ladies prefer to wear hair that once belonged to someone else without batting an eyelid over whom the hair was extracted from is perhaps a debate for the hair salons and one that must perhaps be avoided a male writer commenting from a comfortable point of ignorance.  

All the same it would be exciting if Tembo and Mulenga could perhaps collaborate and work on a full scale exhibition with more works that argue their worthy cause.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Simbule put to rest

By Andrew Mulenga

Like many deaths, that of artist Christopher Simbule overwhelms the mind with so many unanswered questions, speculations and deep reflections on the haunting futility of life.

Christopher Simbule during the
Foxdale Art Day in March 2016
On the morning of Thursday 26 March 2016 his dead body was discovered within the Lusaka show grounds not far from his favourite watering hole and temporal dwelling. As much as it may seem inconsiderate to speak judgmentally of the dead, anyone -- such as this columnist -- who knew Simbule personally may attest that in his last days he appeared increasingly troubled to the point of taking up the same alternate lodging at a popular club where he also served as a provisional caretaker in exchange for artistic studio space.  

With the above-mentioned there is no surprise that in the couple of days before his burial at Mutumbi Memorial Park on Saturday 28 March, much has been said within the visual arts fraternity. In whispers at the funeral artists found themselves questioning their personal lifestyles, general welfare and comradeship. They found themselves questioning their individual backgrounds and debating among themselves how much they know about one another, do they have relatives nearby in case something happens to them during long, late nights in their common studio spaces -- for those who choose to burn the midnight oil as it were.
One Zambia One Nation (2015), oil and acrylic
on canvas by Christopher Simbule
Furthermore Simbule’s death raises more universal questions; as individual members of humankind are we loved more when we die? Is personal welfare totally one’s own business whereby if one does not shout out for a helping hand even when at times it is plain for all to see that one is in need of support? Surely why should one’s friends, relatives, employers or professional bodies purchase a costly coffin, provide hired transport, funeral services and several days catering – as is the accepted custom in most of Zambia’s cultures -- when they probably cared less what one was eating when she or he walked among them?

Nevertheless, in Simbule the Zambian art scene loses a multi-media artist who was a worthy sculptor preferring to work with found objects and papier-mâché, but depending on his mood or drive, he would often switch to painting. Moreover, as one of his key artistic legacies Simbule leaves his own interpretation of city life among a host of Zambian painters. Whereas everyday township panoramas and bustling market scenes have long dominated the cityscape genre, his works brought an excitingly refreshing touch to it.

The Club (2013), oil on board by Christopher Simbule
His paintings had a unique style of composition in which he would inventively split paintings in half often employing multi-point, linear perspective, habitually casting tonal gradation to the wind. His cityscapes often perpetuated a positive extrapolation of African city life.

He will also be remembered for being very active during group efforts and collaborative undertakings such as helping coordinate the 2015 Journey in History project, a UNICEF funded project that involved a painting that stretches more than K1.5 metres and was created by around 2,000 children from all 10 provinces of Zambia. Similarly, in March this year he was the key coordinator of the Foxdale Court Art Day in Lusaka where he was in charge of the contemporary art display by various Zambian artists as well overseeing the Kid’s Corner where he ran creative activities for children.

He possessed a solid art foundation starting in Zimbabwe at Founders High School which laid a very strong emphasis on art education at the time it afforded him the opportunity of displaying work at the Mthwakazi Youth Centre. He later attended the Mzilikazi Art Centre in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe where he attained a two-year Fine Art Diploma in 1992; the same art centre that laid the ground for the late Zambian virtuoso Henry Tayali, after college Simbule exhibited at both the Bulawayo and Harare National galleries.

Untitled cityscape (2015) oil and acrylic on
board by Christopher Simbule
Simbule was born in Mbala in 1971 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 in terms of his artistic career.

After college he decided to return to Zambia to see his father, by now a retired Zambia Air Force pilot flying local routes with Zambia Airways. In 1993 it is his father that took him to the Lusaka show grounds to show him where to meet other artists this would be his first time at the Henry Tayali Gallery.

Here he would also meet senior artists during the early days of the Visual Arts Council (VAC), legends such as Martin Phiri, Godfrey Setti, Eddie Mubanga and Lutanda Mwamba, all deceased. He immediately enrolled with Imiti Ikula Empanga (loosely translated as today’s seedlings are tomorrows forests), the council’s youth programme.

A year later, his father passed away and the artist found himself in a state of disorientation, always traveling from Zambia to Zimbabwe, although he had never gone back since 2000 until the time of his death.

Besides his artistic legacy, he will be remembered as a loving father and affectionate husband; he leaves behind a wife and four young daughters. Dependant on art alone, one can only imagine how he managed to take care of huge family obligations, seeing there remains no support structures for artists. Artists’ welfare as suggested earlier still remains a thorny issue, how they survive in between the sale of paintings remains obscure. To view or purchase Simbule’s work visit the Henry Tayali Gallery in the Lusaka show grounds, a charming example of his cityscapes can also be found in form of a large mural in the a passage way at Foxdale Court. Among his close friends the ever jovial artist will be remembered for his favourite catchphrase “Nice one biggie”.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

An innocent measure of skill

By Andrew Mulenga

When Gilbert Nsama became a member of the Visual Arts Council of Zambia (VAC) in 2010, he was half way through a three-year Aircraft Maintenance Engineering studies at the Zambia Air Service Training Institute (ZASTI) in Lusaka.
Nsama is trained in Aircraft Maintenance Engineering
but cannot find a job in aviation
“At first it was my cousin Martin Chanda – a Swiss-based Zambian artist -- who connected me to a few artists in Lusaka and also dad encouraged me and showed me the Henry Tayali gallery, but I think interacting with other artists at the Arts Academy Without Walls (AAWW) is what is really helping me develop and find myself as an arts,” says the Luanshya-born artist who has also been coached by painter, Caleb Chisha as well as sculptors Nsofwa Bowa and Charles Chambata.

The ambitious young aircraft engineer was convinced that being a member of VAC would be a nice by-the-way activity when he is not busy fixing or maintaining aircraft, but six years down the line, the 29-year-old has been unsuccessful in finding a job within the aviation industry and has taken up the occupation of a full-time artist, a prospect which is not without its own challenges.
Proud African Lady, 2016, oil on
canvas, by Gilbert Nsama
“I haven’t thrown my qualifications away; art is keeping me occupied until something comes up in aviation. But I won’t stop art. Zambia has no national airline so I’ve been applying to foreign airlines and private companies locally. I even tried the Zambia Air Force (ZAF) during the last recruitment but the names were not released, I think they will be released after elections, still I don’t know if my name will be there,” he explains. Ironically, he attended ZASTI on a government bursary even though he is not able to find a job.

He works as both a painter and a sculptor choosing oil for his canvases and a variety of soft and hard woods for his carvings although he appears to be struggling for collectors or benefactors, in fact he was only able to make his first sale in March this year during The Foxdale Court Arts Day in Lusaka’s Roma suburb. The piece was one of his signature carvings of ornamental wooden shoes, shoes which are often the joke among his peers at the AAWW. Fortunately, he remains resilient and brushes the taunting off for what it really is, mockery.

African Beauty, 2016, jacaranda wood,
by Gilbert Nsama
While a close analysis of Nsama’s work does indicate that he possesses a notable degree of proficiency as a painter -- which manifests in his admirable colour usage and realistic touch -- the work appears rather disoriented when it comes to subject matter. The depiction of little children taking a bath is pretty much an exhausted cliché that has perhaps been used too many times; similarly he is in the habit of wrapping his subject matter in the texture of a brick wall giving the viewer the feeling of peeping through a hole in the wall to gaze upon them. As much as one may not want to encroach upon the artist’s style, something does not seem to add up, is he doing this out of impulse or is he showing the viewer that he has the ability to paint the exact likeness of a brick wall in several of his works with considerable ease.

Also, his portraits of women with titles such as Proud African Lady and Happy Masai all seem too credulous, calling to mind airport art or the Sunday-market crafts genre popular among foreign tourists on a constrained budget. Similarly his sculptures also appear to be adrift, again despite the fact that he does exhibit competence in his preferred media of soft and hard woods. With titles such as True African Beauty and The Beauty within Me in Jacaranda and Rosewood respectively, the works exude a degree of shallowness. What is the artist really saying, what is he sharing with the viewer, is he conjuring seemingly redundant notions of ‘African beauty’ that existed in a time long before his own? If so, to what objective?

Sunday Bathing, 2016, oil on canvas
by Gilbert Nsama
It is one thing for an artist from Northern Zambia to create portraits inspired by women from the Masai of East Africa or the Dinka of Sudan, but did he really sit down and ask himself why his work is being informed by these tribes from distant lands, in countries where he has never set foot.

Of course it may be accepted and possibly even understood when an artist categorized as a self-taught artist is creating work on assumed impulse without adding any conjectural or indeed theoretical values to it. But again it raises questions towards the sincerity of the more experienced and exposed artists whom surround him and by extension every other Zambian artist. Do they interrogate their own work deep enough before they have it displayed? Even by critiquing it in their small cliques prior to hanging it on exhibition walls.

It is high time that Zambian artists stopped being dishonest with one another, if they see a questionable piece in a colleague’s studio space, they should ask why she or he chose a particular theme, what is its relevance within a particular social, political, environmental or cultural framework, Zambian or other.

Notwithstanding, Nsama is just one of many young artists with great promise that is trying to find a foothold within an art context that scarcely puts critical thinking or academic arts qualifications at the fore of practice. For now, what Nsama is providing is an honest, yet refreshing measure of creativity, optimistically the Zambian art scene is yet to see the best of him; surely he will find his way, hopefully before he returns to his professional career as an aircraft engineer.