Articles

A Secret Heritage: Modern Art in Zambia

by Elizabeth Watkin on June 27, 2012

A young artist works in a studio space provided free by the Visual Arts Council of Zambia (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

If you were to be given a map of the world with the names of the countries removed, how long do you think it would take you to find Zambia? Landlocked and pretty much in the center of the African continent, it is the shape of either a cow’s stomach or a clenched first at the end of an arm, depending on your perspective. It is a country of contrasts. Poor but with a capital, Lusaka, that is one of the fastest growing cities in Africa. The country is rich with copper deposits, so at one time Zambia was so prosperous that their currency was stronger than the American dollar. However when the market for copper collapsed, the country suffered. More stable than its neighbor Zimbabwe and more peaceful than its other neighbor Congo, it is rarely given much attention. People in Zambia struggle, but in less dramatic fashion that grabs headlines than is usually witnessed on the African continent.

Zambia highlighted on a globe. (via WIkipedia)

While the world is looking in another direction art flourishes in the country on a shoestring. The desire of artists in Zambia to create is so strong that they will use anything. From burlap sacks to car paint, even old bed sheets are often used in the place of canvases as the materials for art. Garbage and detritus are turned in works of art that are often staggering in their scope. The tradition of fine art, in the Western concept of the term, in Zambia goes back to colonial times and has been steadily growing ever since. Thanks to the Lechwe Trust, the Zambia’s body of art is assured a home in the country it was created.

The Lechwe Trust was founded by Cynthia Zukas. An artist herself, in the early 1980s Zukas was a friend to many artists in Zambia including William Bwalya Miko, who remembers with fondness how Zukas would return from trips abroad with cases full of art materials to pass on to local artists who had no access to such tools. In 1986, she came into an inheritance and decided it was time to support artists more substantially, and the Lechwe Trust was born. Their aim was to provide bursaries for artists who wished to study formally or attend art workshops and residencies. In addition, they decided to start a collection, ensuring an art legacy for Zambia. The collection houses works predominantly by Zambians, however there are works by those who have lived in Zambia or have a connection with the country. Now numbering over 200 pieces of art from paintings to sculpture, from etchings to sketches the legacy is one of which Zambians should be proud, and yet few know of its existence. Or at least that was the case until the recent exhibition. A lack of promotion of the art scene in Zambia is only one issue artists have to address.

The Lechwe Trust Exhibition

“Destiny” is a prime example of the importance of the Lechwe Trust’s work. With Henry Tayali’s seminal painting “Destiny” (1975–1980), writ large is the struggle for identity in a time of progress. In the foreground a myriad of figures scramble and work, carrying iron girders, spades, while they are seemingly penned in by a huge, steam obscured modern city. The city itself is painted in muted greys, browns, mauves however the crowd is dressed in bright colours. According to the catalogue for the exhibition and an article by local magazine The Lowdown, this painting has had a long and well-travelled life. In 1966, the painting was sold to Tim Gibbs, son of then Southern Rhodesian governor, Sir Humphrey Gibbs. In 1980, Tayali went to the now independent Zimbabwe to but his painting back. Unsurprisingly, he was turned down but was granted allowance to borrow the painting for exhibitions. “Destiny” did its rounds in London, Zambia and Paris before returning to the Gibbs. By 1989 Henry Tayali had passed away and “Destiny” was exhibited again in London — enter the Lechwe Trust. It took two years but the trust now owns the painting, a linchpin of their impressive collection.

Artists in Zambia are faced with particular, though assuredly not unique, challenges. Even today, materials such as oil paints, brushes, canvas still have to be imported from South Africa and this makes them prohibitively expensive. A lack of public library facilities and subject specific magazines means artists are deprived of learning from more established artists or feeling part of a wider international community. Until a year ago, if you wished to study art within Zambia there was only one course available in the country — a certificate in art education, which prepares its candidates to teach, rather than make art.

Two paintings from artists of two different generations: Henry Tayali (1943–1987) on the left and living artist Stary Mwaba on the right.

Then of course there is the business of trying to sell one’s work. In economically more stable countries only a handful of artists can truly claim they make a living by their art alone, this handful becomes considerably smaller in Zambia. This is not merely due to fewer people with disposable income wishing to buy paintings, but also because of an unfortunate preconception by some tourists and ex-pats who look into buying work expecting a bargain basement souvenir only to find the prices higher than they planned to pay. The complaint that artwork is overpriced is a bone of contention. Lusaka is one of the more expensive cities in sub-Saharan Africa in terms of rents and product prices, plus as mentioned before, art materials are particularly expensive. Artists argue that the prices of their pieces fairly reflect their economic realities, plus some artists have shown internationally and feel they are justified in asking for more money. The low numbers of sales reveals how many may sadly disagree. Low sales may also be the result of something else. Very few people outside of the very small Zambian art world are aware of how active the art scene currently is. A look through international art magazines reveals a dearth of coverage of sub-Saharan Africa, only a few artists of sub-Saharan African heritage, such as Chris Ofili and Yinka Shonibare, have managed to break through. Many contemporary Zambian artists like Zenzele Chulu and Stary Mwaba, both of whom have exhibited internationally, feel this is because the art world wishes to see art from Africa in a very specific, ethnocentric stereotype. As result, they are often asked to participate in African-themed exhibitions, which limits their platform and frustrates them. As Mwaba asks, “Am I an African artist or an artist from Africa?” And more importantly, why does this question still matter?

Henry Tayali, “Rushing for Bread which was not There” (click to enlarge)

And yet Lusaka is bursting at the seams with artists and The Henry Tayali gallery — Lusaka’s main fine art gallery — is filled almost from floor to ceiling with works of art, and although they only get a small trickle of visitors (some days, I was told, none at all) the gallery is a hub of activity. Why? Well, in a country where opportunities for work are limited, it is better to be an artist and working, than to wait for a job that may never come. School is not possible for a large number of children who cannot afford the fees or the time, which is often spent helping at home. But through art, one can express oneself without the ability to read or write. The community of artists is a warm and friendly one full of people who understand that their richest resource is one another; new members are welcomed into the fold with open arms. There is a more abstract and perhaps rarely articulated motivation also, a pride and desire to depict and explore Zambia using the visual medium. Through their work, Zambian artists exude a dignity and an understanding of the good and bad of their society. They question, they examine and sometimes judge; the conversation shows no signs of abating. Artists here just love art, they thirst after it and it is a crucial contribution to their sense of identity, their sense of purpose.

Zambia’s history is full of talent and characters even if their exploits and accomplishments are not always well documented. Take Akwila Simpasa. In his time, Simpasa was an internationally renowned artist, and sculpture and drawing were his favourite media, but it has been reported that art was so deeply ingrained in him that he painted and created music as well. He was friends with Eddy Grant and rubbed shoulders with Jimi Hendrix and Mick Jagger. Simpasa was a major pioneer. Sadly, he also had mental health problems and died relatively young in the 1980s and has since sunk into virtual obscurity. Those of his contemporaries that are still living remember him well. When asked to comment on his friend Simpasa, artist Patrick Mweemba offered the following remark: “he was the best Zambian artist.” Stories of him exist through oral history, which is just as well, as little of the artist and his life seems to have been documented. William Miko and Zenzele Chulu both mentioned how some believe he is still alive, like Elvis he has become legend, and now thanks to the Lechwe Trust, the legend is able to speak through his work.

It cannot be denied that the Lechwe Trust, has gone a great way to tackling many of the problems facing Zambian artists. By buying art at a fair price, some artists are able to stay in Zambia and work rather than leaving the country as many like Henry Tayali did. William Miko was himself helped to develop as an artist by the trust and taught abroad in Europe. He eventually returned to work and to help the trust. Lechwe is the only trust of its kind in Zambia. A country that is full of NGOs, few if any of which are interested in the art scene. Yet, “You cannot have development without also the development of art and culture,” argues William Miko. He cites the example of Japan that has a centuries-old and highly respected art tradition. He feels this tradition of inspiration, creativity and hard work has helped turn Japan into the technological powerhouse it has become in modern times. The Lechwe Trust’s tireless support of the Zambian art scene could be key to bringing recognition, especially now they have decided to build their own gallery.

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  • debu barve

    Very nice article!

  • http://www.facebook.com/jasmine.lukuku Jasmine Lukuku

    Thank you for this article! Zambia is awesome. I was born there but raised in Canada. I’ve visited twice as an adult. The country is full of amazing, creative and warm people! This article has inspired me to do a little research on contemporary Zambian art in preparation for my next trip there.

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