27 May, 2015


Post by Bert Witkamp
First published: 27 May 2015
Last update: 15 July 2015

Art in Zambia series no 6: History of Art in Zambia: Brief discussion of the need for History of Art as a discipline applied to the Zambian art world. 

It took about fifty years since Independence before the first Zambian enrolled at a university to become an art historian. Presently and until he graduates we don't have a single Zambian art historian. Yet we have Zambian art both traditional and modern. We have collectors and collections, public and private. We have artists, art teachers and galleries. But we don’t have a concerted national effort to reconstruct, document and present the development and current state of Zambian art; all we have are bits and pieces scattered in various places.

As time goes on it becomes harder to piece these historical fragments together and bring them to life by personal accounts of those who created modern art in Zambia; the pioneers of what has become a substantial tradition embodying its unique brand of contemporary African art.

One consequence of this state of affairs is that upcoming Zambian artists are deprived of a sense of Zambian art history and artistic culture. Their exposure to art is limited to what is accessible and what is accessible to them are bits and pieces with little coherence, historical depth or documentation. As a result these artists work in a tradition largely unknown to them.

You may hold that for many artists in a practical sense lack of art historical awareness does not matter; I now refer firstly to self-styled artists. You may even argue that lack of such awareness enhances the originality or authenticity of their work. There are a good number of such artists and they make art that is Zambian in a manner that is not contrived but is a genuine presentation of their perception of life in Zambia as they know it.

Such naiveté cannot be attributed to artists who have studied art at an educational institution such as a college or academy. Art schools operate on foundations (“parameters”) set by the history of which the schools themselves are a product. A good number of Zambian artists have been and are trained at Western art academies or at university fine art departments. Artist in such facilities are exposed to the relevant national art tradition framed in the larger context of contemporary Western artistic practice and ideology. A Zambian artist, lacking versatility in Zambian art history, easily is overwhelmed by artistic practice and ideology presented to her or him. Indeed, studying art at these specialised institutions is a means of involvement in international artistic discourse and that is quite a challenge indeed when you come from a country without a single museum of art and only two institutions where art is taught in a manner that bears resemblance to a good school of art in the Western tradition. It is, from the point of view of national art development, much better if Zambian art students go to foreign art academies and the like fortified by sound knowledge of Zambian arts and culture; that what is learned is an extension of what is already known - that it is the broadening of the horizon and not the filling in of a gap that should not have been there in the first place.
You can appreciate this print by Tayali without knowing that he was taught graphics at the Dusseldorf Art Academy. But your understanding of Tayali's graphic style deepens if you can place him in the German expressionist graphic tradition.

Lack of art historians not only inhibits teaching of art. It also stunts museum art work. Museum art work is professionally done by curators. Curators are people who combine expertise in a specific museum field (such as art) with expertise in museum operations (that is: collecting, preservation, presenting, documentation, education, research, policy development and management). There is no need to talk about establishing a museum of modern art in Zambia if there is no provision for competent, honest and dedicated staff. Generally, an institution or organisation is as good or bad as the people working in it; and if you don’t have the right people you shall not have the right institution.

The Lusaka National Museum is the only Zambian museum currently hosting major art exhibitions. It also is the only museum storing several art collections and thus constitutes the only public (i.e., state owned) depository of modern Zambian visual art. This situation has prevailed for many years and one would expect that by now the museum would have an art historian / curator on its pay roll. Not so.
How the Art Department of the Open University at Lusaka copes with the Zambian Art history is an open question and the same applies to the Art Department of the Evelyn Hone College.

What explains this lack of art historical interest in Zambia? Due to the prolonged time span of this omission, 50+ years, one is inclined to look for structural reasons rather than some statistical freak incident. In fact, such a small art world like ours has little room for statistical explanations or forecasts when it comes to professional expertise. The explanation, as I see it, is a deep rooted lack of interest at the institutional level in art and to a considerable degree in culture and cultural heritage as well. Why that is so is not easy to explain and I shall not venture it here. Let me just note that institutional operators rarely grow up with modern art and that for many of them traditional arts are for tourists or ceremonial entertainment at airports but are not valid as part of one’s practical life and aspirations.

Modern art in Zambia, despite institutional deficiencies, is alive and moving. The scene is small but productive with art work that is quite divers ranging from abstract to naturalistic, from folksy to academic, from pictorial triviality to iconic symbolism and so on. The baseline is that individuals keep art going in Zambia; the artists and the art supporters and their organisations. Some supporters buy art, some run galleries, a few help in art supplies and a few write about art in the media. Yes, and currently one of these art writers is going to be the first and only academically qualified art historian! 

To date the only book on Zambian modern art.

Indeed if you combine Art in Zambia (written by Gabriel Ellison with major inputs by the VAC publishing committee, published in 2004, beautifully laid out by Andrew Macromalis) with the  articles written by Andrew Mulenga over the years appearing in The Post you do get a reasonably adequate descriptive overview of modern art in Zambia since independence in 1964. That Andrew is to be the first Zambian Art Historian is well deserved and worth a celebration. Yet one swallow does not make a summer and I hope that more Zambians shall follow Andrew’s footsteps.

You can follow Andrew at his blog Andrew Mulenga's Hole in the Wall at http://andrewmulenga.blogspot.com/

Post Scriptum.
1. The late Godfrey Setti did have an MA in fine arts at Rhodes University. He died in 2002 while studying at Rhodes. He must have had a fair amount of history of art during this study and we know he was also working on a manuscript presumably about Zambian art.
2. A good many practicing Zambian artists have academic degrees or college qualifications. All these artists have had art history courses. My concern in this post is the lack of professional art historical texts and documentation of modern Zambian art.