publication by Bert Witkamp.
published: 15 August 2015
update: 22 September 2015
Zambia series no 8: The Matter of Art and Artists. The purpose of this article is to contribute
to a better understanding of material-technical knowledge and ability for
artists, art collectors and others interested in art; with special reference to
the development of modern art in Zambia. Most modern art techniques were
introduced in Zambia during the colonial days or shortly thereafter and
therefore are exotic in origin. The materials and techniques of these media
were taken up by Zambian artists, often in a haphazard and piecemeal fashion. Much
art has been made that is poor from a material-technological point of view. A deterioration
of the physical condition of the art object also brings with it a deterioration
of its imagery. Lack of
material-technological understanding has been exacerbated by a changing technological standards of the conventional western fine arts and is
perpetuated by absence of educational facilities where sound material
technology of art can be accessed, learned and practiced by Zambian artists. The final
section of this paper is an itinerary of simple measures that can be taken by
(Zambian) artists to improve on the material construction of their art.
Art has an
objective existence because works of art are made up of matter. All art, in one
way or another, is made of materials having specific physical and chemical properties.
Certain objective properties provide the raw material for perception, the
external stimuli. In the visual arts those properties that have to do with
light are of paramount importance. Our eyes perceive the artwork by the light the
work of art reflects or emits. Our brain and mind during such perception
construct the imagery associated with the artwork that is perceived. The
imagery is mental and internal; the object is material and external.
We do not
have an objective instrument to assess (“measure”) artistic merit of a work of
art. The study of materials and techniques of art, however, provides a way to
assess how well a work of art is made as
an object. Such assessment must be carried out in the context of the art
tradition to which the art under investigation belongs. Outside its own
tradition, placed in an alien environment, different criteria may apply. This often
happens when ethnographic artifacts are removed from their native situation to
a museum. In the museum measures need to be taken to conserve and preserve the
object well - as that is one major thing museums have to do: keep objects well.
In the native situation the broken mask is replaced by a similar, new one and
the old mask is discarded.
relation between art object, perception and mental imagery construction of the
perceived art object is complex and not the subject of this article. Suffice it
here to note that seeing is something you have to learn and this also applies
to the perception of art. For our present purposes we merely emphasize the
intrinsic relationship between art object and percept of that object. If visual
properties of the work of art change, so does its percept and mental image.
Artists and keepers of art need to know the changes that shall or may incur in
the art object once it has been made; changes issuing from the manner of its
construction and the environment in which it is kept.
Art is for today or for eternity
Some art is
not made to last; it is made for a single occasion after which it is destroyed.
Its material integrity only needs to be sustained during the event for which it
has been constructed. This, for example, holds for certain makishi masks used
during the boys initiation of the Luvale, Chokwe, Lunda, Luchazi and Mbunda of
North West Zambia. Other art is used at multiple occasions until it is broken
down. This, for example, is true for makishi masks that have entertaining
functions also outside of mukanda, the boys initiation referred to above.
Examples are Mwana Pwevo (the young women) and Ngulube (the pig). These masks are
made of wood, wood being more permanent than masks made of bark cloth, hessian
or other fabric. The worn down mask is disposed off and replaced by a newly
made one following the same stereotypical model. Some art is made to last to
eternity. Egyptian sculptures dating back to the earliest times of the pharaohs,
some 5,000 years ago, belong to this group. Today many of those ancient sculptures
look the same or nearly the same as at the time of their creation, thousands of
years ago. In short: technology is directed by functionality and ideology.
Material technology is an aspect of
an art tradition
matter where or when, is embedded in a larger context. We can name that larger
context an art tradition, or more broadly, an art world. For the time being,
let us stick to the concept “art tradition.” The term tradition implies a customary
way of doing things and “a customary way of doing things” implies historical
depth. Each art tradition has its specific
material technology; a technology that has evolved over time and is part of the
culture and cultural heritage of the people having that particular tradition.
traditions vary tremendously and so do the materials and the technologies used
in art production. A number of factors influence or determine the choice of
materials and their processing. These factors include availability of raw
materials and ready-made art materials; the cost of acquiring these materials;
the technology to process the materials; the functionality of the work of art;
values attached to the work of art as regards permanence or durability; desirable
properties as regards visual appearance such as brightness, colour, texture, transparency
or opaqueness; and the incorporation of certain colours or materials for
symbolic reasons. Each art tradition in the course of time developed and develops
its own standards.
do change in the course of time. New materials are incorporated into the
existing stock; methods of processing these materials may change as well as the
manner of their application. Yet these innovations rarely radically change the prevailing
traditional technology - but they do modify it. The colour red of makishi masks
historically was procured by red ochre (ground haematite or purified red clay;
the colouring principle of both substances is red oxide of iron). For many
decades red cloth, red paper or red commercial paint has replaced the original
material. In this instance the important element was not the raw material as
such but the colour red. That colour has been retained in this technological
change. It does happen, however, that in a certain social setting an entirely
new technology is introduced, or that an existing technology disappears. Rock
art, in Zambia, by now is extinct and so is its technology.
traditions usually are associated with specific populations; a specific art
tradition being part of the culture and cultural heritage of its associated
ethnicity of cluster of (related) ethnicities. The makishi tradition mentioned
above belongs to a group of culturally related peoples, sometime referred to as
the West central Bantu.1
A new art
technology may spread from its place of invention. The technical term for this
is diffusion, meaning the spread of a cultural trait or feature. An example is
the replacement of tempera painting by oil painting. Oil painting became the
main painting medium in Italy during the sixteenth century and was adopted in
the course of the seventeenth century throughout Europe to become the major and
most prestigious painting technique for mobile paintings. This innovation is
placed in a broadly defined European (fine) art tradition. The diffusion of a
number of modern art technologies (notably in painting and graphic art) via an
(im)migrant population to indigenous artists is an instant of the adoption of
technologies new to emerging Zambian artists more or less as of the 1960’s.2
Western tradition the concept “art” means both the ability of the artist to
handle his/her materials well (art as craft) and ART in capitals. The double
meaning reflects the notion that you need to master the skills and knowledge
relevant to ART in order to make ART. One reason why art stands out from
ordinary objects is because art is (should be) made with technical mastery. This
principle is universally understood but has eroded in the 20th
century Western art world by the adoption of art styles or modes of production that
require very little material skills, or in which the material properties of art
materials simply are ignored in favour of “spontaneous expression,” or are
deemed irrelevant or even deliberately flouted and revolted against. Any artist
worldwide however, traditionally could only become an artist after having
learned the craft of his trade. Such learning was done by apprenticeship with a
master and/or by studying at an Art School.
to the view that craftsmanship is a precondition for artistic competence and
one aspect of craftsmanship is mastery of materials and techniques used in art.
Some academic writers even hold that aesthetic merit arises out of or is
imminent in technical mastery. The great Franz Boas, one of the founding
fathers of modern anthropology, for example, holds that technical perfection creates
beautiful forms, forms that turn on the aesthetic attitude (1955: 10-12), art
making ART. Technical mastery, when applied, results in perfect form, pleasing
surfaces and beautiful decorative patterns; formal qualities which, in his
view, turn an object into “art.” Boas stresses that technical mastery implies
the ability to make an object “automatically,” meaning the manual operations
are highly skilled and do not require thinking.
of the value attached to craftsmanship in art in the West is reflected in the
curriculum of Western Art Academies – the subject may or may not be taught.
Consequently many contemporary Western artists may have very little material
understanding of the art work they produce. Similarly other major players such
as galleries, museums, art critics or collectors may lack material expertise
even when such should be required. After all, one does not in the Western art
tradition purchase a painting to see the paint fall off its surface within a
students attending Western Art Academies or fine art departments of
universities similarly may be poorly equipped with material skills and
|Ill.1 Discoloring of print due to poor|
quality inks. Two copies, same edition.
Let me now
turn to the situation in Zambia. Firstly we need to realize that modern easel painting,
murals and graphics as fine or visual arts were introduced in Zambia during the
colonial days and thereafter. These arts initially had no indigenous material
history that could have guided the handling of the materials used in these arts
by Zambian artists. Only in wood carving can we establish a link between
traditional and modern art applications. Today we have a modern art history
several generations deep. A number of artists have developed good or even
excellent craftsmanship – as a class this applies especially to the sculptors.
The situation in the two dimensional arts – mostly painting and graphic art –
varies from obvious ignorance to make do with what is available to a conscious
attempt to use the best materials in a proper manner – that is: to abide by
genuine standards of the craft. Generally, however, there is a great deal of
room for improvement.
introduction of “fine art” in Zambia is well described by Gabriel Ellison in
her book Art in Zambia, (2004:
17-24). This introduction took place in a specific segment of society; that of
European expatriates, residents and settlers who, in a colonial setting,
constituted a subculture in which “art” testified to the presence of some sense
of civilisation, their civilisation
that is, and inevitably was associated with the upper stratum of society. Many
of these pioneering modern artists were members of the Lusaka Art Society,
established in 1947. Their art work fitted into a tradition they considered
their own and that included, in varying degrees, technological awareness and
its prominent members in the course of time worked with or supported indigenous
African artists thus setting into motion a process of diffusion of art
techniques from one population to another. On the European side Gabriel
Ellison, Cynthia Zukas and Bente Lorenz have played a major role in the
formative years of fine art in Zambia and that role included support for
African artists and artisans. Both Tayali and Simpasa worked with (and under)
Gabriel Ellison after Independence at the Government Graphic Art Department.
The establishment of the Art Teacher’s Diploma Course at the Evelyn Hone
College later in the 1960’s was another milestone in the dissemination of
Western art techniques. Initially most lecturers were European or Western
educated Zambian. This facility was to become the single largest provider of Zambian
artists. Technology was not taught as a separate subject, save for a brief
spell during 1977-1980 when the writer of this article lectured in materials
and techniques of art. The prime objective of the course was to introduce the
students to a number of basic principles in art technology with the specific
aim of enabling them to make their own art materials for their art classes at
secondary schools – this is at a time when there were no art educational
supplies in Zambia. The third and perhaps most important avenue of exposure of
Zambian art students to western fine art technology was and is by study abroad.
As of Independence till the present a good number of Zambian artists have
benefited from this opportunity, including major artists of the first post Independence
hour Simpasa and Tayali and lesser known others such as Mwimanji Chellah and
Billy Nkunika. The technical competence of the graduates of these foreign art
schools or university departments varied and varies considerably due to reasons
stated above. Consequently the fine art enclave of a broadly defined Zambian
art world still scores poorly on its mastery of material technology save for
the sculpture – with exceptions in both 2- and 3-dimensional divisions.
her credit, mentions another entry in Zambia of an art technology originating
in the West (2004: 17); this time not by Europeans but by Congolese. Congolese
artist had become internationally recognised as of the fifties and a good
number of them tried to make a living in prospering and peaceful Zambia of the
sixties. In the seventies they constituted the largest single group of artists
in Lusaka, doing oil painting and murals. They were known for their velvet
paintings and heavy impasto works. These Congolese delivered a major input in
the emergence of popular art, indeed
art for the so-called common folk; as opposed to the sophisticated fine arts
for the educated. As Ellison writes, several Zambian artists picked up the
Congolese styles. Many Congolese artists had been well trained in the western
painting tradition. In Zambia, lacking adequate materials, a manner of making
do with what is available was adopted; a McGyvering of technology still
persisting today. Its outstanding feature is the use of a wooden, non
adjustable frame; on which cotton cloth is stretched as support to be painted
with white pva serving as a ground.
Congolese easel painters targeted a wide market of both Europeans (mostly
expatriates and tourists) and Zambians (mostly lower middle class and higher).
The Congolese muralists worked for a near exclusive African audience by their
production of murals for bars and shops in the sixties and seventies. Some of
these murals rank as genuine folk art, examples are/were the paintings at the
Moonlight bar on Palabana Road just out of Lusaka and the Moonlight bar
somewhere near Chongwe on the Great East Road some 30 km’s out of Lusaka. Such
work now often is deteriorated or destroyed. The murals were made using
commercial paints on ordinary walls without any provision for their
conservation. Zambian “commercial” artists as of the eighties replaced the
Congolese who gradually disappeared out of the scene.
art world, historically, therefore, is not one of a kind but composed of
several strands, the modern visual arts being only one of them. The origin of
this art is largely in the western tradition. The second strand is that of
popular art, mostly done in painting, also exotic in origin but this time
introduced via neighbouring Congo. The subject matter of this art, contrary to
the fine arts, always is explicitly African, drawing on mythology, folklore and
rural or urban life experiences. This popular congolese art declined with the
disappearance of the Congolese artists in the eighties bur resurfaced now as contemporary Zambian popular art. A third variety is
indigenous (Zambia) folk art. This broad category includes decorations on huts
or improvised locally available materials both rural and urban. At the other
end of the scale, opposed to the modern arts, are the truly indigenous
traditional arts; the makishi and njau masks being its most prominent examples.
Each of these varieties of art has its own range of techniques of materials,
and each of these technologies is subject to change in time. Commercial house
paints and cotton wool are now used to decorate makishi; huts and other
buildings are decorated with pva paints; popular art is made with commercial
oil paints and in the modern art scene, and. remarkably, we see increasingly the
introduction of local materials especially in the sculptural/3-dimensional
|Ill. 2. Use of pods of flamboyant tree in wall hanging by Agnes Mbuya Yombwe. 2012.|
Example of innovation in modern visual art technology emphasising local identity.
Simple ways to improve
have emphasized that mastery of materials and techniques is important
especially if the integrity of a work of art is to last – meaning
that the change in its visual appearance in time should be as minor as
possible. I also have described that art materials and techniques are a
cultural trait belonging to a specific art tradition. The dissemination or
diffusion of western art technology in Zambia occurred piecemeal and haphazard,
often resulting in poor material craftsmanship – notably of 2-dimensional art.
This state of affairs has been exacerbated because of deteriorating standards
in Western fine art as regards material competence and deficiencies in
the emerging Zambian modern art world.
on this state of affairs artists should not only consider their work of art as
a creative statement but also as a work of construction. Imagine you order a
dining table from a carpenter and pay the proper price for it. You complain if the table
collapses within a short time or develops wobbling legs and you'll seek redress. In art
the situation is similar: As a professional you offer a product for sale and
that object therefore must be made according to professional standards of
workmanship. I may add here that art for sale in Zambia does not come cheap and that a
good part of its cost should have been invested by the artist in first class
materials and appropriate workmanship. I can show you embarrassing examples of
Zambia’s top artists that belie this principle – usually because of sheer
ignorance; sometimes because of irresponsible short cutting; or unfortunately,
unavailability or expense of quality materials.
cannot take the place of a proper technical manual. But below is some advice
that may help to improve matters in a simple way.
numerous text books about each artistic discipline – but not or rarely in Zambia.
Zambian artists, however, do travel and should use such occasions to purchase such
books at art supply shops. They can also pull strings in the international
network they often have or purchase on-line. There are two books I personally
love and recommend to each artist. The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and
Techniques by Ralph Mayer is a classic. Written in clear, largely
non-technical English it is a must for any artist to read. Getten and Stout
compiled Paintings Materials: A short
encyclopaedia. This inexpensive Dover publication is more technical but equally
indispensable when you need to quickly research any material used in art. And
then, of course there is the I-net, the largest library in the world,
accessible by now in almost all of Zambia. Once you get into it you won’t stop
and you’ll ask yourself why you did not do your surfing and researching earlier.
each art tradition has its own standard material technology and so does each of
the Western art media. The Western technologies, historically, are directed
towards permanence of the work of art. Durability of the work of art is only
achieved by the proper application of permanent materials. The VAC shop sells
good materials and so does The Artshop at Zebra’s crossings cafe, both in
Paper is the usual
support for graphic art. The best paper is made of rags. Art paper is made by specialised
paper mills. Buy one of those brands and get the kind suited to your medium.
Good paper yellows little and takes printing ink, crayon, pencils, charcoal,
water paint and gouache well.
Printing inks are a
special concern. Note that offset printing inks and commercial silkscreen inks
are not made to meet artistic standards. Most of these colours eventually fade.
Simple test for fastness to light: take a piece of paper, apply ink or paint,
cover one coloured half with paper and expose to sunlight by tacking to a
window. Check after some weeks to observe changes. These can be dramatic.
Canvas. Canvas is
the common support for oil and acrylic paint. The only proper canvas is made of
linen. In oil painting canvas is first sized with rabbit glue to protect the canvas
from the deteriorating effect of (linseed) oil. After sizing the canvas is
primed, formerly with a lead based white paint. Substituting the linen canvas for
cotton fabric entails a risk of “sagging” as the cotton support in time loses its tautness.
Skipping the sizing brings about the risk of the support being “eaten” by the
oil and eventually breaking up. Using pva paint instead of rabbit glue and oil
primer may result in disintegrating canvas and poor bonding between ground and
paint. In short: if you want to paint in oil, use proper linen canvas as made
by specialist factories and sold by specialist shops. It seems that adequate
support preparation is less critical in acrylic painting. Best is to
purchase canvas made for acrylic paint and apply acrylic primer. You can apply
acrylic paint to a canvas prepared for oils but you may want to roughen its
surface a bit by light fine sanding. This ensures better bonding.
Pigments and paints. In the
western tradition there is a standard list of pigments for each medium – there
is no space to reproduce such lists here. Do note, however, that different
media and different supports all impose specific requirements on paints.
Notably in murals the choice in colours is limited to those pigments that are
resistant both to an acidic and an alkaline environment. Avoid the purchase of
so-called student grade paints – they teach you wrong outcomes of apparently
Fat over lean. Different
pigments require different amounts of binder. In oil painting paints containing
more oil should be applied over paint layers containing less oil – the leaner layers.
Sinning against this principle causes constructional problems. An example of a
fat paint is raw umber. These colours should only in lean mixtures be used in
the underlying paint layers. The same principle applies to acrylic paint, but
perhaps not so rigidly.
Use fresh paint. Use paint
fresh from the tube and discard paint that has started to dry up on the
palette. This applies especially to paints having binders that change irreversibly in the so-called drying process. These include the polymers
(acrylics) and oils.
appropriate thinner for the medium you are using. Do not use paraffin in oil
painting. Mineral turpentine is good, natural turpentine better.
Storage and exposure. The art object is subjected to environmental variables such as temperature, humidity, light, wind, air born particles and gasses. Even a well made painting may
deteriorate if displayed or stored wrongly.3 Generally store or display in a fairly dry
place, avoid great fluctuations in temperature or humidity and be aware of
bugs. Don’t expose 2-dimensional work to sunlight, same for wooden sculpture.
Inform, if necessary, the buyer about adequate preservation measures. Prints,
water colours and drawings should be properly framed (meaning: dust free,
behind glass, using acid free board and backing) when exposed.
1 The author did research on makishi as part
of his MA requirements. Copies of his Seeing
Makishi have been deposited with The Livingstone Museum and the library of The
University of Zambia (special collections I believe).
2 This process sometimes has been labelled by
the ugly term “westernization,” as in Setti (2000: 5). This term
suggest the changing of an indigenous cultural element by western influences.
In our case there simply is no historical connection between most of these
techniques and a previous indigenous artistic practice. Diffusion therefore is
a better term, though terms like acculturation and cultural interaction also
3 See Witkamp, G., 2015, in bibliography.
academically is a cultural anthropologist with specialisations in non-Western
art and anthropology of sub-Saharan Africa. He taught Materials and Techniques
of Art at the Evelyn Hone College from 1977 to 1980 to students of
the Art Teachers Diploma Course. He worked as a practising artist in Zambia from
1975 to 1980 and from 1988 till now. Some of his art writing can be accessed at
the Art in Zambia blog and the Z-factor Art Site.
1955 Primitive Art. New York, Dover. First
published in 1927.
2004 Art in Zambia. Lusaka, Bookworld
Gettens, Rutherford J. and George L. Stout
1966 Painting Materials. New York, Dover
Publications. First Published in 1942 by D. Van Nostrand Company Inc.
1982 The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and
Techniques. New York, The Viking Press.
2000 An Analysis
of the Contribution of Four Painters to the development of Contemporary Zambian
Painting from 1950 to 1997. Manuscript, M.A. research essay, Rhodes University.
Makishi. M.A. thesis and research report. Photocopied manuscript. State
University of Leiden.
2015 Keeping Art. Choma, Z-factor technical
bulletin no 1. Accessible as I-net publication at: http://artblog.zamart.org/2013/08/caring-for-your-art-work-prints.html