Text and internet publication by
Photographs by Bert Witkamp unless indicated otherwise in the caption.
published: 15 July 2015.
Current update: 14 August 2015
Art in Zambia series no 7: The
Lusaka Artists Group. The
Lusaka Artists Group (LAG) was a major player in the Zambian Art World from
1976 to 1980. Supported by the Art Centre Foundation the group established and
managed a studio at the Evelyn Hone College - the first instance in Zambia of
co-operating artists. The studio at the time was the centre of Zambian graphic art. Part of the success of the group was its ability to source and utilise
locally available materials for modern (non-traditional) art production; most spectacularly in large
mosaic murals designed and executed by Patrick Mweemba and Bert Witkamp. Another
contributing factor was the diversity of its core membership: each member by
his background and history had his own capacities which together created a
broad array of perspectives, skills, knowledge and art works. And last but not
least: the group members, unlike the academically endowed artists, lived a
simple life in the townships. Then as, now, it was hard to make a living by art
alone. Working together was a way to cope with the problems of making art out
of a living and a living out of art...
The Lusaka Artists Group (LAG) informally
came into being towards the end of 1975, was formally registered as an
association in 1976, changed its name to Zambia Artists Association in 1977 and fell apart in 1981.
During the five years of its
existence the group was spectacularly productive in graphic art, murals and
painting. It was not the first artists’ organisation in Zambia, but it was the
first instance of co-operating artists working in the same studio.
The next instance would be in 1985 when Rockston was formed, also in Lusaka.
I took the initiative to form this
group in 1975 when, fresh from the Netherlands, I started to make art in Lusaka. During the five preceding years I had worked in a town named
Leeuwarden; the provincial capital of Friesland (Frisia), the homeland of these
white and black milk cows. I was a member of its Cultural Council on behalf of the visual arts, had a large studio made available to me by the
cultural department of the municipal administration, was mostly interested in
graphic art and painting, participated in the annual art fair, and had been
commissioned an 84 m2 mural. Basic art materials could be bought locally
and what was not available nearby could be had in specialized art supply shops
in Amsterdam. The well stocked provincial library was a ten minute walk from home
and if it did not have an art book I needed it would be procured for me from
another library. The small town even had an art academy which offered evening classes
– this is where I learned lithography. The real thing: on stone.
In Zambia of 1975 I found myself in
an environment where there was very little for the modern visual arts in terms of materials,
organisation, galleries, museums, publications, media coverage and private, corporate or government support. There even seemed to be very
few artists and most of these turned out to be non-Zambian. Yes, some things
were there, but especially for the newcomer/outsider these were mostly invisible.
The "modern visual arts" are mostly arts that originated in the Western world and were introduced to Zambia during and after the colonial period. The pioneering practitioners invariably were of European origin - save for certain forms of sculpture. Sculpture, notably carving in wood, had indigenous ancestry, though traditional sculptors made art for social situations very different from those associated with modern art. Popular art (a broad category embracing tourist painting,
velvet painting, sign writing and murals in bars or shops) at that time was almost entirely produced by Congolese who
operated a social scene of their own, entirely separate from of the fine art circuit.
decided to look for artists to work with. The first one I came across was
Fackson Kulya who at the time lived in a servant’s quarter of an UNZA staff
house at Handsworth Court1. Fackson agreed on the formation of an
artists’ organisation. We appeared on television, in an early evening feature
programme by Joseph Kuleneta and Charles Mando. It was, in those days, a
peculiar thing to see a professionally trained European working with a
self-styled Zambian artist and to hear that European say that living in a
compound (township) is the only way to understand the life of the people who
lived there – the vast majority of urban dwellers, at the time usually referred to in
semi-socialist rhetoric as “the masses.” I, coincidentally, lived in Mtendere
compound where I gradually got to know some urban folk life. The place for Europeans
was in the so-called residential areas, where the uppa mwamba – the upper class, indigenous or expatriate – lived
comfortably in electrified houses along tarred roads. In a few of these residences lived people who bought or supported the modern arts.
The so-called common folk
lived in compounds; working class neighbourhoods if you like, save
that for many paid work was hard to come by. These compounds were dusty and
dirty, lacked proper roads and electricity but were brimming with live. In
1975, eleven years after Independence, it was highly unusual to find a European
live in a compound and be part of an African or mixed household. Also for
Africans this was an unlikely situation. They could ask “Do you eat nshima?”
And be even more astounded if you replied positively in one of the local
languages. Fackson and I teaming up was sufficiently extraordinary to get us on
|Ill. 1. Fackson Kulya (right) and I at our modest stand in the Lusaka Public Library. |
Front page of the Times of Zambia newspaper of December 19th, 1975.
Photo by Times photographer.
In December 1975 we were
ready for a first, small exhibition at the Lusaka City Library situated along
Katondo street, next to the Lusaka Hotel, between Cairo Road and Chachacha Road.
We were both experimenting with materials that were locally available. I had found wax and had made some wax prints.
I was also showing some fairly sophisticated dry point prints I had come with
from the Netherlands. Fackson had some small bronze sculptures which he had
casted from a homemade furnace, a modified drum fueled by charcoal. Before the
exhibition was on we talked to a journalist from The Daily Newspaper who
interviewed us about our co-operative plan2. Though the journalist
reshaped our story for reasons his own, he truly reported that we believed that
artists could only progress in Zambia by working together; and that this was
especially so for poor artists without formal education, the ones living in
compounds. A photograph of the exhibition was published on the front page of
The Times of Zambia Newspaper.
The publicity sparked off several
reactions. First, it helped to get other artists to join us. Second, it created
conflict with prominent academic artist Henry Tayali and the then Director of Cultural
Services as government was blamed by the Times journalist of ignoring the poor,
uneducated, underprivileged yet talented artists. Third, our presence could no
longer be ignored by the main body promoting Zambian modern art in those days,
the Art Centre Foundation.
Fackson and I met Patrick Mweemba, at
the time living at old Kanyama compound, and David Chibwe. We now had our basic team. Fackson originated from Luanshya rural and was Lamba by tribe. Patrick came from the Southern Province and is Tonga by ethnicity. David seemed to have mostly Bemba affiliations but did some art training in what now again is the Congo. As noted above I came from the Netherlands. Our group of four
would remain the core of the LAG/ZAA until the organisation disintegrated in
1981. In the course of time other (aspiring) artists would join or pop in of
whom Style Kunda became a regular associate. All of us, despite different back
grounds, had major things in common. We were all in the beginning of our careers;
we all had to establish ourselves in an environment that offered little support
or facilities and all lived in the compound side of town.
Time for some contextualisation. We
are in the Kaunda area with its socialist/humanist policies; days in which the
state was seen as the engine (and controller) of society; Zambia was a one
party state and much of the formal economy and all of its major enterprises or
industries were state owned and managed. An aspect of the political economy was
an emphasis on the formation of cooperatives of small scale producers, farmers for example. My initial vision of the development of the LAG was to
turn it into a full sized cooperative. I went to the co-operative office, got
forms and talked to the artists. A genuine cooperative society is an
economic organisation in which the individual economies of the members are
fully integrated into the cooperative. This, practically, was much too extreme
for our Zambian compound artists, and also quite unintelligible to them. I had
to abandon the idea. It was hard enough to get the members to
put a small percentage of their individual sales into the Group Fund to cater
for shared expenses. Even that after some time was abolished. It took me at
least a year to realise that the group just was not ready for such far reaching
It turned out that our association worked
much better without rigid, binding rules and needed to be flexible in sharing
or not sharing jobs and resources. Today, some forty years later, many, if not
most so-called cooperatives in fact are not more than associations serving, for
example, to access subsidized fertiliser, and that is often were the
Back to 1976. In Lusaka was one
organisation specifically for the visual arts, the Arts Centre Foundation (ACF). It
was a government sponsored body the Board of which was composed of prominent
artists and art sympathisers, both Zambian and expatriate, both of African and
of European extraction. Outstanding artist members at the time were Bente Lorenz,
Cynthia Zukas and Henry Tayali. Each of these artists has played a major role
in the formative years of the post independence Zambian art world.
Tayali was a well educated academic artist who also played a significant role in
cultural and art organisations3. At the time there were only a few indigenous
Zambian artists with academic qualifications and even fewer made art the core
of their professional existence. Tayali was one of the very few and therefore became a key figure in the social art world, taking
over or complimenting the positions of those of European extraction. He, as described in no. 2 of this series,
had become very angry about the Daily News article that publicised our call for
artists to co-operate. Also the statement by the journalist that government
support for the arts was directed to those already well off and that the poor talented guy of the
compound was ignored must have displeased Henry who himself was one of these privileged beneficiaries. He was appointed University of Zambia artist in 1976.
The irony of the situation was that Fackson and I were
completely ignorant of the existence of Tayali at the time of the 1975
interview; and that Tayali and his fellow ACF members equally were unaware of the existence of poor talented upcoming artists in compounds that deserved to receive support. Tayali probably was embarrassed by the article and felt that it
undermined his leadership position and the more so as our cooperative
initiative was politically more than 100% correct.
Other members of the ACF had less of
an ego and more compassion with the socially “underprivileged” artist. This notably
was true for Cynthia Zukas and Bente Lorenz. The Cynthia Zukas and her husband had a long standing commitment for the African people dating back to pre-Independent days. Bente Lorenz, a Danish ceramist coming from then Southern Rhodesia,
worked at her beautiful Lusaka studio with African potters and sculptors. The
net outcome of it all was that the ACF decided to support the LAG, and they did
it by facilitating the use of a prefab classroom at the Evelyn Hone College.
The AFC liked to look at the facility as “their” workshop but in practice it
was the LAG membership who populated and managed it; working daily in that
prefab building on the ground floor, close to the 2 story red brick building
where art and music were taught formally to formal students – something beyond the
reach of my friends as these lacked the required secondary school
I put a lot of energy into the LAG (later
ZAA) and the Evelyn Hone College studio. It was basically an exercise in coping
– an effort to make up for the deficiencies in the institutional fabric. The
strict regulations concerning hard currencies ("forex") at the time resulted in absence
or near absence of the materials used in art production – oil paints being one
of them. But one could find raw linseed oil, and this could be purified into
oil suited as a binder in paint, or boiled to arrive at the right viscosity for
printing inks. Printmaking, lino cuts in particular, was our first innovative
technique. The underlying idea was that we could reach a lot of people by
producing cheap works of art. Cynthia Zukas, seeing and appreciating our graphic
interest, made her etching press available; a press that also could print
lino cuts. We soon were the main graphic art producers of Lusaka, and in fact
of Zambia. Tayali also produced graphics, but he moved in a very different
circuit and could not be as prolific as the four of us combined.
In beginning 1976 we were subjected
to counsel by periodic sessions with Art Centre Foundation members who
commented on our work and advised how we could improve our artistic production.
I remember one such session where Tayali, pointing at one of Patrick Mweemba’s
prints, announced that he even would not want that print in his toilet. Well,
surely, it was not designed to wipe your bottom with. We had, however, without Tayali’s dominating presence, pleasant and sensible discussions
with other AFC members. In any case, these
instructive encounters eventually ceased. It
is true, however, that we were all new to lino or wood cuts and each one of us
was trying to find his own way in this medium. It took some time before experiment
resulted in consistent production.
Ill. 2 Hunting Community. Patrick Mweemba, 1976, lino cut, 3/20, 20 x 20 cm.
One of the first lino cuts by Patrick Mweemba.
We all did most of our art work in the studio and it was truly the shared element in our professional lives. These lives, despite the cooperation,
were not easy. The artist’s lunch – a standing joke – was a bun with some
boiled peanuts or the occasional coke as an extra treat. In rare days of plenty
one could enjoy a meal at the College’s student canteen. The way home after
work might be long indeed: there was an enormous lack of public transport and
if you had failed to get into a bus by 18.30 hrs you had to walk from town
centre all the way to Kaunda Square, Mtendere, UNZA Handsworth Court or
wherever you were domiciled.
|Ill 3. Around the fire place (Pa Nsaka). David K. Chibwe. 1977, Lino cut, 2/10, 30.5 x 15.5 cm. One of the first lino cuts by David Chibwe.|
|Ill. 4. Exhibition poster, lino cut, 1979 reprint. Design Bert Witkamp|
Money from sales came in sparingly
and irregularly. I remember hawking our prints in offices along Cairo Road in
1976. Fackson and I would go to metal scrap yards to look for copper wire which
we hammered into bangles. In 1977 we had our first (and I believe only) common
exhibition at the US Information Service at Hero’s Square, Lusaka. It was
attended by the American Ambassador and other officials. From then onwards once
in a while commissions came in, either for one of us singly or combined. End
1997 I started work on the 54 m2 ceramic mosaic mural at Society House in
Lusaka. I did the designing at our workshop. Later Patrick Mweemba, David Chibwe and Fackson Kulya did murals at the
Ill.5 The sculptor. Lino print by Fackson Kulya, around 1977.
himself working in the LAG studio at the
eagle relief for the National Assembly
building. Ink on newsprint.
Fackson Kulya was commissioned to
carve the Zambian eagle in wood relief for the National Assembly building –
truly a sign of recognition. David Chibwe every now and then managed to get a
commission for a painting – he really was the painter of the group. Patrick
Mweemba, following a commission for a small mosaic mural at Barclays bank at
Cairo Road, was commissioned a major mosaic mural at the Industrial Relations
The technology for the mosaic murals was developed by me and inspired by
ancient Moorish earthenware pottery in Spain. Bente Lorenz helped me by
borrowing me a book in Spanish detailing lead based pottery glazes as used by
the Moors some thousand years ago. I could not understand the Spanish but did read
the formula’s and knew how to convert physical formula’s in grams into chemical
formula’s in molecules and vice versa. Now I was happy with the science A-level
subjects I had been forced to do at secondary school. Also my technical
interest in art materials which I had developed during my stay in Leeuwarden was very
useful in making paints, inks or working out technicalities of mural art.
Fackson, Patrick and David developed
into good print makers. Each one developed a style his own. There are, however, strong thematic linkages between these artists by the choice of their subjects. Much of their work is about folk life, urban or rural, traditional or modern, depicting daily events or ceremony. Their work, almost without exception, is figurative; ranging from realistic or naturalistic to imaginary presentations.
Viewers could relate directly to the pictures as these were made up of
recognisable elements; questions such as "which side up?" did not arise in our group.
Fackson’s prints and other art are
inspired by folklore and folk life, sometimes displaying his bizarre sense of
humor. Many of his prints have a story to tell. Fackson, who died sometime
around 2003, also made drawings, paintings in various media and carved. He did
a bit of bronze casting at the beginning of his career but gave it up.
|Ill. 6. Sitting on a bad Branch. Fackson Kulya. |
1989, lino cut, 3/5, 12.5 x 21 cm.
David made many naturalistic
compound scenes, taken from life as he knew it so well. He also made
paintings, often of large size. Market scenes, animals, events and situations of daily life, crowds were and are his favorite subjects.
|Ill. 7. The Father and a Child. David Chibwe. 1979, linocut, 15 x 10 cm. |
Post card. One of David’s favourite themes: folk life in the compound.
Patrick’s prints cover a broad
range of subjects; at times inspired by (biblical) stories, country life,
family life, daily events or imaginary figuration – but all of this diversity always in a
naturalistic presentation. He developed his own manner of colour printing, not an easy thing to do at all. Patrick also once in a while painted and
later on made sculptures in wood or metal.
Ill 8. Consolation. Patrick Mweemba.
1979, linocut, 15 x 15 cm.
By this time Patrick had found his own style in print making.
started out in 1975 doing graphics, lino’s especially, in which I tried to
grasp/develop something like an African idiom as inspired by my living circumstances. As of 1977 I was mostly busy with
the mural commissioned to me by the Zambia National Building Society for its
new headquarters then under construction at Cairo Road. I spent a lot of time
looking for ceramic raw materials and testing them. After drafting the approximately 3.5
m2 design I made little use of the Evelyn Hone Studio. A friend made his servant’s quarter
at Handsworth Court (UNZA) available for ceramic testing and experimenting. By
luck I had purchased a small kiln to try out clay bodies and glazes and all
sorts of materials. Tiles were made and boards on which clay had been rolled
out. About 70 m2 tiles were glaze fired at Moore’s Pottery. The
entire mosaic was laid out and prepared for mounting on site, at the first
floor of what was to becom Society House.
|Ill. 9. Pounding Women. Bert Witkamp. 1976, colour lino cut, 16.5 x 31.5 cm.|
One of my first attempts at lino cut and African figuration. Printed in 1979.
The relationship with the AFC and
its members following the initially somewhat awkward start improved rapidly and
especially Cynthia Zukas and Bente Lorenz have been very supportive of the LAG
artists, also when the LAG (by then ZAA) had ceased to exist.
I left Zambia in August 1980 after
completing the mosaic mural at Society House. The going had been tough towards the end.
Life in Lusaka following the onset of the raids by Ian Smith of Southern
Rhodesia in mid 1978 had become difficult and unsafe – there was a general breakdown in security, law and order. Violent crime was rife; this was the time when
Lusaka residents who could afford it walled themselves in. Imagine beautiful
Woodlands or Kabulonga neighbourhoods without wall fenced plots! Time to move
on – or move back, rather - to the Netherlands where I returned to an earlier, academic, interest: anthropology and especially anthropology of art.
In 1981 the Evelyn Hone College
claimed the class room back – it apparently had become a hangout for Zairian
artisans and a storage space for their merchandise. Yet in a sense the studio's mission had
been accomplished. By then my friends David, Patrick and Fackson had
received a fair share of recognition and had become accepted players in the
Zambian art scene. Making a living, however, was not easy for them.
Fackson returned to his rural
roots and eventually died around 2003. He was an original artist. I have tried
to keep his memory alive by several internet publications (see notes below) and by including his
work in exhibitions I helped organise.
|Ill 11. Beer drinker. Around 1980 (?), gouache on paper, 16 x 21.5 cm. |
Painting showing both Fackson's love of folklore and humour.
David was and is quite a versatile
artist who, if need be, picks up some Kwacha by sign writing. He also does art teaching. He recently made an attractive interior mural
for a Protea Hotel at Lusaka.
Ill 12. Street Vendors.
David Chibwe. 1992, Linocut 6/10, 15 x 21 cm.
David’s favourite theme: the
extraordinary lives of ordinary folk.
Patrick in his artistic career has been supported by his hardworking and talented wife, Esnart Hangoma, who had good positions at Zinthu crafts
shop (now defunct) and the Choma Museum and Crafts Centre. Patrick for some time
has been involved in Mpapa Art Gallery (now defunct), the Visual Arts Council
(VAC) and the Choma Museum and Crafts Centre (as an art instructor). He, like
David, to date is a productive artist with an impressive oeuvre behind him.
Their present recognition as individuals, however, arose out of their past cooperative efforts as members of the Lusaka Artists Group.
Ill 13. The Bus is full.
Patrick Mweemba. 1989, colour lino, 3/7, 19.5 x 42,5.
Complex design printed in
Finally, we can ask, in retrospect,
what lasting contribution did the LAG/LAA make to the Zambian art world after
1980? Firstly, I should say, the LAG has shown the power and effectiveness of
organisation of artists and in that sense is inspirational for temporary
artists. Secondly, art by its members are in private and public collections and
some of it is public monumental art. The group thus contributed substantially
to Zambia’s artistic heritage. This contribution, however, as that of Zambian
art in general, would be of much greater significance if Zambia had a
national modern arts museum /arts centre where collections are systemically built up, managed, preserved, documented and displayed. Thirdly, the group made a major contribution
to graphic art in Zambia. Since the eighties quite a new number of artists have
practiced various printing techniques and print making now is a regular feature
of the all over artistic output. Last, but not least, its members have
contributed to a tradition of art work that is accessible / makes sense to a
broad public by the choice of subject matter and the manner of presentation.
Scenes of daily life in town or in the village, family situations; imagery
inspired by folklore and fantasy – presented in a figurative manner that
provides the viewer with a way of relating to the art work without extensive (semi-)academic discourse or membership of an artistic
about Fackson Kulya in the Art in Zambia series:
No 1: Fackson
Kulya, Tribute to
Fackson Kulya, folk artist
Henry Tayali and Fackson Kulya: Academic and folk art in Zambia in the 1970's and 1980's.
Mwale’s article, and what it triggered off, is detailed in Art in Zambia no 2.
about Tayali in Art in Zambia series:
No 3: HENRY
TAYALI – a post scriptum
Henry Tayali and Fackson Kulya: Academic and Folk art in Zambia of the Seventies and Eighties