15 July, 2015


Text and internet publication by Bert Witkamp

Photographs by Bert Witkamp unless indicated otherwise in the caption.

First 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.

I 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 television.
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 “co-operation.”

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 cooperation stops.

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 qualifications.

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.
Ill. 2 Hunting Community. Patrick Mweemba, 1976, lino cut, 3/20, 20 x 20 cm.
One of the first lino cuts by Patrick Mweemba.
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 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.
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. 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 Longacres market.

Ill.5 The sculptor. Lino print by Fackson Kulya, around 1977. 
Fackson depicts 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 Court. 

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.  

Ill. 6. Sitting on a bad Branch. Fackson Kulya. 
1989, lino cut, 3/5, 12.5 x 21 cm.
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. 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.
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 8. Consolation. Patrick Mweemba. 1979, linocut, 15 x 15 cm.
By this time Patrick had found his own style in print making.
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. 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.
I 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.

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. 

Ill 11. Beer drinker. Around 1980 (?), gouache on paper, 16 x 21.5 cm.
Painting showing both Fackson's love of folklore and humour.
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 12. Street Vendors. David Chibwe. 1992, Linocut 6/10, 15 x 21 cm. 
David’s favourite theme: the extraordinary lives of ordinary folk.
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 13. The Bus is full. Patrick Mweemba. 1989, colour lino, 3/7, 19.5 x 42,5. 
Complex design printed in several stages.
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.

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 in-crowd. 

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You can read and see more about Art in Zambia by clicking the label Art in Zambia of the Art in Zambia blog, or by clicking on the publications tab of the Z-factor Art Site, or by going to the Art in Zambia facebook group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/1400618810168436/).

1    More about Fackson Kulya in the Art in Zambia series:
No 1: Fackson Kulya, Tribute to
No 2: Fackson Kulya, folk artist
No 4: Henry Tayali and Fackson Kulya: Academic and folk art in Zambia in the 1970's and 1980's.
2    Daniel Mwale’s article, and what it triggered off, is detailed in Art in Zambia no 2.
3    More about Tayali in Art in Zambia series:
No 3: HENRY TAYALI – a post scriptum
No 4: Henry Tayali and Fackson Kulya: Academic and Folk art in Zambia of the Seventies and Eighties