Internet publication by Bert Witkamp.
Text first published: 15 August 2015
Current update: 22 September 2015
Art in 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 is a thing
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.
Art is an image
The 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
Art, no 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.
Art 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.
Technologies 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.
Art 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
ART and art
In the 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.
I subscribe 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.
The deterioration 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 few years.
African art students attending Western Art Academies or fine art departments of universities similarly may be poorly equipped with material skills and understanding.
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|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.
The 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 competence.
Several of 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.
Ellison, to 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.
The 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.
The Zambian 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 arts.
|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 material-technical competence
Above I 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.
To improve 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.
This text cannot take the place of a proper technical manual. But below is some advice that may help to improve matters in a simple way.
There are 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.
Get top grade materials
Worldwide 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 Lusaka.
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 similar materials.
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.
Thinners. Use 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 apply.
3 See Witkamp, G., 2015, in bibliography.
About the author
The author 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 Publishers Ltd.
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.
1988 Seeing 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