Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Scourge unmasked

Kondwani Kamiyala
26 September 2006 - 09:00:17

The sages who coined the adage that there is unity in diversity must have been thinking of Massa Lemu and Timwa Lipenga. This, you would find true after going through the exhibition the two are running at the Blantyre arts haven, the French Cultural Centre.

On the surface, you would think Lemu and Lipenga would have nothing in common because, for one, the former is a visual artist at heart while the latter is a writer in her own right. But going through the exhibition, titled The Scourge is Also a Mask, you would be deemed wrong. The common denominator in their artistic life is to make Malawi a better place to live in, in spite of their different forms of expression.

Running from last Friday to next Saturday, the exhibition is a rare journey to the very heart of the HIV and Aids scourge which has struck Malawi and other countries of the world. It is an exposé of Lemu’s trademark abstract paintings, with Lipenga’s lines and verses to help you digest the messages with better appetite.

“This is art at its best. The bringing together of poetry and painting to address social ills is a commendable effort. Lipenga’s poetry translates into simple terms what we see in Lemu’s abstract paintings,” said creative writer and Internet publisher Michael Phoya on the opening night.

Another patron, an art teacher who opted to remain behind a veiled mask, described the exhibition as a great endeavour.

“But the artist should have been a lot more creative and give us more elements of his imagination. He should have gone further than recreating that which was already created by God,” he said, pointing at one of the paintings, Face of the Scourge, which depicts two masked boys, with protruding bellies, a demolished hut in the background and vultures hovering above them.

However, like all patrons at the exhibition, the art teacher was entitled to his freedom of reflection and interpretation of the paintings, which came in oil, acrylics and mixed media. Nonetheless, he could not ignore the strata in the paintings, the fine strokes, the dots that are some kind of signature to Lemu’s paintings and the light and dark colours that aptly bask in the paintings.

Why would such a rare show of artistry be christened by such a morose title?

“HIV and Aids has connotations of mystery and mysticism just as is the case with our traditional masks. A lot is not known about the scourge because no one wants to talk about it. Talking about Aids has always ignited fear,” said Lipenga, a French Literature lecturer at the Chancellor College.

Lemu, an art lecturer at the same Chirunga Campus, believes his art went all the way to bring out the hidden things about this thorn in our side.

“People may derive a lot of different meanings from my paintings, which gives richness to art. I use a lot of figures and metaphors. For instance, the deeper layers in my paintings express the insatiable desires for sex some people may have. And these dots are beads which are heavily connected to sexuality in Malawi,” Lemu said.

Still, the art teacher had a bone to pick about Lemu’s beads: “If these are beads as he claims, why do they exist even in paintings that are depicting only male subjects? When did men start donning beads?”

Apart from Face of the Scourge, other works go directly to the figure of the mask. These include The Mask and Mask (Baule). Mask depicts a wooden mask, with dominant deep colours of blue, black and brown.

You could not understand what is going on, until you read Lipenga’s poem that goes with it:
The masked monster
Wears many faces
Morbid musings
Melt away face to face
With the mask’s innocence

The painting you would find most sonorous, even from a distance is Lost Dreams, which depicts tears dropping from an eye, and slipping through an open palm. These tears, in my view, may be those of an orphan, parent, spouse or even a friend of someone who has died of HIV and Aids. The poem going with the painting says it all: no man is an island in this fight.
These tears cannot be borne
By one alone
One hand cannot bear them
They need more hands
More arms
They need a rise up in arms.

Even in the face of this scourge, Lipenga’s poetry is not devoid of good humour. This is evident in Animal Desires, where she links some people’s promiscuity to one foolish rhinoceros:
Rhino set up his own pyre
And plunged into the fire

Several paintings go against some cultural practices that spread the virus further. These include the paintings Kuchotsa Fumbi (depicting a girl covering herself with a chitenje, and a smiling turbaned face of a man in the background), Fisi, which shows a newly-initiated girl lying down and a shadow of a man entering through the door and Chokolo, which depicts a downcast widow and a shadow of a man at the door.

Other paintings, like Leave the Girl Alone, bemoan the sexual abuse against little girls. Yet others, like Gina, which is a portrait of Gina Sindo, just expresses beauty in its natural form.

The exhibition also tackles the search for a cure for Aids. Figures of pills, which would denote the much-touted ARVs can be spotted in several paintings like She Was Taken and Isolate, while talk of chambe and mchape—purported herbal remedies to Aids—is resonant in the poem going with She Was Taken. The artists only raise questions than provide answers on the availability for a cure.

Also dominating the exposition are musical themes. These are evident in Musician, Banjo in the Sun, Drummer and She Strums a Lullaby. The words tune, strum, pluck, music and beat, which are musical terms, are also evident in the poetry. On the opening night, patrons were treated to live mellow tunes from the maestros Stonard Lungu and Wellington Chatepa through and through.

“Music brings hope in this scourge. While HIV and Aids comes with stigma, people must know that those who are found with the virus are people like everyone else, and must dance to the joys of life as well,” Lipenga said.

Lemu agreed: “People must be reminded of something else than the scourge. We must not only portray HIV and Aids in a negative way. Besides, HIV and Aids is a song that is playing on everyone’s lips at the moment.”

No matter what differences Lemu and Lipenga may have their coming together to add a voice against the HIV and Aids scourge only leaves you nodding.
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you can visit Massa Lemu’s website at:

1 comment:

Massa said...

This is the way to go.Some of us are riding on your back.
Read your poetry and stories."Babies are politicians", masterpiece! I will try some analysis on your work soon.