Friday, December 14, 2007

Is Malawi art going anywhere?

A common sight at the marketplace: people engulf an artist who craftily reads messages on pieces of coloured paper, which are also painted with flowers of all colours and shapes.

The messages range from prayers, affection, daring enemies and so much more. Banja ndi anthu awiri, zikatha umphawi m'bwanga, mfiti idzafanso, the messages go on and on.

One by one, the pieces of paper vanish, as buyers pick their choice. These works would find their places inthe livingrooms of homes, in restaurants and grocery shops.

The urge by Malawians to acquire works of art, in whatever crude form it may be, goes without saying. It is entincing to have paintings of a village scene, or some wildlife simewhere in the home. Some even tear paintings from calendars to decorate their homes.

History notes that some of Malawi's earliest settlers, the Akafula, painted on rocks and some of their paintings can still be seen on some nationally protected rocks.

Walk into Malawian homes, you find paintings or other works of art depicting numerous Malawian life scenes. Hotels, offices, airport lounges, walls are decorated with works of art. It is not uncommon to see that famous Imfa siithawika painting on walls of homes, restaurants and resthouses.

From the painters in the village and rural areas, to professional artists like Massa Lemu, watercolourist Brian Hara, Panji Tembo, Samson Kambalu and his abstract painter brother Elson, Elis Singano, Peter Chikondi and Innocent Wilinga, who is a pioneer in Malawi murals after he painted one at Mandala, a certain part of Malawian life is shaped by paintings and works of art.
At times, you find paintings depicting complicated and distorted human and animal figures in dull or bright colours. This kind of art requires you to wrack your brains to decipher the meaning.
Mostly, though, you find simple village scenes, or wildlife, the mountains and the lake. Artists depict the very vein of Malawian life throughout their works. They address a whole range of Malawian issues: women pounding in mortars, men fishing and weaving baskets, men and women drinking and dancing in some traditional enclosure and zbras grazing in a tranquil field.
That, as Hara, who is also a cartoonist, would have it, is the kind of art most Malawians go for.
"There can be two sides to Malawian art. There is abstract art, which has more to do with colours and shapes and then there is presentational art, which has more to do with landscape, portraits and wildlife. Malawians have a particular niche for presentational paintings, since they identify themselves with the scenes that are depicted. They say: I have ever seen this landscape or village scene," said Hara.
For Lemu, who is doing postgraduate studies in the USA, the usage of the same form (structure of the artwork) and content (subject matter) over and over again is the very demise of Malawian art.
"Look at form in the art by Malawian artists in the past 20 years, there is nothing ground-breaking. It's all traditional painting on soapstones and canvasses. The content and subject matter is outdated. How many people living in Blantyre have ever seen a lion?" wondered Lemu.
According to him, Malawian artists have not explored other areas, like Aids.
"We are fighting Aids but I haven't noticed a significant response from the Malawi visual arts yet. We haven't tackled history: how many artists have done works on Kamuzu, Chilembwe or the Phalombe Disaster? A few years ago, together with some Malawian artists, I participated in an international arts event in Zambia. We were traditional and offered nothing while our friends from other Sadc countries were fresh and more expressive with new ideas," Lemu said.
Apart from artists not exploring other areas, some artists believe Malawians are not growing to appreciate Malawian art as a gem, which has led to the dwindling of art in the country.
"Malawians do not appreciate art. You can see that today art is no longer on the syllabus in primary schools. Art classes instilled in us a sense of greativity. There is no motivation for art and there is so much wasted talent out there," said Hara.
Besides, Hara observed that in the past there used to be talk of a public arts gallery but todate, nothing has been done.
"In 1984, there was talk about setting up an arts gallery. But todate, there is nothing. We wait for foreigners like the French Cultural Centre to host our exhibitions and expose Malawians more to works of Malawian art," he said.
Lemu agrees: "There is need to bridge the gap between Malawians and their artists. It's only in Malawi where people still believe they don't need education for art. Everywhere it's different."
Apparently, it is a chicken-egg question. Which should come first: artists producing the best works of art, or Malawians buying more artworks? Maybe the aspect that must also be looked into is that of the market.
Artists sell their works on the streets or at exhibitions, others sell in the private galleries while some take their works abroad to countries like South Africa. The price depends on the market. Cheaper works of art are found on the streets (if you are a Malawian, you will get the painting at a cheaper price than tourists), while those at exhibitions and galleries fetch higher prices.
Dyles Malimbasa is an artist who sells his batiks at the arts market next to the MSB Bank in downtown Blantyre. He also sells at galleries and has, at times, taken his art to the South African market.
"In the past, we used to sell at the Malawi Arts and Crafts gallery, which was run by the government. I have sold my works at exhibitions run by the Wildlife Society and I have taken my works to South Africa three or four times. I also sell through the galleries, where works are sold at a better rate. I peg my batik at a price, and the gallery adds 20 per cent of the money I want from a piece. The gallery gets the 20 per cent," said Malimbasa.
As a matter of fact, Malimbasa attested, he spends more time on batiks he sells through the galleries.
"Galleries like La Caverna and African Heritage offer better prices. That is why I spend more time onw works that will be sold in the galleries. This is our best option since we have no public galleries. In other countries, laws stipulate that hotels and other offices in the country should only buy works by artists in that country. It does not make sense for a tourist to come to Malawi only to find paintings by artists from their home countries on the walls of the hotels," Malimbasa said.
He added: "One look at a work of art shows the identity of the people."
The general feeling, most of the times, is that works of art are expensive for the average Malawian. That is why the galleries sell more works since they cater mostly for tourist and expatriate market.
La Caverna and La Galleria manager Lois Losacco said Malawi has a lot of fine artists but as is the case in many countries, people tend not to appreciate their own things. She said it was not right to say that works of art in the galleries were expensive.
"We have been operating since 1994 and every year we see a growing interest in works by Malawian artists. It goes without saying that every good quality work has significant value. We make sure that we have something for everyone, that is why we have original pieces, with prices from K200 going up," Losacco said.
According to her, the idea behind the gallery, which has works of more than 200 Malawian artists, is not just to sell artworks but also to inspire young and upcoming artists seeking to have a feel of what other artists are doing.
"We have works of artists who have unique styles and original ideas. We exhibit Malawi's best artists, but this is also an avenue where young artists can see great works by other artists who have settled down in the field," said Losacco.
Artists, however, think otherwise.
"When people say art is expensive, they don't know how art is produced. The materials we use are just expensive. A small brush would cost over K1,000. Tubes of paint are even more expensive and we also have to put in so much time. At the end of the day, we also must have some profit," Hara said.
Malimbasa concurred: "In my case, dye is very expensive, we get it from South Africa. The 100 per cent cotton I use is also expensive. The only cheap material I use is candle wax."
But Lemu believes artists can learn new tricks, like using garbage.
"Our friends have advanced and now they are employing digital media, sound, construction junk. They also use garbage, materials that are available in Malawi even more than paints and brushes," Lemu said.
Involving government to intervene in the arts in whatever way is a matter that arouses Lemu's suspicions.
"I want to die a free artist. When government starts to intervene in the arts, financially or otherwise, they start to dictate terms and it becomes propaganda and you are sidelined if you don't dance to their tune. The question of national galleries would fail in Malawi in the same way the idea of national monuments like the Independence Arch failed the mind of the average Malawian," Lemu said, adding that he is proud of his clientelle, which appreciates his style.
"I dont target the tourist market because I don't want to be a prostitute artist," Lemu said.


Bennett Kankuzi said...

Hahaha, I like "Zikatha umphawi m'bwanga". Malawians, we have a lot but perhaps we need to do more to penetrate the international market.

Kondwani, let us more posts coming in your blog as we raise the Malawian flag higher in the blogosphere!

Greet Brams!

Take care,


Massa said...

Great. you are doing a good job for the visual arts. There are two art teachers who have graduated from CHANCO who are now teaching at Kamuzu academy. next time you write they might offer different perspectives