Thursday, March 12, 2015

Visual Arts: Malawi’s Open Page

An opaque reflection. A perceptive mind. Peter Chikondi, visual artist and Chairperson for the Southern Region chapter of the Visual Arts Association of Malawi (Vaam), has never needed a thousand things to motivate him to enter the realm of fantasy that enables him to come up with Batik.
Batik is a type of art work created out of candle wax and fabric dye on a white piece of cloth that is 100 percent cotton. Originally from Indonesia, Batik has become so popular in countries such as Kenya, Zimbabwe, Malawi, among others.
However, Chikondi is a master of not only Batik, but also other fine art works art craft. His imagination wonders far and wide.

Blank page
“Visual arts are like a blank page on which artists create or paint their choice visual images. A fine artist, for example, may choose to play around with landscapes such as mountains and village settings or waterscapes such as Lake Malawi or Shire River. So infinite are the choices that a visual artist is spoilt for choice,” says Chikondi.
Chikondi says, due to the overabundance of thematic possibilities in fine art and crafts, it is a tall order to create a thematic identity for visual art works originating from Malawi. In other words, the industry is still in the blank page stage where choice of the artist furnishes the theme.
Sometimes, says Chikondi, love can be the theme. Sometimes, vengeance plays out as the theme. At, yet, at other times, the theme could revolve around natural scenery, village life, life on Lake Malawi, the beauty of the giant baobab tree, death, or religious figureheads. The artist, and not Malawi, determines the theme.
However, the Southern Region chapter chairperson, who on Wednesday started offering Batik skills to inmates at Chichiri Prison in Blantyre, says, with time, it would be possible to create a theme the outside world would identify with Malawi.
“But, somehow, this will be like drawing boundaries on creativity. There is nothing wrong with the current setup, especially when one considers that the majority of fine artists and crafts people are self-employed,” says Chikondi.
He says local artists can explore opportunities that exist in spirituality by playing around with religious figure heads such as Mbona in Malawi, the figures behind the world’s major religions, or scriptural themes.
If local artists were to experiment with religious themes, it would not be the first time. The Jews and Greeks have done it for ages. Indeed, realising that the burden of the Hebrew Scriptures was man’s obedience or disobedience to covenant, as furnished through the Torah, artists who specialised in art that bordered on religion made sin one of their major themes.
According to the book, Understanding Death and Dying, the Jewish and Greek artists capitalised on sin as the problem (theme), and death came in only as a subordinate theme. In contrast, righteousness and disobedience (sin) was a subordinate theme in Greek Religion. Otherwise, the central theme of Greek artists’ religious thought and practice was the problem of death.
Thus, according to the book, sin was determinative for the Hebrew consciousness; death for the Greek consciousness.
Chikondi, who looks after 40 paid-up members out of the 70 professional visual artists in the region, says this can be explored in Malawi, which wears the tag of a “God-fearing nation”.
But, in the absence of a dominating theme, the country’s visual arts industry remains a blank, open page on which artists portray their imagination. 
So blank and open is Malawi’s visual arts page that Vaam National Executive Committee Secretary, Gilbert Mpakule, has used it to create a unique niche for himself.
“First of all, let me say that the lack of a dominating theme does not mean Malawians artists do not understand the type of art they are dealing with. Ours is contemporary art,” says Mpakule.
Mpakule adds that theme-generation depends on trending events.
“For example, last month, we undertook this initiative called ‘Catalogue of Malawian Artists’, and we gave the artists the opportunity to come up with whatever idea tickled their imagination. Therefore, theme development hinges on what is happening at any given time and the artist’s discretion,” says Mpakule.  
Mpakule is well-known for his paintings on Gender-based Violence, wildlife, landscapes, mask dance (Gulewamkulu), and is fast becoming a master of depicting Malawian myths.

Niche consolidation
George Mkumbula, Vaam Chairperson for the Central Region, says the absence of one definitive theme for Malawi offers artists the opportunity to create their own identity.
Mkumbula, well-known for his work ‘Wonderful Dawn’, adds that the country’s unexploited culture and relatively uncorrupted natural environment offer fertile ground for prosperity.
“As an artist, I have created a lot of works from these ‘raw materials’ and our rich history. Other artists depict the Akafula in their works and eke out a living,” says Mkumbula.
And while Malawians are far from the stage where millions are paid in cash to own a piece of art, some lucky artists have started smiling all the way to the bank.
Need evidence? Chikondi is an artist-cum-witness.
“I recently witnessed an art admirer buying a work of art from a local visual artist at K1.5 million in Machinjiri Township, Blantyre. I have also witnessed people buying one piece of art at K500, 000, though these chances are hard to come by,” says Chikondi.

Mine fields
At the entry to Vaam secretariat in Blantyre lays a giant portrait of former South Africa president and anti-apartheid icon, Nelson Madiba Mandela.
The irony is that nowhere on the walls of the office does one find a portrait of local icons such as John Chilembwe, Masauko Chipembere, Michael Sauka, Atati Mpakati, Orton Chirwa, Ngwazi Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, Dr. Bakili Muluzi, Dr. Joyce Banda, Prof. Bingu wa Mutharika, Prof. Peter Mutharika, among others. Why?
“Well, you know politics. They say it’s a dirty game, not so?” Mkumbula does not offer an immediate response to the question. Instead, he ‘responds’ to the question by throwing his own question.
That is how touchy the issue of political portraits is to a Malawian visual artist.
“The truth is that the Malawian visual artist does not want to portray him or herself as a player in the political game. It’s a sensitive area; politics. If you draw the painting of one local politician, people will say you are affiliated to that individual, or you support their political party. They forget that art is freedom; they don’t appreciate that that artist and you, the individual, are two different human beings,” says Mkumbula, adding;
“So, the tendency has been to opt for paintings of global figures such as Mandela because people will identify with him, and you can sell the work of art to a diversified market.”
That may explain why some artists are more preoccupied with depicting baobab trees, people carrying winnowing baskets, fishing nets, hoes, wildlife, workers picking tea in Thyolo and Mulanje estates than national icons.
His Southern Region counterpart, Chikondi, suggests another reason why politics has become a mine field in the visual arts industry.
“Malawians are not interested in their own political folk. Again, if an artist came up with a painting of one of the famous leaders in the one part regime, others may not be happy with the idea because that period may induce painful memories in them,” observes Chikondi.
He adds: “Additionally, art works depicting Malawian heroes may not sell in, say, South Africa, Kenya or the USA because not many people identify with them. The paintings that fetch more money in Africa are those of Mandela and, maybe, Jomo Kenyatta. But even Kenyan artists have struggled to sell the portraits of Kenyatta because he has lesser appeal than Mandela.”
But sometimes, he suggests, the true motivational factor for depicting such icons in works of art is lost in time: It’s either the artist is too young to have a clear picture of the national hero or the story of the hero has been told and retold a thousand times and there is nothing new- in the form of a painting or portrait- to add to the told and retold story.
In which case, visual arts stand pure, unsoiled by bitter experiences of politics.

The bull’s horns
Politics aside, the Malawian visual artist is faced by a horde of challenges.
“To begin with, it is difficult to find markets for our art works in Malawi. Malawians seem to have the mentality that our products are meant for Azungu (the white folk),” says Mpakule.
But the other challenge is man-made and created by policy-makers, he points out.
“Take, for instance, our secondary school curriculum. It took the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology ages to come up with a curriculum that incorporated Creative Art. Now we have Creative Art at secondary school level but there is lack of seriousness. Just imagine, we have a lot of secondary schools in Blantyre but only students at Chichiri Secondary School have expressed interest in the subject,” bemoans Mpakule.
George Mkumbula,   Chairperson for Vaam Central Region chapter, cannot agree more.
“It is true that not many students have opted for that subject even in the Central Region. The problem is that the government has not employed professional artists to teach the students. As things stand, it is difficult for students to understand and pass the subject with flying colours. The government should employ professional artists,” says Mkumbula.
Mkumbula adds that other challenges include lack of proper markets, citing the lack of public galleries established by the government.
“Just imagine, we have only one private art gallery in Lilongwe. The government is losing a lot through lost returns and foreign currency. If the government had constructed art galleries for us, we would be paying market rates and taxes and the money would go into its coffers.
“In addition, the government would have supplemented its foreign currency reserves because we mostly sell our products to foreign tourists, most of whom are art collectors. The art collectors resell the products in their countries of origin and pay taxes to their governments. So, while our government gets nothing, they contribute something to their governments,” says Mkumbula.

Executive touch
On its part, the government says it is aware of the opportunities and challenges that exist in the industry.
Director for the Department of Culture in the Ministry of Information, Tourism, Culture, Dr. Elizabeth Gomani Chindevu, says, realising the key role of the arts  in the country, the government established the Department of Culture as well as that of Arts and Crafts.
“We are aware of both the challenges and potential of visual artists to contribute towards national development endeavours. Actually, we have plans to construct cultural infrastructure across the country. The challenge has always been finances,” says Chindebvu.
Chindebvu pins her hopes on the newly-Cabinet-adopted Cultural Policy, saying it will open a can of opportunities.
“Following the Adoption of the Cultural Policy, it will become easier for us to source funds because development partners want something that is typed in black and white, and this is the purpose that the Cultural Policy will serve,” adds Chindebvu.
The hope, so it seems, is that these efforts will facilitate the depiction of human conditions implied in all works artistic.

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