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“Ni Mzilo — It is taboo”

“Ni Mzilo — It is taboo”, the ongoing solo exhibition by Agness Buya Yombwe at the Livingstone National Art Gallery that investigates the subject of Taboos and superstitions, but really anything from environmental concerns to prostate cancer is no secret by now, having been opened alongside the launch of a book also authored by the artist.

Both the exhibition and the book might be read as an inquiry and call to conversation on the curious paradox at the heart of tradition and a fast changing world. They also question certain matters of faith alongside social customs of Yombwe’s Tumbuka/Mfungwe heritage, catalogue beliefs from various cultures across the African continent and beyond.

According to the artist, she generously extracted the “Taboos” from personal experiences, family, friends, and the community, local and international; during the research for this accumulative body of work.

She uses a myriad of materials including garbage to create several installations, sculptures, collages, paintings, photographs, as well as ready-mades such as a toilet bowl. Using this overload of vehicles, to simply call her an artist implies how inadequately the description alludes to such a variety of subject and style. She is an environmental, cultural, moral, educational, gender and sexuality activist among many other aspects advocacy.

The exhibition is divided in three parts, following the sections of the building. As you enter the foyer, you are welcomed by heaps of garbage, neatly aligned around a makeshift pillar and along the large window. The garbage includes everything from diapers, rusty barbeque stands, empty charcoal sacks, and those woven cages from which village chickens are sold at the marketplace. These last two items may usually be found discarded at marketplace dumpsites, but what is interesting, or perhaps annoying about them—and this is what Yombwe brings to our attention— is that they are constructed of bark fibre, which can easily be soaked, softened, and recycled. But, this is not happening, whenever the contents are sold, the creators simply go back to the forest to mutilate more trees.

Walking through the next section, in front of the offices, are a series of white plinths and neatly placed upon them are postcards that are copies of some of the larger paintings, a couple of gourd installations, t-shirts and a few linocut prints. As you exit, a large poster welcomes you into the main gallery; with an artist’s statement, short biography, and curator’s note. Beyond this point, the show begins.

Entering this section, what captures the eye is the empty chicken cages charmingly hanging from the ceiling, the immediate distraction comes from the left. There are two pencil portraits, one of Yombwe’s mother, and one of her father. On the first one, written in the artist’s hand are the words: “this is a portrait of my mother, who told me it was taboo (Ni Mzilo) after seeing the drawing that I did of my father when I was in grade 8”. Yombwe also recounts that upon asking her mother about this comment years later, her response was that she had never seen anything like it before.

Beyond this point the artworks are divided under several themes namely “Hygiene”, “Respect and discipline”, “Night superstitions”, “Superstitions and practices during pregnancy and lactation”, “Death and funerals”. In fact the use of text is the golden thread that runs through the display and weaves it together like a tapestry.

In the far corner is a large painting that tackles child abuse. Aligning the large window that covers the east wall is an installation that features an actual clothing line with 10 panties hanging on it, accompanied by the words “It is taboo to hang underwear outside”. In the far right corner are brooms hanging from the ceiling, alongside them, an open umbrella, which is more of a European taboo. According to Western belief’s it is bad luck to open umbrellas indoors. This particular piece is interesting in that it challenges the perception of Africans being backward and superstitious, exposing the fact that even Europeans who deem themselves as culturally superior have daft beliefs. Putting the open umbrella in conversation with the brooms which symbolize a common local superstition that a home must not be swept at night, lends itself to the postcolonial discourses that speak to the Western “self” and the African “other”.

The southern wall includes work addressing relationships and marriage, featuring an ordained catholic priest getting married. One of the paintings discusses how Yombwe suggets that it is not common for Africans to write their final will and testimony, arguing that it is considered a taboo. On the same wall is a piece entitled Taboo – Elsewhere (lesbian) that depicts the silhouettes of two women kissing. Painted in between the lovers are the words: “in our country it is a taboo”. Yombwe is obviously calling a conversation around same sex relations, which again is important in a country where it is illegal. Remember this a country where a multitude of social media users went up in arms just because an effeminate man wearing a dress exposes his thigh (singular) on Reality TV influenced the Minister of Religious Affairs to call for the banning of the show. But then again, perhaps there is not much to do in a slumbering ministry with unconvincing responsibilities.

Anyway, another imposing painting from this wall is entitled Imbulo-numusana Randy Man which tackles a taboo/superstition that claims that a promiscuous man can cause a miscarriage for his pregnant wife. The painting depicts a silhouette of a proud looking man with hands in his pockets who seems to be on the prowl for women. He is surrounded by about a dozen traditional mortars which represent the feminine, as in the mortar is yonic and the pestle is phallic.

Chiskoto II is another interesting piece, it depicts the figure of a woman in a coffin with the text: “When a woman dies without having had a child, the middle part of a maize cob is inserted in her private parts to prevent her spirit from coming back to kill other children…”. This is just one of many works on this belief. There are also too many significant works worth a mention, but space will not allow. Notwithstanding the installation inspired by the Mbusa matrimonial ritual which features a male and female figure and a circular composition is captivating.

In the exhibitions invitation to conversations around taboo, it brings to mind—of course not the artist’s intention—questions on why in Zambia’s present political dispensation it is a taboo for the country’s citizenry, more so journalists, to be critical about government, even when they notice that something may not be alright.

As much as the show has all these strong points, it is not without flaws. At certain points, it feels congested, there is too much to take in and some of the works need more breathing space, and could have spoken or have been enjoyed more with a bit more space. This may however not be a bad thing; it might be an indicator that the show needs a bigger space or may have to be divided. The exhibition is clearly aching for a bigger space such as the Lusaka National Museum or being broken into smaller exhibitions that can run by theme.

The book, although not exactly a catalogue, has over 60 images printed in full colour and while there are far more artworks on display in the exhibition, most of the major works appear in the book. That should give you the scope of how much work is in the show. The books text itself is entertaining and makes for light reading; it more or less has a coffee table feel to it. The text is also mostly a listing of the various taboos that Yombwe has collected over the years. Nevertheless, perhaps most importantly to own the book is also to own a collection of the artist’s work and it is well worth every ngwee of the K500 (Five Hundred Kwacha) asking price. Copies are available at the Livingston National Gallery, and the Lechwe Trust Gallery in Lusaka. The book comes four years after Yombwe’s first one Kudumbisiana (Dialogue). Another important thing about these publications from an art historical point of view is that they provide the much-needed documentation that is seriously lacking on the Zambian art scene. One can only wish that other artists can take a leaf.

“Ni Mzilo – It is taboo” is a definitely a must see. If you are in Livingston and have not yet been, get to the gallery before June 5 when the show is pulled down. If you are not in Livingston, get a copy of the book or alternatively hope that exhibition the will come to a location near you.

Yombwe has exhibited in Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, Norway, United Kingdom, United States of America, Germany, and Indonesia and “Ni Mzilo — It is taboo” is her 6th solo exhibition. She is a founder member of the Visual Arts Council of Zambia and currently on the board of the National Arts Council. She lives and works at WayiWayi Art Studio and Gallery with her artist husband Lawrence Yombwe in Livingstone.

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