Every semester, the Zambian Open University’s Bachelor of Arts in Fine Art residential programme and examination periods include several field trips that involve visits to museums, art galleries, private collections, public discussions as well as theatre and film production houses within Lusaka.
Among the many tours this semester was a visit by a combined group of over thirty 2nd, 3rd and 4th year students from across the country to Zambian abstract maestro Vincentio Phiri’s solo exhibition entitled “Omission” that ran at the Zambia Ultra Gallery at Garden City Mall on Great East Road in Lusaka from 14th to 30th April.
After the tour, the students were instructed to write short reviews regarding any aspect of the exhibition, be it the atmosphere, the gallery, the artist’s technique or individual works of art. The purpose of the task as an academic assignment is to advance the students’ writing skills chiefly in arts journalism and art criticism. Besides studio practice and the writing of scholarly essays, in their “Visual Culture and Contemporary Art Practice” courses, they are tutored on how arts journalism covers trends, institutions, art as business, a social force, government hot potato etc., and how art criticism, is about aesthetics—the branch of philosophy that deals with questions of beauty and artistic taste.
This week’s “Mulling over art” borrows some excerpts from the undergraduates’ reviews beginning with three 2nd year students, Musonda Chishala and Natasha Mumba of Lusaka followed by Dumisani Moyo of Livingstone.
The first student, Chishala wrote, “Upon entry into the gallery one may be taken aback as to what the concept was meant to be when it came to the display of the pieces, and the entire atmosphere in general. The pieces were arranged in a scattered manner leaving the centre of the gallery quite bare, this caused a slight disconnection in the space”, she further observed that, “The gallery is an interesting space with a slight traditional and rough feel to it, with crates and reed mats as the background for a number of pieces, the place had a rural feel to it… Due to the nature of the gallery, there was a sort of clash with the pieces because of the modern feel of the work. Vincentio’s work was as substantial as always.”
The second student, Mumba, stated: “The title of the exhibition ‘Omission’ was in my view quite perplexing as the artist’s paintings were characterized with lots of colour, lines, texture, form, movement and a lot going on in their abstract sense. With this, one would wonder where the ‘Omission’ is; maybe this could mean omission of representational figures.”
Moyo, the third student had observations that were more disapproving, his comments however, were reserved for the general appearance of the exhibition space. According to Moyo, “the gallery space was not prepared with artistic preference; the traditional elements put to give the display of artworks their ‘Zambian sense’ was not achieved, brooms that were hanging underneath the roof did not bring to life the aesthetic value of the place.”
Some 3rd year students seemed more interested in the technical aspects of the artist’s work; Amusa Nalikena, who is based in Sikongo for instance, observes that Phiri’s palette consists mostly of primary colours and that: “he paints on canvas with the aid of a palette knife and a brush. Due to his passion for nature, Vincentio depicts colour and form as elements in an aesthetically pleasing way providing him with the means to develop his own unique artistic voice that not only speaks to himself, but to everyone.”
Nalikena’s, fellow 3rd year student, Luyando Kachinda from Kabwe observed that Phiri smears his paints “to form circular shapes as one of the elements of art, these criss-cross each other to form a rough texture. A combination of cool colours that form an iconography and magnificent view that attracts the viewer. He is such an inspiration to the upcoming artists through his vast experience…” Another 3rd year student, Josephine Nachela of Chilubi Island suggested, “I would say the exhibition explored the emotional power of colour, shape, texture and form.”
Correspondingly, while 4th year student Imasiku Aongola was impressed with Phiri’s technique, he did not seem moved by the display, arguing that it “seemed a bit dull, mainly due to the white painted room (space), reed mats and wooden pallets which somewhat consumed the aesthetic of the paintings.”
Nevertheless, sifting through these students’ reviews is encouraging in that there does seem to be a future for the next generation of art writers, art critics, art journalists and art historians if the students take their assignments seriously and continue to show keen interest.
For this particular assignment, the students were encouraged to imagine they were writing for general readership in a newspaper or magazine, in which case the most important aspect of criticism is to shape public awareness and opinion on art. They were also reminded that as critics on the Zambian art scene, they should be mindful that they might be writing for an unenthusiastic audience that is barely concerned with art and as art writers, they should see their role as educating, not just informing. They were encouraged to write in ways that will engage both casual and curious readers and yet not insult the well-versed art enthusiast.
Meanwhile, Lawrence Chikwa’s solo exhibition entitled “expression: content and context” opens tomorrow (18:00hrs) Wednesday 29th May at the Henry Tayali Gallery in the Lusaka Showgrounds.