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Tuning In: Other Ways of Seeing (Part 1)

The 2019 exhibition “Tuning In: Other Ways of Seeing” curated by the Livingstone Office for Contemporary Arts (LoCA) and Julia Taonga Kuseka at the Livingstone National Art Gallery which opened in August and ran until December was arguably the most extraordinary contemporary Zambian art show of the year.

Based in Livingstone LoCA is a new artists’ initiative, non-profit library and research centre spearheaded by Norway-based artist Anawana Haloba, a PhD student at the University of Bergen, Faculty of Fine Art, Music and Design whose work was also on display in the exhibition. The other featured artists were Dona Kukama from South Africa, Milumbe Haimbe based in Canada and Victor Mutelekasha based in Norway as well as Bitter-Sweet Chibuku, Wonder Sakala, Agness Buya Yombwe, David Chirwa, Mapopa Manda and the late Stephen Kapatta.

Everything about the exhibition had the trimmings of a blockbuster. Not only did the show bring out some celebrated names and important voices with regards the development of contemporary Zambian art, particularly within the category of “conceptual art”, ­ it brought out some artists that had fallen off the local radar for quite some time. As such, it was good to see these artists, still active and producing impressive work.

The quality of the works and resourcefulness of the presentation can be described as world-class by any standard, befitting of some of the artists who have lived and worked in the diaspora for the greater part of their careers and have exhibited worldwide.

As part of an ongoing LoCA project that also encompasses the building up of “a curriculum for an alternative informal school of thought centred upon participatory and exchange modes of learning/teaching through artist talks, workshops, reading groups and screenings” the exhibition was deeply immersed in theoretical rigor.

As much as this is important from a discursive standpoint, it brings to mind questions that probe thoughts such as; when contemporary art exhibitions and their accompanying theoretical frameworks, texts and language become idealistically demanding or just way too hard for the lay viewer and enthusiast to absorb, does this not become problematic?

Problematic in the sense that steeping art and its production too deep into mind-numbing academic discourses makes it sound pretentious and inaccessible to particular audiences, more so audiences such as those on the Zambian art scene that are still being cultivated to appreciate art in the first place.

We are talking about audiences within the Zambian context whom regardless of rank in the art consuming society, be it the casual, curious or the well-versed art enthusiast, art is often measured by how attractive it appears or how well it figuratively replicates life. In other words, art is rarely measured by how well it can convey a complex theoretical or socio-political concept. It is no surprise therefore, that figurative painting, drawing and sculpture that might be deemed aesthetically pleasing and is not accompanied by complex texts with stilted language are held in exalted positions.

Here is another example, if for instance the Online editors of this newspaper (The Mast) need constant reminders to upload this very column onto The Mast Online after it is published in print, that should tell you something about the levels of art appreciation or how important (or not) many Zambians think art is. Even in the media, art vis-à-vis the visual arts remain on the lowest rung as compared to politics, sports, health, education etc.

Against such a backdrop, does one not risk losing even the small audiences they may have garnered? Does it therefore not create a paradox if you want to go and immerse art production and presentation in deep theory and yet claim you intend to cultivate new audiences and break down certain epistemic barriers. There is a risk here of creating new barriers, let us not forget that the Zambian art scene has very limited academic institutions and as such there are very few academically trained artists beyond teachers of art in primary and secondary schools.

That said, according to the exhibition write up on an A-4 sized paper that was placed at the entrance of the exhibition space:

“Tuning-In: Other Ways of Seeing, seeks to deconstruct the paradigms that have driven the reading/seeing/presentation/representation of the arts in our local art scene. The project explores the relationship between art production, theme, material and exhibition making of the finished product. While illustrative as it may sound, but in a space where there is enormous intellectual and infrastructural deficit the need to employ a process of unlearning-relearning of our society, the knowledge and methods that exist now is the only way out.”

Apart from Frantz Fanon, the text goes on to name-drop celebrity scholars such as Molefi Kete Asante and Walter Mignolo which is well and good, but the project risks falling into the bandwagonism of trendy scholarship, latching on to what theories are fashionable at the moment, as if using a kind of “what’s hot and what’s not” barometer if you like. Imaginably, this is perhaps to make it relevant to certain academic discourses such as ‘Decoloniality’, ‘Geopolitics’ and perhaps ‘Epistemology’ in this case, which again is not entirely a bad thing.

At the moment, scholarship around Africans writing for Africans, or Africans telling their own stories is all the rage. Within the arts, the argument is that African art history has been written by scholars based in Euro-America and it is high time that scholars based on the African continent assume their positions, add their voices and theoretically rewrite history or at least provide counter narratives.

The exhibition text continues in part by stating: “Tuning-In: Other Ways of Seeing” proposes a Decolonial thinking methodology in reversing the current norm, through a process of unlearning and relearning. To critique the colonised knowledge through discursive platforms and to create exhibitions that deal with geopolitics, history and social issues that reflect on the status of local politics, whether impoverished or thriving,”

Reading the above, and that is specifically for those that might be in the art academic loop vis-à-vis the arts of Africa, one is reminded here of an article by Professor Ruth Simbao of Rhodes University as published in an edition of African Arts (VOL. 50, NO. 2 SUMMER 2017) – the leading academic journal on art from the African continent not too long ago.

In the editorial comment of the publication that goes under the title “First Word”, Prof Simbao writes: “In this First Word and in the dialogue “Reaching Sideways, Writing Our Ways,” I reflect on the current status of the scholarly fi­eld of the visual and performing arts of Africa at this particular time of revived calls on the African continent for the decolonization of knowledge… Refusing both a universalist defence of post-place constructions of knowledge and a continentalist defence of reductionistic notions of knowledge, I contemplate how Africa is situated in our discourse.”

In the text Simbao is in conversation with various players across the African continent who are involved in knowledge production in the scholarly field of the visual arts in one-way or another. Her conversation includes academics such as William B. Miko (Zambian Open University), Eyitayo Tolulope Ijisakin (Obafemi Awolowo University, Nigeria) and Amanda Tumusiime (Makerere University, Uganda) among several others.

Nevertheless, the reason for citing Simbao’s text in alignment to LoCA’s “Tuning-In: Other Ways of Seeing” text in what is supposed to be an article in a general readership newspaper and not an academic journal is merely to indicate that the Livingstone project is not in a vacuum but may be argued to be part of a bigger art discourse that speaks to knowledge production, geopolitics and so on. “Tuning-In: Other Ways of Seeing” can be argued to speak to similar intellectual forces as those of Prof Simbao’s, it appears to draw from a common scholarly core.

In conclusion, if the purpose of “Tuning-In: Other Ways of Seeing” is to promote other ways of learning and knowledge production among other things, would it not have been wise to accompany the project with a published catalogue? More so seeing the project organisers have already taken note of the intellectual deficiencies on the Zambian art scene they are well aware of the much-needed literature. Very little has been written about art in Zambia or Zambian artists and now is the time to start filling this gap. It is still not too late to collate all the write ups and images from “Tuning-In: Other Ways of Seeing” and put them in a series of publications, perhaps vol. 1 and vol. 2 since the project is ongoing.

Likewise, for the local scene, LoCA should think beyond any inclination to a digital archive and online database for such projects because we are living in a country that only has electricity for 6 hours a day in most areas, slow and expensive internet access is also another story. What Zambian artists really need is reasonably priced books and lots of them.

If the “Tuning-In: Other Ways of Seeing” is the consequence of a bigger project by curators, art historians, art critics, academics and artists with thoughts around an ‘alternative school’ that seeks to build awareness of “critical thinking in art production and create new audiences” and it goes undocumented, or leaves us no publications, it will remain just a footnote in art historical terms.

And in art historical terms, the exhibition itself would have served no purpose but to reinforce the marginalization and dominant narratives and discourses that it supposedly seeks to challenge. As such, it leaves more questions than answers, for example; was “Tuning-In: Other Ways of Seeing” premeditated merely to appeal to donor requirements for the supporters of such projects? Or was it merely a postgraduate research project that will be assessed by examiners and graded while using Zambian artists as case studies?… or maybe it is just me overthinking while mulling over art.

Andrew Mulenga’s round trip to the Livingstone National Art Gallery was generously sponsored by the Livingstone Office for Contemporary Arts (LoCA) with additional support from the Livingstone National Gallery and Livingstone-based artist Augustin Sikambila.

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