Mulling Over Art: Bitter-Sweet Chibuku’s class politics

IN the advent of so-called economic globalisation many countries have seen accelerating inequality among the social classes. Even in countries like Zambia where the gap between the rich and the poor was not as shamelessly visible as it is today, compared for instance to the post-colonial period, this gap is evidently widening at a very rapid rate.

While a good number of Zambians do seem to be living in relative comfort, it is hard to argue against a generalised statement that might suggest that the majority are struggling to get by. Take a ride on public transport, stroll through a marketplace, sit down in a local pub or church, conversations around the high cost of living are something of a daily hymn. And amidst the temporary closure of schools due to COVID-19 fears, many parents seem to be rejoicing because it means they have short-term relief from parting with pocket and transport money for their school going children. In short, times are hard.

It does not help either that these hard times are reinforced with load-shedding, high fuel prices, outrageous exchange rates, allegations of corruption in high offices untouchable government officials and slogans such as “Ubomba mwibala alya mwibala” (he who works in the field eats in the field or one can only eat from what they produce) and “Abakwete akasaka ka ndalama” (The one with a bag of money).
We are now experiencing a period in which individuals who were penniless a couple of years ago are handling million-dollar contracts through tenders because they have the right political connections and yet pay their casual workers as little as K100 a day. These are the so-called “tenderprenuers”.

These tenderprenuers are in fact not unique to Zambia. In a 2013 article titled ‘Tenderpreneurs’ killing true entrepreneurs” in the Daily Nation of Kenya, Sunny Bindra wrote: “The word tenderpreneur is believed to have originated in South Africa, but Kenya, too, is infested with them. You don’t need to think hard to guess at its meaning: a tenderpreneur is someone masquerading as a legitimate businessperson, using political contacts to secure lucrative government contracts. And the disease soon infiltrates private-sector procurement, too.”

“We all know it: many of this country’s great fortunes have been made from tenderpreneurship, not entrepreneurship. I often look at the flashy 4WDs and loud limos on our roads, and wonder how many of those were bought with honest money, made cleanly, the proper way,” he continued.

Bindra’s remarks although in reference to Kenya, are all too familiar to us here in Zambia. In our own paradoxical sub-Saharan nation, we can see on the one hand a wealthy businessman able to purchase a $3 million dollar Bugatti and on the other hand we can see families that can barely afford to eat as they live on the proverbial “less than a dollar a day”.

We are also experiencing an explosion of silver-tongued pastors, many who also call themselves prophets. Several of these live very lavish lifestyles in contrast to the impoverished flocks that they shepherd. Flocks that will part with their very last ngwee in order to please their pastors and of course, God. These are called “pastorprenuers”. Entrepreneurs who set up churches as a business ventures, it is a blend of pastor and entrepreneur.

All the above assertions lend themselves to the topic of class politics. A topic that informs the work of an artist who goes by the alias of Bitter-Sweet Chibuku.

All that we know about Bitter-Sweet Chibuku is that he is an artist educated as a lawyer and he created installations entitled “In this squalid place, life is an innovation Economic Nemesis” for the 2019 group 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.

It is also evident that as an artist, Bitter-sweet Chibuku uses conceptual impulses to speak back against greed, particularly amongst politicians to challenge the superficial concern these so-called leaders have towards the voting public.

Evidently, Bitter-sweet Chibuku employs the use of essential commodities to spark the conversation and to construct arguments around empowerment. He can also be described as an activist who demonstrates what happens when the creative energies of an artist are instilled with meaningful political commitment, activating new imaginations of what a better democracy might look like, if politicians or civic leadership became more considerate towards their people.

Comprising bottles, a variety of alcohol, mealie meal and text, his work “In this squalid place, life is an innovation Economic Nemesis” is an exclusively theoretical artwork, in that it falls into the category of “conceptual art” where the idea is more important than the craftsmanship. In other words, it is a non-painting and non-drawing discipline in which the artist does not even need to possess the ability to paint, draw or even sculpt.

From the text that accompanied the artwork, we can also deduce that Bitter-Sweet Chibuku created the installation in collaboration with a schoolmate and friend only identified as “Mr Taxi Driver P” (a visual artist and taxi driver) who resides in Livingstone’s Ngwenya compound, a notorious slum. This element of aliases, one might add, appends an air of inscrutability or mystique to the artists and the artwork.

In the text the artists describe Ngwenya as: “a squalid, lawless country within a country that has allowed damnation of its inhabitants. In Ngwenya anything and everything exists in miniaturisation – meat does not exist in chunks but as a spice and it is never fresh. Shoprite’s dumping site is a business prospect for the ‘fill your stomachs first – and wait for god’ restaurant-watering holes”.

The text further suggests that with the prevailing high prices of mealie meal, in Ngwenya, one can purchase a Pamela (repackaged mealie meal packet) as small as a child’s fist and yet such small packets are used to prepare a meal for entire families.

Some of these Pamelas make up for the installation and they were neatly aligned along the gallery wall during the exhibition. Beside them was a bottle of fine wine, a bottle of Chibuku – the opaque beer targeted at less affluent consumers and finally a bottle of Kachasu, the illicit distilled alcohol that is popular among the even less fortunate people of our communities.

Chibuku is the one from which the artist draws his name and connoisseurs of this brew will agree that the one which usually tastes bitter-sweet, also known as “fresh makali” is the most popular because not only is it potent, it is tasty. There has been a kind of gentrification with regards Chibuku, formerly confined to township taverns and sold in bulk, the bottled version can now be purchased in supermarkets. As for Kachasu, this still remains illicit and unlike Chibuku, it is not advisable to drink on an empty stomach.

But what can we read from this display of various types of alcohol? One thing is for sure, Bitter-sweet chibuku is making a statement that no matter one’s standing in society, there is a type of alcohol to suit anyone’s pockets. The statement is a social commentary on class, whether you drink Cabernet Sauvignon, Chibuku or Kachasu, “Kukolewa ni kumodzi” (drunkenness is the same) as they say.

Nevertheless, the artist’s concerns are deeper than a comment on various types of alcohol. It is about the deplorable conditions in which some of Zambia’s citizens are living, as well as their daily struggle to survive.

“Does the leadership of the country surrounding the squalid, poverty-stricken island hear the horn of Ngwenya” asks Bitter-Sweet Chibuku in his text.

Obviously Bitter-sweet Chibuku and other artists cannot end poverty or change the attitude of greedy politicians, they are able to remind us that while some of us are able to afford three meals a day, there are a great many such as those in Ngwenya who are living on the fringes of starvation.

The artist’s creativity reminds us that we may have the capacity to find alternatives to current social, political, or economic conditions; but it requires a mindset change. Bitter-sweet Chibuku’s work is also a reminder that artists have the ability to take up the role of civic agents who are capable of being a voice for the voiceless.

He joins an elite group of Zambian conceptual artists who have travelled the same path such as the pioneer Martin Phiri, or the likes of Anawana Haloba, Victor Kalinosi, Lutanda Mwamba, David Chirwa, Baba, Jakeh Chande, Victor Mutelekesha, Kate Naluyele, Lawrence Chikwa and Chanda Mwenya.

In conclusion, Bitter-sweet Chibuku is an exciting entry into the Zambian art scene. The fact that much of his text is apparently a manuscript for a yet to be published book, he gives us even more room for excitement to look forward to his literary work. It must be noted however, that much of the text that accompanied the artwork in the Livingston National Art Gallery was scrawled and untidy with sub-standard grammar. Perhaps this was deliberate in line with the curators LoCA and Julia Taonga Kuseka notion of a decolonial theme. Perhaps it was badly written in defiance, to speak against colonial languages. If not, let’s hope they tidy text up next time or at least hire editors.

To read more about conceptual art in Zambia, you can Google search the articles by Andrew Mulenga: “Martin Phiri: The Man who changed the Zambian art scene” and the MA Art History thesis “Contemporary Zambian Art, Conceptualism and the ‘Global’ Art World”.

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