"Pebofatso Mokoena is uncomfortable. Uncomfortable with the artworld he has to operate with, uncomfortable with political and cultural dynamics, which attempt to dictate what he can and can’t do, ought and ought not speak to as an artist and prescribe the categories of thinking permitted to him.
His very being rebels against the idea of that prescription because even when righteous it is a bind and an oppression. His titles – deliberately confounding, deliberately at 180 degrees to the images on his canvases which are in turn deliberately antithetical to anything that might be eulogized as ‘reality’.
What happens to those who still believe we need poetry, even when others are building barricades?
What happens, when struggle to live becomes life, when struggle to survive, spells the death of dreaming? What happens when the alternative is pervasive toxicity of cynicism, which says that there is nothing beyond the inevitability of the divide between rich and poor, that wellbeing and prosperity are always contiguously connected to corruption and theft?
One of the greatest gifts that art can give is the gift of freedom, a reminder that we are born free to dream and be happy, with no debt and no apology for being who we are.
For Mokoena, freedom does not mean turning his back on the deep fissures in South Africa’s moral fabric, the unresolved traumas and unfulfilled promises of 1994. What he does do however, is face himself as a maker of the world he lives in, giving himself the agency and responsibility to reimagine the world anew as radically as he wants and without apology and in that world claim the right to be happy, to not have to make sense to anyone but himself, to be free and to share that freedom with others..."
An artist currently in Lusaka offers her impressions of Zambian art and artists, highlighting the work of Stary Mwaba, as an example of a non-traditional artist who is “breaking the mold”. In the 'Black Mountain' show, Mwaba explores complex stories of individuals that interact with places marked by a strong Chinese presence in Zambian mines and infrastructures.
The visual art sector in Zambia largely consists of two art genres which are painting and sculpture. In the midst of an industry dominated by traditional modes of art making, is a category of artists that are pushing boundaries and redefining artistic practices in their own ways and terms. By traditional modes of art making, I am referring to painting with oil, water and acrylic, and sculpting with marble, stone, wood and other mediums. Although I use the word traditional to point to materials used in production, for the case of a majority of artworks in Zambia this could also implicitly point to the fact that most of the subject matter is drawn from practices and activities of local linguistic and social-cultural groupings, conventionally referred to as "tradition" or "culture" within the country. Stary Mwaba is an example of an artist who is breaking this traditional norm by going against the grain and interestingly subverting modes of artistic production in Zambia.
I saw his 2019 MFA exhibition entitled "Black Mountain" at Rhodes University Gallery, Makhanda, South Africa.
In this exhibition, Mwaba uses an experience he had helping his daughter to understand the process of absorption in plants as an entry point into discussing nuances and complexities in the relations and interactions of Zambian and Chinese individuals. "Black Mountain" explores stories of individuals that interact with specific localities that are somehow related to the presence of China within the landscape of Zambia. Mwaba identifies three important places: 1) the Black Mountain which is located in the Copperbelt Province and is a pile of residues from mining activities; 2) the Tanzania-Zambia Railway which is popularly known in its abbreviated form TAZARA; this rail line runs through Zambia and onto the port of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania; and 3) the Chambeshi Bridge.
Mwaba works in various mediums that come together to paint a complex picture that bring to light personal stories and experiences of individuals who navigate these three historically significant spaces. In a subtle manner, he provides an opportunity for viewers to momentarily shift their gaze from dominant narratives about the relationship between Africa and China, that are often driven by large media houses, to focus on what he refers to as small narratives.
The work that I would say really points to the idea of diverging from larger narratives to small narratives is "Chambia" (2018). Chambia is a colloquial word that combines the words ‘China’ and ‘Zambia’ and has locally been used to infer derogatory insinuations that Zambia has become a colonial state of China. The artwork "Chambia", installed in one of the smaller rooms of the gallery, is comprised of images of people that were taken aboard a train along the TAZARA and then projected onto a large newspaper that was made by stitching together many newspaper pages. On closer observation, one is able to see that Mwaba not only combines the newspapers, but also goes through a laborious process of erasing parts of the words in the newspapers by making holes that appear like the edges of partially burnt paper. The juxtaposition of the images of individuals, who have personal interactions with this rail line, onto widely circulated newspapers is a powerful visual. Noteworthy that because of the low lighting in the gallery space, the words that are not erased are also not easily readable, while the pictures are illuminated so that they become more visible than the newspapers.
Another work that stood out, particularly to me, was "Black Mountain Born Again". It consisted of pieces of black plastic bags, suspended from the ceiling, with mushrooms growing out of them. The bags were hung quite close to the wall and created interesting silhouettes or shadows on the walls. The silhouettes were quite reminiscent of the Black Mountain itself.
The Black Mountain consists of residuals from mines in Kitwe over a period of time and has recently become a site of illegal mining. When one views the mountain, it does literally look a mountain that is black in colour. The dirt in the black bags could arguably be likened to the black piles of land, and the mushrooms could be conceptually associated with the illegal mining activities that in turn contribute, in most cases, to the economic situation of most individuals who participate in the activity of illegal mining at the mountain.
Another outstanding work is "Black Bodies", an installation of more than twenty black and white portraits of different people with a red laser painted across the chests of their portraits. When talking about this piece Mwaba relates this work to the construction of the railway line. He mentions that the red line is created with a spirit level, a tool used to make straight lines. He adds that he was inspired by the historic fact that when the TAZARA was being constructed, the builders would ask the local Black workers to stand in a single file line, in a way creating a "human spirit level."
Relations and interactions of Zambia with China, or of China with Zambia are quite complex. There is a bigger and dominant narrative that generally focuses on ideas of economic colonization. Beyond this bigger narrative are smaller and complex stories that are barely ever brought to light. In saying this, the exhibition and project "Black Mountain" is quite refreshing and intriguing in the way that it is put together.
Photos of artwork from the exhibition are provided courtesy the artist, Stary Mwaba.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Stary Mwaba is a Lusaka-based artist. Mwaba obtained his Master of Fine Art degree from Rhodes University, South Africa. Mwaba's work, research and current working process highlight specific subjects using personal little narratives that engage with archival materials as components of his work, and these then function as the starting point for the works to engage with the current socio-political circumstances in Zambia.
He is recipient of the Commonwealth Arts and Crafts Award, the Zambia National Arts Council Award and the 2014/2015 KfW Stiftung Grant at Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin.
Twenty artists from 14 countries worked together for four weeks, sharing art, ideas and experiences through an online collaboration that left a mark.
The way we all made the choice to collaborate together and join our interests and “real life” with the others, represents the reason why this workshop was a great idea since the beginning. What we did was to create a microcosm that was ours, intimate, that came from “the inside” and exposed it online for the view of the others in “real time” and beyond it. We all decided to welcome to our house people that we didn’t know, to open our mind and to share our art to “strangers”. This “strangers” became therefore collaborators, artists friends. We all made this choice for each other and the beauty of all of this was and is the building of an active and interactive relationship that is taking us further than a mere exhibition.
The important “glue”, the strong node we made, started with the online meetings. Internet. Zoom to be specific and the social networks. To the eyes of the readers this process might look easy as that is the spirit of a workshop, normally, and probably it is, putting it in a “normal situation,” and in a physical space. However, in this period we are all living, in this time when, because of the lock down, we experience the apotheosis of individuality, loneliness and lack of social confidence and social space, this process, this choice and so, this workshop represented a huge thing. An extraordinary way to “break the rules” of this scary and depressing “new normal”.
Bookmark Workshop: What is it? What is it for?
As some museums and other artists did, as Bookmark Workshop’s artists we are contributing to let our word be heard, our works be seen, our energy spread all over the internet. We are “fighting” this time of the year in the best way we can, thinking critically and making art together. We are challenging our feelings and our fears with the beauty of creativity and this is what makes the Bookmark so special for all of us and hopefully for the people who will take part in the exhibition as spectators.
But how did the meetings and the workshop work? Everything started with an 'artists call' online. Einat started to get in touch with all who wanted to take part and everything started from there.
We had our social network page and we kept in touch with each other through that and emails. Einat would give us a variety of exercises during these four weeks of the workshop and we worked on them during the week. We had weekly zoom meetings where we discussed what we did, analyse the exercises, exchange ideas and thoughts and kept working in medias res if needed or possible. We created relationships and this was the strength of our first final resolution, the exhibition.
Talking about it, obviously does not give the proper idea of what the workshop was, but maybe after reading the creator’s words and having a look at our works, you will understand what we did and where this adventure took us.
The word to the artists
The artists points of view. A collective subject camera, to better understand our experience:
Anirban Mishra This workshop gave me such a new direction that is beyond my expectations. I found lots of interesting and creative things that make my work more powerful and help me represent myself in a more definite way. I really enjoyed a lot this workshop. The free flow process helps me to make my drawing more strong and challenging, and also I like to say that the collection process was interesting for me, it helps me to make my own pigments. I also enjoyed the group discussion and meeting. This was the most wonderful way to explore myself and all the feedback really helps me to improve my works.
Art Stoop I love that we all are included as people first and artists second. We can work together and share as much about our lives and pieces of art as we are comfortable with. I am Dutch, to me that says that I am comfortable with about anything. I am very much interested in what everybody else's limits are and where they meet them. I joined the Bookmark Workshop especially because it gave me a very open and inclusive vibe. The most interesting thing for me was the fact that right from the start no one would tell me what it was about, giving me the freedom to realize my own world. Keeping it proactive and alive and adding some of your influences.
I am thinking of trying some techniques I saw browsing through all of our amazing artworks here. Next month I am starting to develop my knowledge of portrait painting. The new goal is to mix the abstract world with my reality.
M a r i a Di G a e t a n o
This 2020 is going fast but definitely few events brought a strange feeling about it, to all of us. The most important has been the Covid/19 pandemic that is involving all planet and everything correlated to it and our everyday life. We are experiencing a change in our habits, diseases and death. We are now more scared about our present than we were before as it is conditioning our future, more than it did before, in a way. We have been in lockdown for months and struggling with finding primary products at the supermarkets such as flour or pasta. But we had lots of time, which is always the resource we miss if we have a job. In this situ- ation, I was creating art a lot, much more than I did before. I always see it as a shelter and now even more. If an external event conditions my life in a big way, then I create more. I have to feel happy though. In this context, seeing the ad of the Bookmark workshop, was a right light.
I have decided to join it because I am curious. And I had the time to do it, obviously. I was curious about the fact that lots of people from different nationalities and cultures, had the possibility of being together and creating something.
I was curious to get to know them and open a window to the world even if the world was in lock down. I was curious to do this voyage around the world through all of them and their art and our art together. And last but not the least, I was curious about how my artistic interaction would have been seen and criticized by so distant and different people at the same time, and vice versa.
All of this allowed me to be more focused on sharing what I have done, what we did together and how to create a communal thread that could have been shared or not, but surely not ignored. Critics are always positive and in a circumscribed setting it is a must. Critics is growing up, mentally and artistically in this case. Thanks to the group I have been able to improve my way of thinking art, of making art and abolishing some of my personal boundaries overcoming my own limits. I have reached a point where through abstract art, I am now freer and much closer to what expressing feeling without prethinking is. Now more than before, and it is awesome.
Our interventions and help were crucial for me to putting together what I am and what I am on people's eyes. This group was a voyage, a mirror and the fact it was put together through the technology made its impact on me even stronger. It is definitely putting a positive improvement on my artistic life’s research and why not? on my way of seeing art as well.
I signed up for this workshop during confinement in my country. It caught my attention because it spoke about the process and organization of artistic work. It seemed important to me, and I always like to learn something new. From the start it seemed well structured and interesting, suggesting thoughts and practical exercises.
The thing that I enjoyed the most was the group. The way the activities were conducted certainly provided this experience. Getting to know artists from all around the world with several different media was very new to me.
Let's go back a few months in time. There is quarantine, and I am a fourth-year student of uniform masters studies, but this semester I spent on Erasmus (a program launched by the European Commission converting higher education and aimed at financing student exchange trips to study in another European country). Although I have been living without a family in another city for almost 10 years, I am now aware that I cannot really go back to them or meet them. The borders are closed, airports are not working, international trains are not running. I am also somewhat isolated from friends. Four of my flat mates, that are also on Erasmus, decided to quit exchange and go back to their countries. I have fantastic online classes, I study a lot, but I miss people, interactions and communities other than the academic one.
And then I get an email that I have been accepted for the workshop. And it wasn't a workshoplike ‘hey, I'll teach you this technique now’, it was a workshop that was largely based on something much more important in creative work - conversation and exchange of experiences, but also it was the great opportunity to have a reflection on our own work and to look at it from a different perspective as well as a com- parison with the perspective of others. I gained a broader understanding of what people do and how much we can differ from each other, even working in a similar field. I learned not to compare myself, but to do my job – with a full support of a community. Developing. Revealing. Opening. That’s how it was.
I allowed myself to experience breakdowns, feeling blue, designing for classes, but also doing something for myself - in the form of a workshop. Sometimes very little, but each time consciously and my final project is like that - about my quarantine experience, about my creative work.
I joined this workshop because I enjoy learning from other artists. I feel they expand my world. I understand more how differently people feel the world. Also, I was interested in going back to the basics of creating art because it allows one to rediscover the world.
I enjoyed ZOOM meetings the most and specifically the exercise when we had to watch each other's eyes, to feel the other person situated thousands of kilometers away. That was a new experience for me because usually, we take up the online meeting space with conversations and these subtle things disappear in the information flow. My biggest supporter was Einat, she guided me through the whole process and she was very inspiring, also I began a deep dialogue with Monica Vila.
I became engaged with the idea of punctum; I rediscovered this theory again and I made a few new artworks. As the punctum approach opens up things from another angle it encouraged me to reflect on what I am interested in and to try to push the artworks further. More specifically it encouraged me to try to finish the night videos that I am currently working on.
Francis Annagu My experience was invaluable to the work I created. I'd like to connect it to the instructional videos recorded by Einat Moglat; I really find them interestingly inspiring. She was a good curator from day one to the end of the workshop. Plus, the conversations that engaged me to rethink my pro- cess and reimagine my art was deeply appreciated because it gave me a new soap box to stand on - and create something not only valuable to me, but helpful to the people I speak for.
Not to forget the weekly questions, reflections, and instructions that gave me the edge and tool for reconnecting my past experiences with consciousness. I want to say here that, conscious art making is important to my (thematic) work and choice of material or language. In fact, language forms the basic relationship I build with my process.
For once I concluded that; artists speak louder, they manufacture philosophical truths or validate them so that the inherent good of humanity will continue. There are many commoditized climes today, people seen as objects of material conditions, not as living beings who are equal and free. The objectification of humanity can be broken by art. For all Bookmark participants, given the safe space to create was a monumental feature.
I joined this workshop because it offered me a space to unlearn my art, collaborate, and share my story with the world. I enjoyed the conversations among the participants, and the processes shared by all through the period of creating all the different art works. The Bookmark workshop curator was awesome with the videos and questions - they really [re]shaped my thinking and improvisation in art as a process. I think that my participation in the process was quite helpful, too.
Yes, it was. I had the opportunity to escape from the monotony of my art process to a new form of creating my art work. It was really handy. The space was safe for every participant to talk, share, talk, help, share, and collaborate.
Clara Aden When l saw the call for the Bookmark workshop, my residential city, Lagos, had been imposed a 14 day lock down by the president Buhari as one of the measure to fight the global pandemic, Covid-19. This was the time and moment we needed to stay strong and have sympathy for people around us who needed support and attention.
Artists have been hit by the rapid outbreak of covid-19 and the impact will still be felt long after the virus fades. My art exhibition and live art exhibition was cancelled as a result of the lock down, while l was pondering, how will l engage the public with my art? What can l do to continue my studio practice so that l do not stagnate? l decided to join the workshop. I enjoyed the free flow exercise. I feel happy when l am free to express myself without fear. The exercises gave me the freedom to create the good the bad and the ugly! It is not about perfection or quality but about your willingness to enjoy the quantity you create.
The workshop made me understand more about my creating processes and unconsciously the reason why l collect and bookmark things l have been collecting for decades. For me it is like a self-discovery of my inner self, those places l have never ventured into. l was able to teleport my inner mind to mirror and see my inner self.
Kim de Weijer My experience in the workshop was great. For a long time, I was trying to find a way to get back to my creative side, due to private reasons there was little time for making art. I had lost my inspiration and therefore I somehow forgot how to make art.
The small exercises worked very well for me to discover my way of working and I particularly loved the exercises ‘Punctum’ and ‘Spectrum’. For they were the inspiration for my final art work, seen in the exhibition. What I discovered was that art is fluid, and it does not have borders in what is allowed to be. I always thought of religion, love and spirituality as terms that are not so inspiring, because art for me also has friction to make it stand out or say and mean something.
This vision changed during the workshop. So many artists from around the world joined and showed me that art is connection. It binds us together. And therefore, it binds the world together. The beautiful thing about the workshop is the connection I’ve made with several artists around the world. It brings me back to the person I was when I was young. And I missed that part of me.
Beyond the experience. Is a global collaboration possible?
As you have had the chance to read above, for all of us this workshop was meaningful and interesting and this collaboration a big opportunity to go through this time, to talk about art, to make art, but first and foremost, to do all of this as a collective.
The beauty of creating something together is the key and the beginning of an interactive relationship that is going to continue, even after the final workshop’s exhibition.
During our journey, I did think a lot about how technology was and is our one and only way of knowing one another. We became a very interactive and amalgamated group; always ready to share, help and learn from each other. That is why I have used the definition of “global collaboration” to underline the multicultural environment we created as well as the interactive “global” medium we used to communicate.
I have asked the artists what they think about this “global collaboration”, and here are some of their responses:
Many artistic initiatives have moved into virtual space. This is a groundbreaking situation, because actually a revolution is taking place right before our eyes. So, what can be a recipe for art at home? Let's not insist that we have to catch up, but thanks to the workshop, I found out what an amazing opportunity the Internet is, which allows you to connect and cooperate with absolutely amazing artists from all over the world virtually, at basically no cost.
My experience so far has taught me that everything has to be tangible, but I was very wrong. Experience, knowledge, ideas, feedback, conversations can take place online and affect my ‘physical and tangible’ work in the comfort of my home or studio.
I hope that the online collaboration will not end with the end of the pandemic, but it will come into force permanently.
Francis Yes, a global collaboration is possible! And that's good for art in changing the world. However, it can only be possible in a safe space where all ideas and art are recognized as valid, regardless of their material bias such as the influence of culture, religion or social ideas. Artists should look forward to a time heralding trans-border collaboration in creating art or enjoying the frenzy of the process. Much of today's artistic forms reflects globalism and empathy, and in many conversations shaping equality, climate change, democracy, gender, and culture, inevitably connects one region to another.
Clara Yes, a global collaboration is possible. With more than funding we can collaborate to engage and present thought provoking and inspiring projects that can stimulate and spark off conversations. We have so many talented artists from different cultures, traditions and values from various disciplines... it’s going to be a “whaaoow collabo” that is an extraordinary collaboration.
Art If you match the right artists with each other, I think it is very much possible. It might even be explosive and extraordinary. No doubt about it. Physical art pieces to share and collaborate on might be a little much to ask. But we could send instructions. Have them put into action and see what happens. How else do you know if something works?
Anirban First I want to say that the experience of the workshop was wonderful. All things that happened in the workshop were beyond my expectations and I learn a lot from all the group members. It has helped me to go three steps forward. The global collaboration is what I enjoyed most. I had the chance to know many artists and their thoughts from around the whole world. Beyond this experience, I believe that a global collaboration is absolutely possible. It can play an important role in our artistic journey, it will help me to know how the world art and responses and their thoughts. I can learn about the global scenario. For me art for all and global and artists are also need to connect globally, then we can do good art and every people can respond with their thoughts.
I feel confident that we are all heading to a way of researching, discussing and analyze various themes and putting together thoughts, projects and different kinds of art that maybe will become something big. As we did for the Bookmark Workshop, so we will continue.
This workshop brought us an important sense of community and what creating and sharing our art means during these hard times. But every one of us is an individual, an important, interesting and valuable human being and artist.
Right here and right now is the meaning of life and creativity for me. Right here and right now and repeating this infinite times, it’s a life resolution that will be nice to keep sharing together.