Gabriel Ellison – artist, writer, designer and extraordinary woman

Ruth HartleyAfrica, Art, Books, Zambia13 Comments


Gabriel Ellison

Gabriel Ellison, MBE and Grand Officer of Distinguished Service, was a very private person. You would never have guessed from her manner what an important role she has played in Zambia or that she was decorated by both the British Government and the Zambian government for her services to the arts in Zambia. She worked tirelessly all her life and did everything to the highest standards possible. She was a writer, artist, designer and loved to cook. Zambia was the country of her birth and she was devoted to it and known all over the world for the beautiful Zambian postage stamps that she designed.




The artist and designer

I personally, never knew Gabriel well but I did know that she was greatly respected by my friends in the arts in Zambia and that they valued her friendship enormously. In spite of her quiet, and rather reclusive life, her art is to be seen everywhere. Gabriel had painted murals at the Lusaka Airport and in many other public places. Every time you saw the Zambian flag or the Zambian coat of arms or any Zambian stamps you were looking at a design made and executed by Gabriel Ellison.



Celebrating Zambia and its women

For years I assiduously collected her stamps, first for my own children and later for my grandson. Gabriel was also a writer and it is to my shame that I never collected her books. Gabriel Ellison is featured in a book of Zambian women – Women Celebrated compiled by Marsha Moyo and supported by the Royal Norwegian Embassy and the UNFPA. The photograph is by Franςois d’Elbee. It is one of the remarkable facts about Zambia that it has been a country in which so many different and talented people were able to contribute so fully and so happily. Gabriel Ellison is testament to that.

I am today, adding this link about Gabriel’s beautiful stamp designs, thanks to James Gavin of the Rhodesian Study Circle.


Art In Zambia

One of my most prized possessions is a book written by Gabriel Ellison called Art in Zambia. It was produced by the Zambia National Visual Arts Council and sponsored by the Finnish Embassy. I am very proud to be included in the book albeit under my married name. The painting is an expression of my fears for a future where climate change causes droughts and migration which affects most of all, women and children. I painted it more than 20 years ago. The painting is in the possession of Cynthia Zukas, a friend of mine, and also of Gabriel. Cynthia set up the Lechwe Trust and is devoted to supporting Zambian artists.




The Tin Heart Gold Mine book coverThe time that I spent in Zambia working in the arts is perhaps one of the most important times in my life. I have tried to capture some of that significance in my book The Tin Heart Gold Mine in which my heroine, Lara, tries to make a living from art in an African country and meets artists struggling to do the  same. There is much I owe to the artists of Zambia that I hope comes across in my story.


13 Comments on “Gabriel Ellison – artist, writer, designer and extraordinary woman”

  1. Tia Azulay

    Hello Ruth,

    I’m glad to learn about Gabriel Ellison. I was struck by your comment that “It is one of the remarkable facts about Zambia that it has been a country in which so many different and talented people were able to contribute so fully and so happily.”

    Do you think that Zambia was/is different from some other African countries in specific cultural ways that enabled this female artist to contribute so significantly and be recognised for it?


    1. Ruth Hartley

      Thanks Tia for your comment – yes, I do think Zambia is different. I’m not an expert on history and how it should be read and understood, but Zambia’s experience of colonialism was very brief, and involved few settlers and land appropriation so that must have helped. I also think that Zambia was fortunate to have many British colonial officials who were relatively progressive and sympathetic to Zambian national inspirations. Some interesting research could be done on the subject while Zambians who grew up before independence are still alive. Hugh Macmillan has a valuable book called Zion in Africa about the Jewish community in Zambia
      and Pam Shurmer-Smith’s Remnants of Empire is another.
      I would love to know what either of them thinks on this subject. I think this could be valuable research of general interest to Africa.

  2. James

    Gabriel Ellison designed some of the most fabulous stamps for Zambia! Her art has transpired time. Thank you for the article! We have an article on Gabriel Ellison in our next journal. 🙂

    1. Ruth Hartley

      Thank you for your comment James – I can put a link onto this blog for your group if you like and I would like to see your article on Gabriel Ellison too – so please do link me in if you can – there are Facebook pages that would be interested too.

    2. Ruth Hartley

      Please do let me know when you article on Gabriel is published – maybe I can link it into this post. Thank you James

  3. Päivi Tierto

    I was very lucky to meet Gabriel Ellison in Lusaka when I was working in Zambia National Visual Arts Council and with my Zambian colleagues introduced the Art in Zambia book project to her. We in VAC knew that she was the best choice to write about the art history including then current visual artists in Zambia. From VAC I moved to the Embassy of Finland and still supported the project (which was a long one). I had already moved to RSA when finally the published book was sent to me by the Finnish Embassy. Can’t tell how happy I was!
    ( The Introduction got my name printed in a funny way ?)
    Ruth, Thank You for the article .

    Päivi Tierto
    Helsinki, Finland

    1. Ruth Hartley

      How lovely to meet you here on this post and to know that you knew Gabriel and worked for the Art in Zambia book with VAC.
      You must be an artist? How long were you in Zambia? I hope that you will share my article with anyone you know who might be interested. My latest novel is in part about art and artists in a country like Zambia.

  4. Rob

    Gabriel was my mothers horse riding teacher in Lusaka back in the late 50’s early 60’s and my grandmother bought 7 of her art works that hang in my mothers house now in South Africa. She only just found out this week she had passed away

    1. Ruth Hartley

      Hi Rob – it’s an indication of the kind of person that Gabriel was that this post has had so many comments on it from such a variety of people and places.
      Are you able to show your mother my post? She must be very happy to have so many of Gabriel’s paintings. Did you also live in Lusaka?

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