We were heading home after collecting our new Ford company car in Johannesburg which was then a dreadful place of police brutality, political protests and necklacing. Our long journey to Zambia was planned via a family stop in the Zimbabwe Lowveld. Clearing customs at Beit Bridge had taken hours so I was giving my husband a break from driving when some giraffe crossed the road ahead.
“You need to brake sooner,” my husband said.
“The brakes aren’t responding properly,” I replied. “Would you like to take over?”
My husband took over the driving and we turned towards the lowveld in the late afternoon. On a long slow bend, a young bullock left its herd and plunged across the road.
Discussion about art and beauty – and art and colonisation – is challenging. My past connection with Zambia and Mpapa Gallery, and my present connection with post-colonialism and my own art are about how I live my life. It has been said that Mpapa Gallery was colonial in its support for artists. Mpapa Gallery wasn’t and couldn’t be colonial for reasons explained in this article. Discussions about beauty and influences on one’s work go on in every artist’s life all the time even when they are private and not articulated. They are part of an essential process in making art. I will illustrate some different ideas of beauty with the paintings of the remarkable and modest artist, Style Kunda.
Looking back at Mpapa Gallery we faced several important challenges which will interest Zambian artists today. The fact that the gallery was run by three practising African artists – me, Ruth Hartley, Cynthia Zukas, Patrick Mweemba, and started by Joan Pilcher, who had studied art at the Evelyn Hone College meant that we were all engaged with the hands-on process of making art and not just in selling it. We were also each different as people and artists as you can see from the work we made above.
As you can probably tell I’m unimpressed by the idea of male genius in art and male heroes in political history, when its written by men. It’s a useful trick to focus on a key individual in an epoch when there’s an exam looming but it leaves women out and falsifies history. it also allows people to punish a single scapegoat instead of looking at collective responsibility. Slavery in the Caribbean plantations, for example, was so deeply embedded in British society in the 1800s that it was possible for a vicar’s daughter who never saw an African or a sugar crop to profit from it. Jane Austen’s novels describe middle class ladies in a world in which its wealth originated in slavery and its wars were fought for control of that trade. If compensation had not been paid to slave owners when slavery ended all of British society might have crumbled into poverty. The French Revolution ended slavery and Napoleon reinstated it to save the French colonial economy. A bitter irony for the revolutionaries. (And another bitter irony for votes for women!)
In 1984 when I started working at Mpapa Gallery with Joan Pilcher, Cynthia Zukas and Patrick Mweemba, there were many women making art, but few were Zambian and none were black. Most women artists were the expatriate wives of businessmen, diplomats and aid agency officials. Colonial domination of Zambian culture before 1964 is one factor, but the reality is more complex and reflects the low status of both women and art in all of western culture as well as solely the British colonies. In this post, I want to explore some of the reasons for this misogyny and how it still needs to be changed.
Watercolours for ladies and fame for men
When I went to the Michaelis Art School in 1962 about 70% of the students were women, but the few men there were noticeable for their high marks and status. Schoolboys weren’t encouraged to study art, so these men had to be both passionate and focused. In contradiction, art was seen as a ladylike occupation for a girl who would inevitably marry and might need a hobby when her husband was busy. Women, however, were just as determined as men to make art and to make it well. Many women artists in the Southern African region fought apartheid and worked with black African artists as did Sue Williamson, Marian Arnold, Bente Lorenz, Cynthia Zukas, Helen Lieros and myself.