A Space for Dialogue Across Continents

Suddenly, you know someone in Oslo who has started a new centre for contemporary art in Lusaka.

Lusaka Contemporary Art Centre, January 2023. Photo: LuCAC.

“LuCAC on the rise!” So went the marketing slogan for the Lusaka Contemporary Art Centre during its construction. Bright, new, and inviting, the centre is now complete, and when the Zambian-Norwegian artist Victor Mutelekesha was finally able to welcome all at the official opening on Friday 6 January, he emphasised that the art centre is not his achievement alone and there are many who deserve thanks. While such large projects are, of course, always a collective effort, there can still be no doubt that Mutelekesha’s role as visionary initiator and driving force has been absolutely crucial for the end result.

Ever since the early 2000s, when he bought the plot of land in New Chamba Valley, located on the outskirts of the constantly and rapidly growing Zambian capital, the dream of an art centre has gradually become reality. Today, the centre comprises an exhibition space, a library, two residency flats, an outdoor bar for use during events, and a lodge where visitors can rent accommodation. It is idyllically situated in a garden with mango trees, and the balcony on the second floor commands a panoramic view of Lusaka.

Among the many people in both Zambia and Norway who have contributed to making this centre a reality is the late Norwegian artist Jan Groth (1938–2022), who donated a substantial amount to the centre. The residency apartment on the centre’s second floor is dedicated to him. As a young artist, Mutelekesha worked as Groth’s assistant, and the two developed a close relationship over the years. In an emotional pre-opening ceremony Mutelekesha inaugurated memorial plaques for both Groth and the Zambian artist Baba Jakeh Romanus Chande (1971–2014), who at the time of his death was based in Finland.

Victor Mutelekesha speaking at the official opening of LuCAC, 6 January 2023. Photo: LuCAC.

While it is obviously a result of strong personal commitment on Mutelekesha’s part, LuCAC can also be seen as the latest chapter in a much longer history. In a way, it all began back in the early 1980s, when the then-young artist Germain Ngoma received a grant from Norad to study art in Norway – initially at the National Academy of Arts and Crafts, and later at the National Academy of Fine Arts in Oslo. From 1987 until his recent retirement, Ngoma held the important role of workshop manager of sculpture and casting at the fine art academy in Oslo.

The Norad grant was given on the condition that Ngoma would give something back to his home country upon completing his education, and he did so within the Art Academy Without Walls project, a joint co-operation between The Visual Arts Council of Zambia and The National Academy of Fine Art in Oslo, started in 1996, its aim “to build a fine art academy in Lusaka – one suited to the cultural and financial landscape of Zambia”.

Ngoma assisted in some of the art workshops in Lusaka, during the ten-year project initiated by his professor from the academy, Michael O’Donnell. Several of the young artists who participated in these workshops were invited to apply to the fine art academy in Oslo to study and take responsibility for the future development of the project. Among them was Victor Mutelekesha – as well as another now well-known Zambian-Norwegian artist, Anawana Haloba, who, in 2014, started the Livingstone Office for Contemporary Art (LOCA), a library and research centre in the southern Zambian city Livingstone that will soon move into a new building.

LuCAC’s outdoor bar. Photo: LuCAC.

Although Mutelekesha resides in Lusaka for a few months each year, he now mainly lives and works as an artist in Oslo, and LuCAC is underpinned by his desire to give back to his motherland and to help strengthen the Zambian art scene. That there is a need for a finely honed institution like LuCAC is obvious, as the artistic infrastructure in Zambia leaves much to be desired. Although Zambia has strong and interesting artists, educational opportunities are limited, as are the venues for exhibiting art. Most galleries are un-curated art associations and sales outlets, and the Lusaka National Museum is in a sad state – so sad, in fact, that several of the people I met warned me not to waste my time going there. But I did so anyway.

Briefly put, the national museum gives the impression of being mostly concerned with presenting the demographic and political history of Zambia. Emphasis is placed on communicating the fact that research has traced the origins of modern humans – Homo sapiens – back to an area that covers present-day Zambia. The museum also addresses the nation’s colonial history and liberation from British colonial rule in 1964, as well as the political developments up to the present day. During my visit, a room on the second floor was devoted to an exhibition on the country’s first president, Kenneth Kaunda (1924–2021), while the first floor was dominated by an exhibition on another recently deceased freedom fighter, Sikota Wina (1931–2022).

Artist talk with Germain Ngoma, Banji Chona, and curator Karen Monica Reini. Photo: Mariann Enge.

Devoting attention to the story of the young nation’s independence seems fitting enough for a national museum. But the sad thing is that art and culture have been delegated to a completely marginal role. While it is true that a range of different sculptures lined the walls on the first floor, they were all unlabelled, and the museum staff could not tell me who had made them or, indeed, if their creators were known at all. The state of the museum seemed primarily to reflect an attitude problem. For example, one obvious choice would be to have a permanent exhibition of works by the internationally renowned Zambian artist Henry Tayali (1943–1987), who is often cited as an inspiration for present-day artists.

LuCAC’s strategy in this situation is to influence matters by showing how things can be done, as well as to facilitate knowledge exchange, art and text production, and dialogue between artists and other art professionals from Zambia and abroad. Ahead of the official opening of the centre and the inaugural exhibition Prospice, Kwacha! LuCAC launched its discursive work with a very interesting two-day programme of talks and lectures. In addition to conversations with the four artists featured in the exhibition – Banji Chona, Sana Ginwalla, David Daut Makala, and Germain Ngoma – the programme comprised a panel discussion with three local collectors (all of whom appeared relatively idealistic in their motivations, fuelled by a desire to support and promote Zambian artists), and a lecture by American art historian Karen E. Milbourne, curator at the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC.

Artist talk with David Daut Makala, Sana Ginwalla, and curator Karen Monica Reini. Photo: Mariann Enge.

For several years, Milbourne has studied traditional Zambian arts and crafts, and, more specifically, the activities of the Lozi people’s “artist king” Lewanika (1878–1916). King Lewanika was not only a renowned artist himself, but also set up a workshop where the zoomorphic and architectural Lozi style was developed. Lewanika judged and rewarded the works of others and also promoted sales activity. Milbourne’s research took its starting point in objects in the Smithsonian’s collection, and she believes that she has identified some of them as Lewanika’s own work. The talk greatly engaged the local audience, and Milbourne received a flurry of questions and comments.

Even so, the highlight for me was the artist talks, chaired by the exhibition’s curator, Zambian-Norwegian Karen Monica Reini, who holds the position as head of publications at the Henie Onstad Art Centre in Høvikodden outside Oslo. The artists spoke in pairs, and the conversations touched on issues such as memory work and decolonisation. Zambia is very ethnically diverse, with seventy-three recognised national languages, and it is estimated that around 60 per cent of the population belongs to more than one ethnic group. LuCAC very pointedly wished to inaugurate the art centre with an exhibition that reflects this rich diversity. The artists all have a connection to Lusaka, but represent different hybrid identities. They also represent quite different artistic practices, but their contributions to the exhibition all relate, in some sense, to the past and memory work.

Banji Chona, Ngoma Zya Budima, 2020, detail. Installation view from LuCAC, 2023. Photo: Mariann Enge.

Chona studied art in Italy, but now lives in a small village in the south of Zambia where she is involved in a training project for women. In her works, she is interested in relating to ancestral knowledge and giving traditional elements new meaning – “repatriating through recreating,” as she puts it. Her installation on display at LuCAC is about grief, addressing losses both personal and collective. Ngoma Zya Budima (2020) features a sound work and a collection of drums used in funeral ceremonies combined with photographs sourced from Chona’s own family as well as historical photographs of the BaTonga people. These images, taken by Italian researchers during the colonial period, Chona has modified by adding an extra layer of elements such as butterflies, drums, and modern loudspeakers. A liberating move that lifts the people depicted out of the anthropologist’s objectifying gaze and into another sphere, dreamlike and strange.

The installation continues out in the garden: from the superstructure above the square in front of the art centre hangs a mobile consisting of rattles also used at funerals, where they are fastened to rings around women’s ankles. Beneath the mobile is a mirror placed in a small mound of the red soil in which the dead are traditionally buried and with which, according to Chona, the BaTonga people have a deep connection. She encouraged visitors to touch the art, and in the artists’ conversation she expressed a general interest in “allowing temporality.” The earth-based and organic materials she uses in her art will always disappear, and she pointed out that the same applies to memories. She referred to herself as a kind of alchemist, taking a critical view of the tendency in Western culture to want to hold on to things.

Germain Ngoma, Mask Heads, 1996, detail. Installation view LuCAC, 2023. Photo: Mariann Enge.

Ngoma also works a great deal with temporality and the impermanent. Most of his sculptures no longer exist as physical objects. He likes to use found objects and industrial surplus materials, especially styrofoam packaging, which he refers to as “negative forms,” a concept he also links to memory as the void that remains. In the exhibition at LuCAC, Ngoma shows Mask Heads (1996), three different sculptural heads made of a mottled grey plastic-like material, all with protrusions around the eye area, as if they were wearing protective goggles. One of them is also wearing a kind of helmet. On closer inspection, we see that the heads are covered with small round fragments in various colours, some with bits of text; it resembles the paper waste that accumulates in a punching machine. Furthermore, he shows Coat of Arms (2021), a work previously exhibited at Tenthaus in Oslo: three hanging white canvases on which photographs of historical figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Ghandi are covered by circular expanses of yellow-brown wax. The wax forms a protective film over the faces, partially obliterating the portraits, some of which are hidden in the fabric’s folds – like memories that emerge only partially.

Ginwalla, who grew up in Zambia and has Indian heritage, describes the experience of having what she calls a non-linear identity. In her art, she often works with archives and other people’s photographs. During the talk, she argued that photographs can offer a sense of belonging as they age. Spanning two floors, connected via LuCAC’s winding spiral staircase, her installation presents a large body of film footage and photographs from Fine Art Studios, one of many Indian-owned photo studios in Zambia in the 1950s. The installation also comprises memorabilia such as antique cameras and rolls of film, as well as a studio set-up – complete with camera, photo chair, and an old (presumably defective) photo lamp – where visitors are welcome to sit and be photographed.

Sana Ginwalla, Fine Art Studios, 2023 , detail. Photo: LuCAC.

Makala is a self-taught and prolific multimedia artist with a very complex practice. He also runs a studio in Lusaka known as Studio 225, which he plans to use partly as an exhibition venue in the future. During a visit there, I got to see a large selection of his work, mainly paintings, prints, and artist books, but also sculptures – including two full-scale replicas of Land Rover wheels carved out of wood: exquisite craftsmanship, but also a critical reference to the British colonists’ vehicle of choice.

In the exhibition at LuCAC, Makala shows Isaiah 34:13 (2023), a large collage work with layers upon layers of images, text, and objects, incorporating references to past and present-day Zambia. The title of the work refers to the rather gloomy biblical verse: “Thorns shall grow over its strongholds, nettles and thistles in its fortresses. It shall be the haunt of jackals, an abode for ostriches,” from the chapter called Judgment on the Nations. Like the other exhibitors, Makala is concerned with memories, but also with mining, a major industry in Zambia. On the floor below the collage installation are twelve plate-like sculptures of limestone and marble arranged in four piles. For the opening, Makala invited the lapidary Rudolf Kangwa to take part in a performance where he could be observed working on various precious stones; these are now also included in the exhibition.

David Daut Makala, Isaiah 34:13, 2023, detail. Photo: Mariann Enge.

Zambia is a country with many challenges – poverty and extreme differences in living conditions being among the most conspicuous. Large advertisements posted along the main roads depict the new president, Hakainde Hichilema, alternately promising to end malaria and to put an end to corruption in the country, an aspect which ordinary Zambians particularly associate with their encounters with the police. Homosexuality remains illegal and can incur long prison sentences. At the same time, Zambia is obviously a country undergoing rapid development and change. With the title of the opening exhibition, Prospice, Kwacha! LuCAC also looks to the future. Prospice, meaning “look forward,” is the Latin motto on Lusaka’s coat of arms, once chosen by the colonial authorities to signal the ambitions for the young capital’s future. Whereas kwacha, which in several local languages means something like “it has dawned,” was chosen by Zambia’s first independent government as the name of the country’s local currency to signal the bright times to come.

It will certainly be exciting to follow LuCAC and the Zambian art scene in the years to come. The new art centre appears to have the potential to become an artistic powerhouse, but the extent to which the project will succeed will naturally depend on how Zambian artists and the general art public will use the venue. It also depends to a certain extent on foreign artists being aware and making use of the opportunity to apply for a residency there, to exchange knowledge and impulses. The idea behind the residency programme is that there is always room for one Zambian and one foreign guest artist. As yet, there is only one residency lined up: Amsterdam-based Chinese artist Lyra Yuchen Li, who will visit for a research stay during March-April this year.

From a Norwegian point of view, it is important to recognise the value of having the Norwegian art scene include artists who have backgrounds in and connections to countries outside Europe. Norwegian – and Nordic – cultural life is made richer, more open, and more relevant thanks to such connections, for which our internationally oriented art academies help lay the foundations. Of course, many people work more calmly and quietly with their art. But then, all of a sudden, you know someone who has started an art centre in Lusaka.

From the inauguration of Lusaka Contemporary Art Centre, 6 January 2023. Photo: LuCAC.

This article was updated on 30 January 2023 at 14:00.