During the year we lived in Malawi, where my wife, Brenda, was teaching French at Bishop Mackenzie International School, we enjoyed, and continue to enjoy, the friendship of some of our colleagues. After reading the first installment of this blog, one of them admitted liking what he had read but wondered why I had not mentioned art amongst the essentials. The inquiry, as you will have surmised by now, came from the art teacher. And it is a very legitimate question as it is well known that I have had a long love affair with art. I have confessed that much in my profile on this blog. At one time I owned an art gallery in Edmonton, Alberta. Quite an adventure that was! Furthermore, I devoted some of my professional publications to the relationship between literature and the visual arts. Mostly in French, but a few in English. This interest lives on, and wherever we travel, Brenda and I make every possible attempt to explore the local art scene and culture.
Soon after our arrival in Malawi, and more specifically in Lilongwe, its capital, we were exposed to the local art scene which consisted mostly of stylized paintings on paper, batiks, drawings and wood carvings sold along the beaches of Lake Malawi, on the streets in most cities and villages, and in the local markets where it sits alongside woven baskets and used clothing. Malawi has long been famous for its hardwood carvings. There are hundreds of carvers, all of them repeating the same motifs over and over again. Few are ever credited by name for their work but this might be changing. During our stay in Malawi, we became friends with a Senga Bay carver by the name of John Abdallah and purchased some of his work. The usual African Chieftain chair depicts animals seen in safaris or people in a village scene (which I tended to describe as “the village people” to friends, not understanding why they laughed so much). The chair pictured here depicts one of my favorite trees, the baobab, and was the first of its kind, carved at my request. It has since become a desired motif.
It is hard in a poor country like Malawi (one of the ten poorest in the world) to earn a living, let alone earn a living as an artist. There are few Malawian painters, perhaps as few as two dozen. Why is that? Well, for a start, there are no public art galleries or public museums in all of Malawi. The only museum of importance is found at the catholic Mission in Mua, the Kungoni Centre of Culture and Art . It was founded by Father Claude Boucher, an accomplished artist in his own right. He is responsible for the architectural design of the museum as well as the painting of all the murals you will see there. He also created the carving workshops where hundreds of carvers have received instruction as well as the financial support of the mission shops. The museum also boasts one of the largest and most impressive collections of African masks depicting all the rights of passage of the various tribes and religious groups in Malawi.
There are, however, a few commercial galleries in both Blantyre and Lilongwe and it is in one of those galleries that we discovered the work of Innocent Willinga, a Malawian Impressionist painter. Willinga studied art in South Africa at the College of Cape Town. But he is for the most part self-taught. His art, he claims, is learned on the street. As he walks around, human figures in their routine experiences move into his subconsciousness from where they eventually emerge in bold, colorful and meaningful compositions. Brenda and I discovered this painting, entitled Tailors of our wishes, in La Galleria, a gallery located in the Old Town Mall, in Lilongwe. Most of the major painters of Malawi are represented there. No other artist, no other painting moved us as profoundly as this canvas did. It is bold, alive, and totally reminiscent of the life on the streets of Lilongwe. This is where people live and work, on the sidewalk, earning a few kwatchas at a time. Yet, this painting is in no way a cliché. In its brushstrokes and deep colours, it reminds me more of fauvism than impressionism. I think of Gaughin and Derain and my heart sings. You can click on this link to find another good example of his work, entitled Green Future, a piece commissioned by Oxfam International.
As the French proverb goes, jamais deux sans trois: here comes another Malawian art experience. Each year, in November, Lilongwe hosts the Wild Life Society Art Fest, a benefit event attracting hundreds of artisans. In 2008, the exhibit was held at Bishop Mackenzie International School. People come from all over Lilongwe, mingling throughout the gym. When Brenda and I arrived, we almost had to elbow ourselves through the crowd. We both went our different ways to look at the artwork. The pace was rather slow and it took a while to cover the place, looking at the art, visiting with parents and colleagues as one does on such occasions. After quite a while we ran into each other and Brenda asked me if I had seen anything of interest. There was only one piece, I said, that really spoke to me. I know which one, she answered and walked directly to my Bao Boys. The painting was untitled, so this is the name I gave it. I don’t even know who the artist is. As far as I can tell, the painting is signed by Inetium G., and dated 08. Not that it really matters. This painting is exceptional, in spite of its darkness, it is strikingly luminous. The light changes all day long and the painting has a life of its own whether the light is natural or artificial. The boys are fully absorbed in their game, as if the world revolved around it. Bao is a board game played in much of Africa. Anywhere you travel in Malawi, you will find a game in progress, with spectators totally involved as if it were a sporting event. Children who don’t have a board will dig 32 holes in the ground and play with seeds. This painting is meaningful to me. It reminds me of the many hours spent learning this deceivingly simple yet intricate game. Of the many hours Brenda and Jecton (that is the name of the art teacher, by the way) spent in serious but friendly competition. These memories are precious and will long live with me.
I have , over the years, been privileged to encounter many talented artists and art teachers whom I am proud to count amongst my dearest friends and you will hear about them, their art and some of our adventures together in future posts.
Most of what I have learned about art comes from the experience of living with it. However, I must admit to extensive reading and university credit at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. In discussions about art, the question often arises as to what constitutes good art. There are many answers, but for me it is simple. If it gives you joy, it is a good piece of art. If you dream about it, it is good art. If it speaks to you, it is good art. If it questions your assumptions, it is good art. If you feel pain when you have to part with it, it is good art. There is nothing academic about it. Trust your heart.