By Appointment With: Stary Mwaba – artist, TED speaker, and all round great guy

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There are bizarre and beautiful moments one often stumbles upon over the course of a day, a week, and life in general. One such moment was having the fortuitous opportunity to meet the Mwaba brothers, at the exhibition at 37d Gallery. Another such moment was when a client and friend mentioned her enjoyable visit to see the creative space, where stunning works begin life as a thought, and are transformed into masterpieces. Last but by no means least, we connected with Guy (A Conceptual Designer, Collector and Installation Artist, with 40+ years experience in the industry) who facilitated our meeting with Stary Mwaba – the cherry on an already marvellous cake!

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After a studio tour, lengthy and fascinating discussion, recorder set and we were ready to begin. Here is the transcript, happy reading.

TCS: What does your role entail – as an artist, or as a father, as a Zambian…however you wish to answer that?

SM: Wow, that’s such a grand question. I think there are many ways to answer that. I’m coming from a family, I’ve always been and taken the role as a big brother seriously, and at times life has been tough. My mother getting sick was hard on me, and I had to do something about it. That’s from a family point of view…
As an artist, I think I’m contributing to the redefining of how we look at contemporary art practice. My interest has been traditionally from history, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the history of art here [Zambia]? Chief Lewanika [comes from the Western Province of Zambia] had an extensive art collection. Sometimes when you look at the practice now, compared to then, there is a gap. I think our practice now is based on a Western concept.

TCS: Are you referring to The West, or Western Zambia?

SM:
Laughter. The West! I’m interested in – for example what I am working on now – has a rich history. It looks Zambian, yet also has contemporary influences. Archival files are very important to me. I’m always going back and forth, and try to talk about now whilst also observing history.

TCS: From a basic perspective, would you say that you look at a period of history and then go ahead and paint, or draw? Or is it that you begin to work on a piece, and then remember a moment in history, or an old book, and then alter what you started, slightly?
SM: I’ll give you an example, in order to answer that best. The story we spoke of earlier, the man who had aspirations of going to the moon. I was looking at a period [early 1960s] before [Zambian] independence, and the relationship between going to the moon and travelling in space, and achieving independence. The mindset then, there was this man who opened up the dialogue. There was a large focus on the US, and the Americans going to the moon. Closely related to now, many of the young people are looking to the US and what Americans are doing – the relationship between us and them. Nowadays, whilst there is a sense of observing what they are doing, there is also a mentality whereby we are also looking at here at home and finding our own inspirations and aspirations here [Zambia]. I’m an optimistic person… so I borrow from stories like that, stories of courage which are very inspiring. Sometimes I tell these stories, borrowing from them, using similar themes. You can see it in my work. Talking about them and using history to tell a modern day story. I’m painting a lot now – using history, as well as my past.

TCS: Of course your past and your present are always going to intersect, isn’t it? It has to. Otherwise if you ignore important aspects of your past and your life [we had an earlier discussion of what it was like for you growing up, your early influences, your responsibilities with your siblings], if you didn’t express these matters in your work, you’d have a blank canvas.

SM: True, true. I think that is what my work is about. I’m painting my past, my present and my aspirations for the future. So that is my focus, and it is what I’m drawing and sculpting.

TCS: You do sculptures as well?

SM: From time to time, yes.

TCS: In what medium?

SM: I like wire a lot. As we discussed with this work [see immediate x2 photographs below].

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TCS: You did a TEDx talk recently – we are huge fans of TED – tell us more about that?

SM: Gosh, approaching the talk was difficult. I remember doing the rehearsals…

TCS: What do the rehearsals involve? Do you have a chance to talk about what you’re going to say, and get feedback, or is it verbatim from the script, reading from a piece of paper? Or more of a broad review?

SM: The first time I went I remember it so well, I was anxious, and I was there with my daughter, and she was absolutely shocked: “Dad you’re talking about yourself in public. You usually speak very well!” Yes, that is true… My opening line was centred around how I started painting and drawing. It was mainly because I was terrified of talking to people and explaining myself; I was very much a terrible speaker. In actual fact, my first rehearsal went terribly badly, in the middle of my talk, I walked out. I just couldn’t remember…

TCS: So you left the stage at this point, during the rehearsals?

SM: Yes of course, thankfully it was still the rehearsal. I was exhausted, with late nights and early mornings – this was during the lead up to, and working towards my exhibition–

TCS: Well, TED came at a bit of a strange time in your world. As preparation for opening the night, and the days that follow for your upcoming exhibition, all of which present an enormous amount of pressure. To be thinking about both (at the same time), is somewhat trying.

SM: Yes it was, but at the same time, I also realise how important it is to talk there, it’s a fantastic platform.

TCS: Of course, TED and all its branches are an institution, a global institution, for one to speak on a TED stage is truly an honour.

SM: I felt it was truly special. I looked at the people who were standing there, and I– What I do is paint, and talk about topics surrounding my work and passion in situations like this [the studio]; and for me to be standing there, in front of all of these famous people and talking about my work, it felt really special.

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TCS: A little off topic, but do you ever see yourself as famous?

SM: Not many times, not necessarily.

TCS: Is this still the case when you are recognised and admired by, shall we say fans, all the way from California (US), and the depths of London – galleries and private individuals alike. They are purposefully seeking your work, acknowledging your talents.

SM: You know what? It’s a bit strange! Here in Zambia we have musicians, who are really famous, and everybody will recognise them when they are out and about, as well as in the compounds. I go to various things, and nobody knows me, and I think it is really cool somehow, you know because there are people who know what I do and what I stand for.

TCS: They know your work, but perhaps they do not know you, personally.

SM: Exactly! They don’t know me as a person, and you know I think there’s something cool about that. From time to time, there are moments when people do recognise me. But then it depends on who it is – collector’s don’t live in compounds.

TCS: We have a wide and international readership, for the purpose of the recording, may you explain what a compound is here [Zambia]?

Pause. Silence. Laughter.

SM: Well, it’s erm… I thought you’d know that, in London?

TCS: Laughter. It has different meanings to different people… I guess one could interpret it as, an extremely heavily populated neighbourhood.

SM: Well, not just heavily populated. It is also a…

TCS: Low income area?

SM: Like, what they [in America] would call a ghetto.

TCS: Okay, we can move on to the next question. Would you consider doing another TED talk in the future, or is it too soon to say?

SM: Not yet, it is too soon to say. I think so, yes. Given the chance again, I would like to retell aspects of my story. As I left out so many things that , I believe are so vital to what defines my work and why I do what I do. Firstly, when I speak about my work, it is important to think about the format and how it is presented – which I rarely do. Yet when giving a talk such as that, it is important to speak in a certain way.

TCS: We agree, being able to tick all the boxes, for what you are tagged in, and what you are categorised in, in a specific manner.

SM: Yes, and that was difficult for me to do. I felt like I didn’t quite have enough.

TCS: Do you think one can ever rehearse enough to be able to tell one’s story? Like you have pointed out and were saying a moment ago, there are so many versions and details, that it is easy to miss things out. Really one can rehearse seven thousand times, and even by the 7,0001 time, not have it precision perfect.

SM: Yes, and I think everybody is special, and have their own stories to tell, and I somehow hope it acts as a way of people to get to me, and I could say more about it all.

TCS: Are you welcome to questions, and people reaching out, approaching you to find out more?

SM: Sure, of course!

TCS: You can expand on what has already been said?

SM: I’m much better at one to one conversations

TCS: Rather than, speaking to a crowd of 5,000 people at TED?!

SM: Yes, and I know to a very large extent how inspirational it can be. Especially in Kasama (Zambia) [where Stary was based before], which is really far out there, there are many people who are inspired by the fact that I had the courage to leave.

TCS: Additionally, they see that, you lived side by side and see where you came from and how far you’ve come, where you are now. Perhaps for them, they see this and say to themselves “I can leave Kasama some day, and become the next Stary Mwaba!”.

SM: Exactly, and coming here [Lusaka]. Starting off in the agricultural showgrounds [an open space of land, used for expositions], I had no house, and then after a long while things suddenly began to look up, and of course I’m glad. I feel like I’m contributing something, and it is really special and it is part of my life’s purpose.

TCS: You know we agree, and it is as we discussed before [we started recording], if one doesn’t live one’s life purpose, it is rather selfish. It is vital to share your gift!

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TCS: Our next question is, who do you work with?

SM: Pauses.

TCS: Not to worry, we ask everybody this! It can be any and everybody, from youer suppliers, to your fellow artists, curators, galleries…

SM: I’ve worked with a lot of people! Firstly Lutanda my mentor and friend, unfortunately he passed away two years ago. I’ve also worked with my young brother–

TCS: Oh yes, we met him, at your exhibition opening night. He’s an artist too!

SM: Yes he is an artist. He started off assisting me, I’d tell him “do this, do that”, it evolved from there. I also have the kids who come from the next compound near to here [the studio], and I’ve noticed they are very artistic. So we are working together.

TCS: So you’re helping them with their art and encouraging them?

SM: Oh yes, definitely. Then of course as you know, I’m showing my work with Claire Chan and the team at 37d Gallery. I worked a lot with Sardanis, we did a project at Kasisi Orphanage for five years. I’m glad to say, there are many young people following a path towards art.

TCS: Did you then do an exhibition of the children’s work?

SM: Yes we did, and it was fantastic.

TCS: Describe the current art scene in Lusaka, or perhaps Zambia overall? As we are very aware that you know lots about what is happening beyond Lusaka!

SM: I think it is very interesting. There are a lot of up and coming young artists, that have the courage to think outside the box, not making the usual pieces that are to be expected. Also, we are at a point where we all have access to wider information and what is going on. Access has improved tremendously! So you have young artists who know what is happening out there – and that is where the art scene is. Then of course new galleries coming up like 37d, who are interested in beyond crafts–

TCS: Yes beyond crafts, we noticed they have quite the array of works.

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TCS: Which direction do you see the art industry in Zambia going, in the next 5 – 10 years?

SM: Hmm, which direction, that’s an interesting question…

TCS: Do you think it will continue the way it is, or as you mentioned, the many up and coming artists who are present on the art scene, will they influence the direction?

SM: I’m excited to see what will happen! As, there are artists that are going to train at art schools, and artists going for residency programs. I think it will be very exciting. It is hard to put my finger on exactly what it shall be. But I can certainly say there will more galleries, and more creative art spaces. We are also working on the latter.

TCS: Dear readers, watch this space, it sounds intriguing and we look forward to seeing it!

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TCS: What are the last 3 books you read or media you enjoy? Films, or magazines? We see your shelves are bursting at the seams!

SM: I read a lot of Max Beckmann, an incredibly interesting artist who was exiled in Amsterdam and Paris. I also recently read, the name has left…a book about a young boy, who wanted to leave the place where he lived–

TCS: Oooh, is it The Alchemist?

SM: No, I’ve remembered, it is The Greatest Salesman! I have also read The Alchemist, great book. Adore Paulo Coelho.

TCS: Yes, The Alchemist is a wonderfully powerful book. So, The Greatest Salesman? Go ahead–

SM: I’m not necessarily a good reader, but book there are a handful I’ve read over and over again, as well as powerful and inspirational books, as I’ve mentioned The Alchemist, The Greatest Salesman, The Richest Man in Babylon. Laughter. I enjoy reading books like that. Of course my old favourite, is a work about Mark Rothko.

TCS: Oh yes, we had a rich discussion about him earlier, in fact that is linked closely to our next question–

SM: I really enjoy reading about artists, naturally.

TCS: What is your favourite artist/work of art/art movement? You’d say Rothko is at the top of that list?

SM: Yes, Rothko absolutely has been, and still is. Of course I’ve looked at Picasso several times, but Rothko comes first.

TCS: What is the reason for Rothko, or Picasso, or perhaps it is for different reasons? Why is it that you like them both, or have been influenced by them/works of art they’ve created?

SM: Oh wait a moment, I also have to include Ibrahim el-Salahi. A Sudanese artist, based in London. He’s amazing, and uses great colours.
Rothko’s work is striking for me. At the time I started, I used to use lots of raw colours, and when I started out it was great to see such a powerful message coming from Rothko’s use of colours and shapes. It is actually shocking for me. I didn’t know many artists back then. Additionally, I’ve read lots about his life and it also interested me. I contemplated a lot during a darker time, and I read about this artist and his courage. It related when I read about his life.
Back to el-Salahi, he’s an African artist who for a long period of time was trying to fit in. Then he made it about him, and his work. Somewhat of a rebellion. His work is inspiring. I used to question: am I an African artist or an artist that’s African? Which I somewhat regret. His work is beautiful, I look at his work and instantly feel extremely liberated just looking at his work.

TCS: Perhaps you are even more true to yourself by sticking to what you want to show, rather than what ‘the institution’, or ‘other’ or people want you to show.

SM: Of course, and with mixed dynamics and mediums, we have to use what makes us feel more authentic. For example, “Chitenge is African”, well actually perhaps it is not. Or perhaps it is, because we’ve accepted it, and that is what makes it African. I’ve accepted it, and taken it, and that is what makes it African. Not because–

TCS: Not because it is inherently African? Well yes, because as we discussed before, it is made in Holland or made in China. Yet, it is one of the largest symbols of Africa. For the purpose of the recording, chitenge is the traditional material that many African countries have embraced, and is worn–

SM: Yes, and growing up our mother’s carried us on their backs, using this material, and I think that is one reason that I used it in my work.

TCS: It is functional, and aesthetically lovely, and it is a multi-purpose piece of material.

SM: Of course, it can also be political. Being used as political advertisements–

** NB: It is currently campaign season in Zambia **

TCS: Oh yes of course, we have seen these around. Well, that would make for an interesting piece of work, non? If you took say, well actually…we are not going to name any party in particular as we show no bias…select a party, and create a painting using their colours etc

TCS: What motivates you to stay in this role/industry?

SM: I get to do what I enjoy, and I don’t think there is anything else I can do, well, better than this! Laughter. That is true for every medium. Yet you know, making art is tough. The journey and creating work, even before one decides to be an artist is a really big deal. As there is opposition from everywhere.

TCS: It is certainly a conscious decision–

SM: Yes absolutely, then people decide that there is value in what you do and wish to buy your work, it is exciting and an honour.

TCS: Anything else you’d like to tell us before we go – what, and who, and what would you like the world to know of Stary Mwaba? What do you want to be remembered for – sounds a tad morbid, but – your legacy will live, simply because you are creating pieces that are in demand. Okay, that’s a rather steered question, anything you want to tell us freely?

SM: I’ve not thought about that, actually I’ve just turned 40 perhaps I ought to start thinking about that a little more–

TCS: Gosh, the mid-life crisis is about to ensue.

Laughter.

SM: My mother used to think I was stubborn, but in a good way.

TCS: Meaning you stick to your guns?

SM: Yes, and I strongly think that there’s more to what we are doing in the art world. I’m contributing to something that may not make sense now, but it may do in the future…

TCS: But art has no language – whether in Berlin, London, Lusaka… of the three people from each location looking at the same piece, they all take in different things, whatever it is they wish to take in. It goes beyond what one sees, at first glance. Perhaps that may be where your legacy is?

SM: You know you’re really making me think about this now, it hasn’t crossed my mind. You know, because I can draw a line, and it means something, that is important. I’m contributing to looking at art in a different way, especially in our context – where it can be valued, and looked at – to the development of humans, our minds, and the various emotions induced. In our society, here in Zambia and beyond.

TCS: Wow, thank you so much Stary. Truly a pleasure to speak with you, and hear everything you have to say!

SM: Well, I hope it all makes sense?

TCS: Even if it doesn’t, that is part of the joy of being an artist. Laughter. No it does make sense, thank you so much!

SM: No, thank you.

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