Aaron Samuel Mulenga: The Power of Black Art and Representation

Above: Aaron Samuel Mulenga

Barnabas Ticha Muvhuti (BTM): Firstly, for those who do not know you and your work, I thought I’d start by asking if you could give an overview of yourself.

Aaron Samuel Mulenga (ASM): I grew up in Zambia and currently I’m pursuing my PhD in the History of Art and Visual Culture at the University of California, Santa Cruz. My practice has looked at transcendence and how it can be represented through various forms of spirituality, my particular focus has been on the Christian faith as well as aspects of Zambian culture. During my Masters of Fine Art degree (2018-2019), which was also my most recent body of work, I created a body of work called Icilengwa Lesa: Transcendence Through Flight.

BTM: Why the concept of transcendence?

ASM: The reason I was interested in looking at transcendence was to explore different ways that people have been able to go beyond physical limitations through spiritual means, be it prayer or other forms of spirituality. A starting point for me was to look at images I found in an illustrated family Bible, which depicted Jesus and his disciples. I realised that very few of these images represented Black people. This led me to think through how I could insert Black figures into these visual narratives so that I could see them mirrored in Christianity imagery. During this time, I also started to think of ways in which I could include African cultural references (broadly speaking) into works that represented Christianity.

For a long time I have always felt that the way in which Christianity and our education system in Zambia, particularly private education, favour a Eurocentric lens. I see this in the way references to Jesus and certain parts of our national history favour the West more than they do the people of our country and the continent, that is Zambia and Africa. Through my work I intent to advocate for a refocusing of our centre so that we are able to give the same prominence to knowledge production in Africa as we do to various parts of the West. 

BTM: When did you decide this is the trajectory you want your practice to follow, and are there individuals who helped influence your decision?

ASM: It dawned on me during my undergraduate studies that this was the direction I wanted my work to take because it was then that I met various people who were articulating what I had felt but did not have the words to express myself till then. In my third year, with Professor Barbaro Martinez-Ruiz I began research on several cultures in Africa such as the BaKongo in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Chokwe people in Angola, Congo and Zambia. During that period, I began inserting cultural symbols in my artwork in order to connect with aspects of my cultural heritage while also exploring how these intersected with my Christian faith. I think this is important because for young Black individuals who are looking for ways to better express themselves an opportunity for a diverse self-representation becomes available through culture and faith (at least that is what worked for me). I believe other young people who are looking for an example of something to follow from their heritage can look down similar paths.

BTM: Part of your work references and makes use of elements drawn from the museum institution in an African set up. Would you like say more on this?

ASM: As I am engaging in my PhD something that stands out for me is the idea of power dynamics between spaces and how narratives can be constructed by those that are assumed to possess more power over others. For instance the museum is an intriguing space for me because of its origins as a Western construct. What intrigues me is that it provides a space to study the “Other” and sets up a dichotomy of “Them” and “Us.” When I think about anthropology, and the reason for which people were studied, especially by scholars coming from certain parts of the world, I feel that the negative impacts of such studies remain. I am thinking as well about Zambia which was colonised by the British and how residues of colonialism can still be seen. You have colonies set up and the colonizers framing the ways in which the colonies must see themselves and be seen by the rest of the world. Though Zambia attained independence in 1964, we still have laws and structures in place that still seem to privilege a colonial mindset.

For my work on transcendence I looked at objects in the Lusaka, Ndola and Livingstone museums in Zambian that people used for flying. These works appeared under the ‘witchcraft’ section of the museum. The choice to label these objects as ‘witchcraft’ items makes me question whether the users would use such terminology and what impact this has on the way the objects are read by the viewers. The fact that these artefacts are labelled as ‘witchcraft’ objects implies that they are bad, evil and malevolent. But that is so far from the truth. Some witches may have used particular spells, that can be read on places like Spell Guru, to create positive outcomes in order to remove any negative energy that may be around them. When people hear the word ‘witchcraft’, they perceive it to be negative, when in fact, it could be used to create some greater good in the world. I feel there is a need to consider what impact labels have over artefacts and the way they are read. Whether or not I put a value judgement on these objects I think they are multifaceted. It is my opinion that having one narrative closes off other conversations around such objects. I believe the museum is important as it houses cultural artefacts and frames what sort of narrative they take. It is necessary to think through what these sites of knowledge production do, especially where cultural heritage is concerned. 

In the same body of work Icilengwa Lesa: Transcendence Through Flight, for instance, I created an artwork called The Last Supper, where I collected cultural objects from the Iziko Museums, South Africa. This installation was on display in Stellenbosch at the Stellenbosch Triennale. I decided to obtain museum objects that made specific connotations to culture because I wanted to show how the Christian faith and African culture can overlap and how there is room for the visual representation in Christianity to encompass more of an African narrative, if you will. Also by using objects from the museum I am also questioning what other functions the museum can serve and how it can be connected to contemporary conversations that do not feel fixed in time. The response to these works in South Africa has been great. I am interested to see how these conversations would be taken in Zambia. 

Above: Last Supper. Museum Object: Flast, lamp, saw, spear, staff, Bible, axe, crosses, coins, thorns, keys, machete, reed mats. Dimensions Variable. 2020.

BTM: Where do you derive inspiration for the work you do?

ASM: I am inspired by nature and being outdoors. I love going to the mountain whenever I can. There is a certain release that comes when I am in a space that is grounded and open, as opposed to being in the city and the spaces that are constructed by man. There is nothing wrong with those spaces, but I feel at peace and relaxed when I am in nature. I also draw my inspiration from other artists such as Lawrence Yombwe who is a Zambian painter. He uses the Mbusa ceremony, which is a marriage ceremony in Zambia rich in symbolism, to express life values that have grounded him through his art. Other artists I look up to are El Anatsui and Yinka Shonibare because they have managed to craft a narrative through their work that is able to reference and speak from an Afrocentric perspective while also referencing and being in communication with the West. I believe balance is key because one space cannot exist without the other. Other artists I have drawn inspiration from are Isaac Julien and Jane Alexander. I love sculpture and I like to work with my hands, being able to touch and shape things and manipulate materials. When I see artists who do that and produce three dimensional and tactile work that resonates with me I am motivated to push my practice further.

BTM: Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, 2020 had started well for you. Would you tell me a bit about your work at the Stellenbosch Triennale?

ASM: I took part in the Stellenbosch Triennale titled Tomorrow There Will Be More of Us. The Chief Curator of the entire Triennale is Khanyisile Mbongwa and the co-curator, who also curated ‘On The Cusp’, which is the exhibition that I participated in, is Bernard Akoi-Jackson. In the exhibition I featured two installations and a video piece. These works were part of my masters show at Rhodes University in Makhanda which I have discussed above. The Last Supper installation depicts a representation of the last supper Christ had with his disciples before he was crucified. The elements I use are a symbolic representation of Christ and his disciples. The thorns represent Christ, while the spear is for Thomas who was bludgeoned to death. The machete was used to skin Bartholomew alive. The Bible refers to Mathew the tax collector, and so on. I also had another installation called Amaka which means power. It has several fists coming out of a bed of coffee. The bed of coffee is in a Chokwe symbol called icingelyengele, which itself is also a symbol for power. I am interested in this idea of symbolism because it can be understood by people who know what the symbol means. The way people can effectively engage with that symbol is if they know it. If you don’t know it – it is esoteric, it is spiritual – there is also nothing wrong with imagination. You can relate it to the symbols you have seen in your life before. Coffee references Christianity in that the religion first got to our shores as far back as between the first and fourth centuries and could be found in Ethiopia and Egypt. I am using Ethiopia as a reference point because that is also where coffee is believed to have originated from. So using coffee as a medium connects the story to Ethiopia and to Christianity.

This exhibition was meaningful for me because I was able to connect with artists from around the continent and have such beautiful conversations in a way that I would not have had were I not present. It was also great to see that there are more resonances than there are differences in what people are interested in exploring through their art practices. I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this inaugural Stellenbosch Triennale exhibition.  

BTM: I understand you’re also part of the Matereality exhibition at the Iziko South African National Gallery. Tell me more about your work there.

ASM: The ‘Materiality’ exhibition at Iziko SANG is a great place to explore the way materials are used in art. I am presenting a piece called Flight is Better When Done in Tandem, thinking of how for any change to happen the struggle cannot happen alone. Two are better than one. Around the world no one has changed things alone, but with the help of others it is possible to bring about change. The work has two people embracing and they have halos on their heads. I made this soft sculpture or draped piece out of hessian sacks which are used to transport coffee which is the material I used to depict the couple’s faces. The politics of movement comes into play because these coffee bags originated from Brazil, Guatemala and Ethiopia but found themselves in South Africa through trade. The material tells you where the bags came from and the grades of the coffee. You begin to see quality – which coffee is considered the best and so on. In the same way when I think about the way culture moves and how it is disseminated a similarity can be drawn to the way these bags move across the world. The inspiration for this piece was the Zambian Space Programme that happened in Zambia in the early sixties and was pioneered by Mukuka Nkoloso who wanted to go to take Zambia space. What drew me to this story was Nkoloso’s desire to rise above limitations.

Above: Flight is Better in Tandem. Hessian sacks and coffee. 2019

 Flight is Better in Tandem. Hessian sacks and coffee. 2019

BTM:Now it looks like you don’t want to leave Stellenbosch anymore, haha! I understand you’re also taking part in the Unleavened exhibition at the Dyman Gallery. Please tell me more about it.

ASM: Stellenbosch is the place that orchestrated Apartheid. It still has a wealthy white population who occupy its central business district. Being there feels different to being in the heart of Cape Town. When I was there I constantly asked myself why certain spaces need a concentration of just one race in this multicultural country. The Stellenbosch Triennale with its Pan-African outlook made a bold statement to challenge this scene with the artists and artworks it chose to invite.

Through ‘40 Stones in the Wall’, which is an artist collective interested in showcasing artworks that represent the Christian faith, I was invited to participate in the ‘Unleaven’exhibition where I presented photographs that depict the Holy Trinity, that is God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three Black women.  The exhibition was set up when I was back in Santa Cruz, so I have not seen it in person. If God is spirit, I would like to ask how we can find diverse ways of representing God for people to find a connection and resonance regardless of what background they are from.

Above: Communion, Photographic print on Epson paper. 2016

BTM: What’s next after these shows?

ASM: As I am currently engaged in my studies, it is taking most of my time. I had a show lined up at the University of California, Santa Cruz campus for September 2020, but due to the outbreak of Covid-19, it will not be happening. I am not that great with working online but I think I need to figure out how to put my art on the internet and engage with people on platforms such as Instagram and Facebook as these seem to be the sites I am most familiar with that have people engaging in conversations consistently. As for my ambitions, one thing that I would like to see in Zambia is a foundry that would be geared towards creating bronze artworks that would be put in the public for people to engage with. I think it is great having all these ideas and interacting with museums and academic institutions, but for people to get to a place where they are interested in art at a greater level (reference to Zambia), I think it would be necessary to invest more time, energy and resources into creating public artworks around the country for people to engage with.

  • Aaron Samuel Mulenga is a visual artist, a lover of life and a Ph.D. student in the History of Art and Visual Culture at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
  • Barnabas Ticha Muvhuti is a Ph.D. candidate in Art History in the NRF SARChI Chair programme in Geopolitics and the Arts of Africa, Rhodes University.

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