Chilyapa Lwando: the Healing Power of Art

One of the paintings I bought in 2010

In his 2011 book Art Healing: Visual Art for Emotional Insight and Well-Being Portland, Maine psychiatrist Jeremy Spiegel says that art can heal: “Through interacting with artworks, it is possible to gain mastery over emotional pain, psychological traumas, and paralyzing mental stagnation to attain a more positive perspective on life.” Just looking at art can heal you if you let it. Spiegel urges you to let it “penetrate the callused skin of your unconscious.”

And so it did. Lying in the surgical bull pen last Tuesday, waiting for my turn on the table, the last thing I expect are floating images of Chilyapa Lwando’s art. Maybe it’s the tension. Maybe it’s the IV in my arm. Maybe it’s just that I’ve always loved this guy’s work. But my lady friend on the right expresses a lot of what I was feeling — alone, trapped, scared, reduced to a human common denominator, at the mercy of the universe — things I was feeling even when I bought the painting in 2011 in Zambia. And yet she makes me laugh, too. We’re all caught in the same net, no?

When Chilyapa Lwando showed in Lusaka, Zambia’s Henry Tayali Gallery in 2011, I couldn’t resist. I bought five. Introduced to me by his Western nickname “Danny”, he’d just returned from a European gallery tour. His work stood out in its strange ambiguity, hints of humor mixed with pain. Magical images. Incredible surface textures, mysterious symbolism with its origins in Zambian folk traditions but unhinged, explored, expanded. Take “Inambundu”, below. I think it means the liar or lying in Nyanja but I’m not entirely sure. A suggestion of Makishi ornamentation, but what are the elongated thatch-topped figures streaming down the sides? They’re in a number of his paintings from that period, including Kanakazi Series 1 and Kanakazi IV also shown below.

Inambundu, 2011

Kanakazi, Series 1

According to MoMAA | African Modern Art, who’s representing his Family I series, Lwando was born in 1971 in Mufulira, a Zambian Copperbelt town on the border with DRC. The town grew up around the Mufulira Copper Mine, founded in 1930, but with ancient roots in indigenous copper mining, and home of Frederick Chiluba, Zambia’s second president. Mufulira’s Mopani mine is now the second deepest single-shaft copper mine in the world. In the 1970s, the heyday of the Copper belt towns, Zambians who worked there got excellent educations for their children.

Lwando started to show his talent as an artist in secondary school, and joined the National Visual Arts Council in 1998 to broaden his art career.  He a traveled to Norway and the UK in 2002 on a photography fellowship, was featured in an international workshop organized by Insaka International Artists Trust in 2003 and won the 2009 Zambia National Ngoma Award in the Henry Tayali category for best two-dimensional art.  He pioneered a national photography club to promote fine art photography and coordinated national and international photography shows. From 2000 to 2012, he worked as an official photographer and darkroom technician for Zambia National Visual Arts Council of Zambia.

But in the meantime, he was painting, developing a distinctive style. The 2011 show must have included some of his first experiments, sand and fiber embedded in their surfaces to give them depth and mystery.

In 2018, Lwando served as National Vice Secretary for Zambia National Visual Arts Council and is currently a Board member for  Zambia National Arts Council. According to MOMAA, he now lives and works in Chongwe, Lusaka Province as a full time artist.

According to his 2015 artist’s statement for Insaka, “The underlying theme in my works is inspired by African Traditions and Culture. The idea is to put forward an awareness of African art to the rest of the world and reiterate the idea that African art is and has been part of the world community of art and Culture and has contributed immensely. This also helps me to celebrate, educate and reinforce my own sense of self as well as explore and preserve some of our traditions and culture.”

In 2017, he said that the title for his show “My Ganizo is derived from the word Maganizo a term I borrowed from my tribal cousins (Nyanja) and in the English language this can be referred to as a human process of  being  thoughtful, meditative, pensive, wistful and reflective on any of our human choices. I choose My Ganizo in a positive sense, as my thought process expressed through traditional motifs, patterns, idealism, symbolism from the culture where I came from. My cultural perspective flows through this channel and I let it out to be shared with the public. Developing concepts has been my journey dealing with stereotyped identities that have constituted the basis of my work and developed to the current style as displayed in this exhibition. This style of work is focused on the aesthetic and excellence of the antiquity of African motifs helping me produce works full of designs. This helps me to schematically depict individuals or groups with very few peculiar characteristic features but which says a lot about the subject.”

My Ganizo

“I  venture  into this world of tradition modelling with passion in masks, sculptures  and shadows, these evoke the earthly manner in which my pallet where I draw with colour that have their ancient origin in the village. This new way of painting broke into my cultural consciousness like an epidemic and the main task of this wild style of painting is evidently to serve as an existential safety valve and ease the pressure within. And as long as this is my heritage, I do have my birth right to express the aspect of my culture. I am the extension of the culture in a contemporary context.”

Making art as an existential safety valve, living in the complex and frustrating context of the modern African state. Viewing art for the same release, Spiegel says “you may be able to resolve issues for a healthier life instead of dealing with ongoing emotional distress by engaging in destructive behaviors, such as compulsive eating, irresponsible spending, revolving-door relationships, or comparing and contrasting yourself with your status- and fashion-addled peers. Such behaviors can trap you in an energy-sapping eddy, spinning you like a potter’s wheel in perpetual motion.”

Lwando was included in a group show of contemporary African artists in Tel Aviv in 2018. Supamodu, the NYC-based daily online magazine exploring independent film,  art,  music  and  books describes his 2016 painting, “Stiff Necked Fool”, part of a 2018 show at the Tayali Gallery, as “DuBuffet meets Klimt at a tribal party.” But the works are much much more powerful than a comparison with European styles suggests.

Take a look for yourself! You can view, and buy, a number of Danny’s works directly from the Tayali Gallery’s online sales facility or from MOMAA. For the record, the gallery is named for one of Zambia’s preeminent post-colonial artists, Henry Tayali, who studied at Uganda’s Makerere University in Kampala in the late 1960s and early 70s. In an upcoming post, I’ll be talking about some of the “war art” I bought from Makerere students as peace finally settled into Kampala in 1989, when I first lived there. Full of existential dread in the midst of mind-chilling terror.

Carpal tunnel surgery? Pffft by comparison to the experiences of my university colleagues in 1989.

Lwando in a 2015 Insaka post

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