Colonial memory in Kappata’s painting

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Very few African artists depict the colonial occupation. Stephen Kappata (Zambia) recalls a childhood marked both by humiliation and fascination. An exploration of memory.

The man is dressed in a blue suit and a dark tie that accentuate the purplish red colour of his face. His hands are thrust in his pockets, his head tipped slightly back, his white hat perched on two huge ears that are as red as his face. Still sold to tourists today, these wooden statues, known as the Baoulé colonialists, were popular with white settlers in Africa in the Twenties. They were practically the only form of independent « artistic » production under colonial occupation at a time when art works were frequently destroyed and their reproduction forbidden.
Artists who actually experienced colonial occupation rarely explored this theme until much later, sometimes long after decolonisation. Although colonisation, and in particular its repercussions, haunt the works of numerous contemporary artists, few have worked directly on this subject.
Stephen Kappata, one of Zambia’s best-known artists, is also one of the rare African artists to have made it one of his pet themes. Born in 1936 into an Angolan-born family who fled Portuguese conquest to settle in Barosteland, Kappata grew up under the British occupation of what until 1964 was Northern Rhodesia. His critical aptitude was sharpened at a very early age by the fact that his family belonged to the Watchtower, which was highly popular amongst Barosteland inhabitants marginalized by immigration and poverty. This did not stop him from wanting to become a policeman, a vocation he renounced to go to work in the South African mines at the beginning of the Sixties. Harsh working conditions and the extreme tension after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 heightened Kappata’s political awareness. On his return home in 1962, he joined the United National Independence Party again, where he used his artistic talents to design posters and comic strips for the party. He had started to paint in South Africa, doing nude portraits for a steadily growing market.
His career path – he became an audiovisual assistant, then worked until retirement for the Ministry of Agriculture designing posters, brochures, and book covers – also contributed to his artistic training, introducing him to silkscreen printing and photography amongst other things. Although he never stopped painting, it was his 1969 meeting with the Zairian artist Phiri that helped his painting to develop beyond the anecdotal. It wasn’t until the mid-Eighties that his talent really took off with the help of Annalise Clausen, a Danish woman living in Zambia who liked his work, opening the doors of prestigious exhibition spaces, such as the Mpapa Gallery in Lusaka. This in turn got him exhibitions in Europe and the United States.
Kappata’s painting revolves around three themes, or predominant subjects: Zambia’s traditional culture and history, and social satires of contemporary life and life under colonial occupation. Whatever theme he tackles, the realism of his brush is precise, its humoristic touches acerbic. This is particularly the case in his representations of colonial occupation, which he re-conjures with a delightful attention to detail. There are often two sides to the colonial experience in Kappata’s work. One naturally finds the violence and humiliations his people suffered, but one can also detect a certain fascination – probably that of a child – for the order and uniforms, a uniform he would have worn himself had he have become a policeman. In addition to uniforms, other colonial symbols, such as pith helmets, revolvers, truncheons, whips, and flags are recurrent in the colonial paintings inspired by the artist and his people’s experiences. By painting the memories that most marked him, Stephen Kappata transcribes the memory of a people despoiled by years of colonial exploitation and committed to the independence struggle. The storyteller, archivist, historian and artist merge into one, giving his work the added force of an essential testimony on the colonial era.
Visual griot Stephen Kappata’s caravans of porters arriving in villages led by white district commissioners sprawled in hammocks or perched on top of red horses – landings despised by the villagers who had to pay taxes to the colonial authorities year in, year out – recreate the humiliations suffered. His scenes depicting black workers being clubbed by soldiers or foremen, or the battles between armed, white policemen and unarmed black activists are of the same vein. A dark humoristic vision always accompanies the violence, going beyond the tragedy to reveal the absurdity of the situation and of History too.
Painted in bright or, in his recent works, sometimes dazzling colours, Stephen Kappata’s works are done on a single plane. They also feature short narrative texts. These elements have helped position him as a « naïve » artist. A « naïve » artist who is acutely aware of himself and History, who offers a critical, satirical vision of the colonial past, restoring the harsh truth with impressive attention to detail. His work constitutes an exploration of memory that is vital for both parties. It needs to be seen by as many people as possible to invert the mirror, which, in the fashion of Jean Cocteau, « would do well to think before reflecting our image »!

///Article N° : 5264

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