BARNABAS TICHA MUVHUTI explains how, for Zambian Aaron Samuel Mulenga, art is an expression of faith and a homage to black women.
Aaron Samuel Mulenga, one of the strong voices within the current generation of emerging contemporary artists in Africa, started questioning the status quo from an early age. Growing up in Kitwe, a mining town in the Copperbelt Province in Zambia, he took inspiration for his first works of art from the world around him. “I would copy pictures from TV guides and the family Bible. At some point I started questioning why the images from the Bible were mostly white, and why the angels and cartoons I was drawing did not look like me.”
Today, this multidisciplinary artist, whose voice is readily recognised in his work, continues to draw on African cultures and indigenous perspectives to enrich the world of art and knowledge production. His oeuvre takes many forms, including object installations, sculpture, photography and video.
Most of his work refers to scriptures that he questions and interprets in an Afrocentric way, challenging the Eurocentric interpretation of Christianity. As a Christian, he believes there is no single way to represent a religion with such a vast following and he integrates diverse cultures from different parts of the world. “Europeans are not the sole proprietors of Christianity,” he asserts.
In line with the shift of exhibitions onto virtual platforms in response to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic, Aaron Samuel’s work is currently featured on Latitudes Online, which launched in mid-July as a platform linking galleries and artists with collectors.
This body of work consists of three photographs that feature black women whose faces – elaborately adorned with gold face paint – Aaron Samuel has turned into canvases. Face paint is a common feature in initiation and religious ceremonies and assume different forms in different parts of the African continent. Although the rituals have a similar significance – usually celebrating the rite of passage as boys and girls emerge into adulthood – diverse ethnic groups tend to use different paint colours. Always paying close attention to the materials and media he uses in his work, Aaron Samuel sees the paint as representing transcendence into a spiritual being. In some cultures, the maidens appear topless in such ceremonies, but in these photographs the young women are dressed in hessian, which the artist explains as denoting humility or bringing oneself before God in a humble fashion. While the heads of two of the three women portrayed are attractively covered, the third wears her hair in a beautiful natural Afro style.
Aaron Samuel created this body of work in 2016 when he was a student at the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art. This was a year after the birth of the Rhodes Must Fall movement, which evolved into the Fees Must Fall protests on several university campuses and cities throughout South Africa. Key to the protestors’ demands was transformation within institutions that still do not reflect the racial dynamics of the new democratic South Africa.
One of Aaron Samuel’s inspirations for making the work was the role played by black women in these movements. Leading from the front, they confronted patriarchy. “Females are powerful beings worthy of notice,” he explains. “I’m not stating this condescendingly but in a way that encourages us to appreciate one another for the work we put in. Yet, the world is organised so that the black woman is at the bottom of the hierarchy. If we are all made in God’s image, why can’t we represent God by his creation? Why can’t we show the Trinity as black women? In the Bible, Psalms 82:6 reads, ‘I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the Most High.’ If we are of God, then there is a space for everybody to be represented in God’s likeness.”
He goes on to state this work is not about simply challenging the dominant Christian iconography, which would be easier to do by merely replacing the majority white males used to represent most Christian iconography with black males. Instead, he chooses to push beyond that linear narrative, as he believes God does not have a race or gender and therefore must not be limited to one.
As the pandemic spread throughout the world like fire in the veld, most governments enforced lockdowns. It is unfortunate that gender-based violence also escalated in that period in most parts of Africa and around the globe, with black women mostly on the receiving end. That our society is still confronted with femicide and race-related problems makes Aaron Samuel’s work, which challenges the under-representation of black women, even more relevant now. I would even say it is timeless, reigniting as it does conversations about the precariousness of black women’s lives.
Aaron Samuel has come to know South Africa intimately since he left Zambia in 2013 for the Michaelis School of Fine Art. “I focused more on sculpture, which was a new skill to me.” After a stint at Rhodes University studying for a Master of Fine Arts degree, he, on the advice of UCT Professor Barbaro Martinez-Ruiz, set his sights on American universities. At the moment, he is working towards a PhD at the University of California in Santa Cruz.
The curators of the Stellenbosch Triennale – Khanyisile Mbongwa and Bernard Akoi-Jackson – had been following Aaron Samuel’s work closely and invited him to the inaugural Triennale. In February 2020, he stayed for a week in Stellenbosch, together with other artists from the African continent. “For me, it was great to showcase my art – that focuses on matters of culture and faith – in an environment like Stellenbosch.”
Aaron Samuel’s work featured in On The Cusp, a group exhibition of emerging artists housed at Libertas Parva in Dorp Street. He showcased three works, including a video installation, The Last Supper. This video installation depicts the last meal of Jesus by using African material objects sourced from the Village Museum in Stellenbosch. Amaka is a piece many might view as a premonition in the context of the protests in the USA and Europe following the murder of George Floyd by a white policeman in May 2020. A raised fist became the most distinctive aesthetic of the Black Lives Matter protests and other radical movements. In March, the same work that currently features on the Latitudes Online platform was part of the Unleavened group show organised by 40 Stones, an arts and faith initiative, in partnership with Dyman Gallery. The show is still accessible on the gallery’s website.