Turning into human canvas

ARTIST William turns human canvas in a performance dubbed ‘Correcting the National Anomaly’ during the graduation ceremony of fine art students of the Zambian Open University. PICTURE: CHANDA MWENYA

WHILE a crowd of topless maidens flocked the streets of Manzini, Swaziland in a reed dance ceremony, back home, socialite Iris Kaingu stepped into artist Caleb Chisha’s studio completely nude to do a “Painted Princess,” a body paint artwork, in a project in which she is exploring the historical beauty of cultural body paint.

Body art is indeed historical and not at all strange to the African heritage. Body art is a common art form which is still celebrated in modern Zambia; maidens are always seen during cultural ceremonies across the country decorated in colourful body art.
Perhaps, the classic display of body art is seen during the initiation ceremony of the Luvale-speaking people of North-Western Province.
The artwork is done on the bare upper body of the young initiates; the drawings are usually geometrical and often consist of only lines and dots. The white colour, which is simply earth, creates vivid contrast on the dark skin. The area around the torso and the breasts acts as the main canvas while the faces carry the finest details complimented by the dangling beads. It is a sight that brings into play traditional art on a modern pedestal and attracts admiration.
However, the “Iris” body art escapade in which she was exploring the historical beauty of body art went viral and instantly attracted myriad of public criticism.
Some online users called the act foolish and complete nonsense but others applauded it.
“Ok I agree with her by virtue of her not being afraid to be different. First African woman I have seen who is proud of her femininity and sexuality. The problem with women like Iris is that she is ahead of time when you look at the norms of the Zambian society. This is an issue of cultural relativism.
“In case you are like ‘really Besa, you are supporting this?’ just know that I don`t always subscribe to societal expectations and norms, I instead look at the context of everything. It is this thinking that helps me to understand every individual and why they behave or think a certain way,” posted a Norwegian based Zambian Besa Mwansa on his Facebook page.
However, in her own words, Iris indicated that she was only exploring the historical beauty of cultural body paint.
Ultimately, her exploration of ancient beauty visual narratives has provoked a debate on nudity and traditions.
But could the uproar from some sections of society result from Iris’ inclusion of the lower torso of her body to illustrate her body of work?
The case of nudity and morality seem to be justified when it is presented in public in the name of culture. It is alright with society when nudity is showcased at some traditional ceremony but when the same nudity is presented in the similar fashion online, it is ridiculed.
While the body art lines of initiates are showcased at open traditional arenas, Iris presented hers on an online platform to a diverse audience.
Regardless of the concept, Iris’ “Painted Princess” is a classic example of how contemporary art is riding on traditional art.
But the human canvas concept is not a complete new phenomenon on the Zambian art scene; art lecturer, who himself is an artist, William Miko, performed a memorable performance when he turned himself into a human canvas during one of Zambia Open University’s graduation ceremonies.
Though fully clothed in a white suit, art students descended on him, painting and slashing paint all over him and making him the most colourful living canvas the country had ever seen.

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