It is not very surprising to see tourists flocking to Malawian art galleries as the locals just watch from a distance. If the indigenous Malawians are actively taking a role in Malawian art trade exchange, it is either they are selling the artworks or they have travelled outside. It could also be because they belong to the elite class of society.
On a corporate level, it is common to find walls of offices of some well-known Malawian companies decorated with framed European art works, yet the country has a lot of artists who are struggling to earn a decent living.
But why is it the case that Malawians do not have the passion for art works? Why do companies and the elite prefer hanging a copy of Monalisa than a Malawian original painting?
In separate interviews with Society, lecturers at the Department of Fine Arts at the University of Malawi, Chancellor College in Zomba, Deaverson Njanji and Eva Chikabadwa, agree that the majority of Malawians’ failure to appreciate art is a deep-rooted problem that stems from the absence of art subjects in primary education.
“We all learn how to appreciate things. For example, we learn from our childhood the belief that there is God. If you start teaching a child to appreciate art, they know its value,” said Chikabadwa.
She argues that tourists, with their rich culture of art appreciation, want to experience Malawian art; hence, they visit art galleries to get a Malawian art souvenir.
“The problem is that even when art is introduced at a school, it is taught as an extra-curricular subject, therefore, it is hard for pupils to take it seriously and they carry that attitude with them throughout their life,” added Njanji.
Both art scholars cite the financial status of most Malawian as a hindrance to art appreciation, arguing people have to choose whether to buy a bag of maize or an art work.
“However, because our friends are more serious with art education, you can still find an art painting in a poor home in Europe. It is as simple as people have flowers in their house. It gives character to the home and enhance emotions of the people dwelling in the house,” said Chikabadwa.
Although the corporate world is full of people who are well-travelled and exposed to other cultures, very few companies promote local art, a development the academics dubbed as worrying.
Chikabadwa and Njanji also agreed that Malawian art market has been flooded with mere craftsmen who just duplicate other artists’ ideas, something that puts off would-be buyers.
“People who appreciate art want original pieces they can take pride in, not something which does not have authenticity,” said Njanji.
Chikabadwa also said most of the European art works that hang in offices and hotel lobbies are not original pieces.
“Even biggest Malawian companies will find it hard to purchase an original Picasso painting but because they are duplicates, they sell for less. But I think Malawian artists have taken it for granted that artworks have to be expensive to the point that we are extravagant with our pricing,” said Chikabadwa.