Malawian-born painter Franco Kwacha Mbilizi is making a wave in the Chicago art scene after he was awarded the Leonardo da Vinci prize, one of the world’s most coveted and prestigious honours bestowed upon an artist.
The Leonardo da Vinci Award was established in 1975 by the Rotary Club of Florence as an annual international prize named after legendary renaissance painter Leonardo da Vinci, to be presented to young people involved in the study of the sciences, technology, literature and the arts.
Among the disciplines recognised and rewarded so far have been painting, sculpture, music, geology, architecture, medicine and nuclear physics.
“Who would have predicted during his humble beginnings in Malawi that young Franco Kwacha Mbilizi was headed for such an honour?” he wrote on his website recently.
But where did it begin?
Franco is a Chicago resident born in Malawi.
According to his website, he started painting, carving and drawing at nine years of age with his grandfather, who was a sculptor.
After moving to the United States of America (USA) 10 years ago, Franco stopped creating and making art.
Then, while living in Chicago, the news of the passing of his beloved grandfather brought him back to creating.
Franco, as he likes to be called, says he’s been drawing and painting practically all of his life. He lovingly remembers drawing and painting with his late grandfather as a child in Malawi, and even painting somewhat extensively into his adult years.
However, Franco has only totally embraced his identity as a painter for about the last three years.
He explains: “I’ve been an artist my whole life, but I discovered painting and the universal healing of art brought me harmony.”
This may seem contradictory to many, but he has an explanation that tells you a lot about him and his unique commitment to authenticity and a higher calling as an artist, a painter in particular.
To Franco, finding his own voice and uniqueness was essential to taking on his identity as a painter.
“Yeah seriously, I always loved art, but I always was, like, scared to paint because if I paint something and someone says it was good, it wasn’t my voice. Because it was like Picasso, [it seemed] I had stolen something I had seen at a show; it wasn’t my voice.”
This need to be uniquely and authentically himself and not be reflecting someone else is something he felt deeply.
He explained: “I was really insecure about that. I wanted to do something that I liked and something that hadn’t been done before. That’s what I wanted.” Well, that’s exactly what he did after three years of painting.
His search for meaning was a catalyst to his journey as a painter and continues to shape it in major ways. Franco still speaks with deep feelings of being in a really bad place emotionally as he found his unique place as a painter.
“I was extremely depressed; this came from like deep pain, deep, deep depression I’ve been through in my life.”
Franco explicitly and honestly recalls his challenging personal circumstances when he started painting: “Going through my 20s, being angry, doing lots of drugs, wanting to kill myself. And that didn’t work out. And then I just started looking at different ways I could stop being the victim and blaming. I started looking inward, you know, to just look inside, and that’s what came out of that.”
During this period, he started painting as a means of expressing his authentic emotional and spiritual Truth, unconfined by conventional boundaries or tradition. As Franco describes it: “Painting was an accident. I didn’t sit down and, like, say, ‘Oh, okay I’m going to be an artist now.’ No, I didn’t. I started making art and it made me feel good every time I painted.”
The positive reception that his paintings received lifted him, gave him his own identity as a painter and fed his desire to not only continue to paint to find and express ultimate Truth as he understands it. Defying convention, he readily admits that his paintings are influenced by his deep love of both science and spirituality.
“I feel like it’s the same thing, I really do you know. If you look at science, science doesn’t believe in God, right? If you look at religion, religion says they found God, right? If you look at all the prevailing religions all, of them, like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, they all have the same [story as the] book of Genesis and the first man is Adam. Science says if you break everything down in the universe, you come to the atom.”
Franco then offers what seems like just a fun challenge. “I want you to do this, say this over and over again Adam Atom Adam Atom faster [and] faster.” Of course, the faster you do this, the more identical the two words sound. However, this is much more than a fun tongue twister for this Leonardo da Vinci prize winner; it is a major revelation and the key to his fundamental view of life, reality and truth.”
About Adam and Atom he says: “You know, so I was like wait a minute! It’s all the same, it’s just a different interpretation. This ‘something’ wanted to get to know itself better, so it said ‘let there be light.’ I just wonder what it is to be living this out, you know. I’m just trying to find my place here, to understand it for myself.” He has an entire exhibit entitled When Adam Met Atom.
He has been expressing himself through painting for a relatively short time, but he has demonstrated his unique vision for the greater part of his life. And during a difficult time when he was dealing with depression, he found his unique voice through paintings and the unifying power of art brought him harmony and healing.
The positive response to his work fed his desire to find and explore his emotional truth. He started studying colour and form via various philosophies of art.
The result is his unique blend of surrealistic, abstract art which captures the imagination, and frees the mind.
Since beginning this journey, Franco has captured the attention of many such as becoming a featured artist at the Chicago innovation Award, Raw Artist Chicago, Art Expo New York 2015, Scope Art Show at Art Basel.
He currently has work being displayed at the Condrad Hilton Chicago and in many collectors private residences. His first gallery showing is with the Amsterdam Whitney International Fine Art Gallery in Chelsea, New York opening to acclaimed reviews.
Franco’s artwork has been featured in the May, June and July issue of British GQ magazine and in the British Vogue Century Edition and exhibited at the Tokio International Art Fair in May.