One great American pencil and charcoal artist J.D Hillberry once said: “Although I try to push the limits of realism in a black and white medium, simply imitating reality isn’t my primary goal. I use the technical skills I have developed to tell a story or evoke an emotion. I feel I’ve successfully communicated with someone when they identify with the essence of a particular piece, and it brings about new thoughts or feelings.”
This seems to be the philosophy 28-year-old William Mwale has adopted. But in a country like Malawi where art is yet to start selling, and its authors rarely appreciated, will he be able to chalk a different tale?
Not even his parents gave him a chance that he would one day make it in the fine arts, but today, Lilongwe-based Mwale’s art works speaks volumes of how an additional determination can be to talent.
Equipped with a few tools that include dedication all along,Mwale has steadily risen to become one of the few breed of pencil and charcoal maestros in the region. And he is making a fortune of out it. Today, not only does his talent bring him food on the table; it also provides for his ageing parents.
For laymen, his paintings may be easily confused to a photograph. That is how good and realistic his pencil illustrations are so much that it may just be a matter of time before he becomes Malawi’s own Brian Duey or the great Patrick Bulger.
But his greatest idol remains the renowned Dirk Dzirmisky who inspired him to imitate a portrait of ‘a white girl’ that remains Mwale’s treasured portrait.
“It may be easier to paint portraits of coloured or black subjects, but I just wanted to try and learn how Dzirmisky did it, and the completed material gave me the zeal I needed to climb up the ladder. The feedback was just amazing. I decided to keep on learning and never looked back,” Mwale said.
Though he was born and raised in Zimbabwe and Botswana’s capitals respectively, Mwale never really took his inborn talent seriously. But little did he know that his inspiration would be found back home when he returned in 2002.
A year later, Lilongwe’s City Centre provided the wake-up call.
“Yes, I think that was the turning point. The paintings and other sculptures displayed by some vendors along the streets left me in awe. All along, I knew I could draw but I never thought of going full scale; I never thought it could really sell. I was therefore geared to give it a try,” says Mwale who claims he had spent his school days doing cartoon work on anything.
Among the paintings on display on that particular day were some portraits in pencil by Nyangu Chodola. Mwale decided to meet the man at all cost.
And like all great men in history, Mwale always acknowledged the people who had believed in him and “saw what even I couldn’t see in myself”.
Today, courtesy of the mentorship he got from Chodola, the inspiration he draws from fellow up-and-coming artists like Eva Chikabadwa, Elson Kumbalu, and David Nzengo, and some technical expertise he honed from Goethe Institute projects, Mwale’s fame and fortune continues to consume the world at large. He now gets international orders and most of his contracts are from private clientele. His artworks have been exhibited in most parts of the world.
Yet,he has never attended formal art school. After all, who would send him when all his parents saw was an architect in the then teenager growing up in a family of a migrant worker?
What’s more startling is the fact that he paints a portrait in just some few hours; a thing that he used to take a week on.
Doubting Thomases need only to visit Blantyre’s La Caverna or Elson Kumbalu’s gallery in Lilongwe to appreciate the enormous talent Mwale was endowed with.
drawing, Wild dog, and The White Girl, apart from some portraits of real people will surely remain some of his greatest products.
Nevertheless, though he believes the sky is the limit as he now can boast of brushing shoulders with some of the world’s greats, Mwale craves for something bigger; something for the common good for his roots:
“We need a full-fledged national art foundation to help nurture, polish and expose budding talent. We have unbelievable talent in the country that can easily be washed down the drain in the absence of efforts to unearth and support it.”
He also bemoaned the “dismal appreciation of the arts in the country” which he claimed to be contributing to artists fetching less for their creative endeavours.
Mwale’s sentiments concur with oil painter Staner Chindebvu who said unless the country starts appreciating arts as a best tool to market its culture and tourism, artists would still be regarded with contempt.