The Old Manager’s House at Mandala in Blantyre, built by a group of Glasgow businessmen, is the oldest building in the city. This building could have long been forgotten like the rest of historical landmarks such as the first Lilongwe District Commissioner’s office which was on the verge of demolition until artist Elson Kambalu stepped in to petition the city.
In contrast, the Old Manager’s House in Blantyre enjoys a contrasting fortune, thanks to Luis Losacco, manager at La Caverna Art Gallery for giving the house a new meaning.
The picturesque scenery outside the building would make one feel it is one of those gardens where newlyweds go to capture graphic memories on their wedding day. But the beauty of the landscape is nothing compared to the beauty one finds inside the Old Managers House.
Pieces of high quality art are displayed in this monumental building.
Even before one notices the enchanting smile emanating from Lisa Kamphinda’s face at the front office, the first sight that catches one’s attention are the curios on the shelves and meticulously framed paintings engraved with names such as Robin Broadhead, Mua Mission and David Scott.
These are the kind of artworks that would make one fall in love with art again.
But the story of La Caverna Art Gallery transcends the present day finery.
The art gallery was opened in 1994 by Luis Losacco who, by that time, had stayed in the country for four years working as a volunteer teacher at Ludzi Girls Secondary School, Mangochi Boys Secondary School and Wildlife Society of Malawi.
“I noticed that there were great artists in Malawi but there was no national art gallery, no place where they could showcase their artworks, that is why I opened La Caverna,” said Losacco in an interview with Society mid-week.
Since its opening 20 years ago, La Caverna has given a platform to artists to sell their artworks locally and abroad, with some of the artists getting the expose that saw them exhibit their pieces in USA, UK and other countries.
The gallery has exhibited works of artists such as the late Brian Hara and Samson Namalomba. La Galleria, a sister gallery, was opened in Lilongwe and is being managed by artist Elson Kambalu.
But without support from the corporate world, the gallery would not be where it is now as Losacco admits. She mentions local companies whom the galleries’ artists have exhibited for to the point that we lost count.
“We are a bridge between the artists and the customer, be it corporate or individual. Right now we are working on a mural at a certain hospital with the intention of making the place more welcoming,” said Losacco.
She further said La Caverna is like a jump off point where tourists can access information on places they can visit in Malawi.
On the issue of Cultural and Arts Policy, Losacco said La Caverna does not worry about the policy as they are only concerned about making it work for the moment, but said things could have been better if the a cultural blueprint was implemented.
“Could education standards improve if schools had enough resources and teachers?
Would heath improve if hospitals had enough drugs and medical personnel? If the answer is yes, then art is no exception,” she reasons.
She said everywhere in the world, even in developed countries, when there are budget cuts, the first department that gets a budget slash is arts. It is understandable, she muses, for a country such as Malawi, to prioritise health, education and transport.
She also bewailed the lack of a degree of fine art in the country as a factor negatively impacting art in Malawi.
“Chancellor College only allows one to major in fine arts but one cannot have an entirely fine arts degree and it is my dream to see in the future Malawians obtaining fine arts degrees,” said Losacco.
Apart from exhibiting artworks, La Carvena offers also framing services.
“The materials of the frames come from South Africa and we are the official dealers of that company so they regularly come to inspect on quality,” said Losacco.
Among the artists that exhibit their works at the gallery is David Mathotho, who has been one of La Caverna’s darlings since its inception in 1994.
The 52-year-old artist told Society that he is able to support his family of a wife and one child from the money he makes out of selling artworks.
Mathotho bemoaned the lack of a cultural policy, saying that it is the reason the arts sector is not flourishing in the country.
He said he works hard to create original ideas and characters on his heavily crowded scenes.
“I love the challenge of creating crowded scenes, whether it is a busy town, market place or a meeting, so I take my camera and photograph a number of scenes which I later collide to create a scene,” said Mathotho.
He said La Caverna has changed his life as he is better off unlike his fellow artists in the country who do not have access to galleries.