Writer Jesse Gerard Mpango spoke with artist Lazaro Samuel, whose work has so often been linked with empathy.

Lazaro Samuel – Studio Portrait (Credit – Valerie Amani)

In moments of crisis introspection becomes daily practice. Knowledge keeps us prepared but only imagination can guide us past what cannot be known. With this collective venture into the bounds of the possible comes renewed proximity to our thoughts from which can emerge a shared humanity. It is the crucial work of art to achieve this without suffering, to mine the aspects of ourselves lost in the flux of existence and pose them simply, in ways that shock or slide us to empathy. 

Lazaro Samuel‘s art is capable of these things; more so now than ever. His most ambitious work Sekunde (Seconds) is a sixty piece display that is part of ON THE CUSP,  a young artist exhibition at South Africa’s Stellenbosch Triennale that opened in February.  The Triennale, like so many events, has been forced to close due to COVID-19 and we meet on the day of this news, two days after Nafasi Art Space, the centre in Dar-es-salaam where Lazaro works, has also decided to scale down operations. A subdued atmosphere renders much of what we are due to speak of moot. But adjustments to the current mood rebound as Lazaro warmly but firmly declines wistfulness.

He arrived at Nafasi seven years ago at fifteen years old, part of a group of children offered arts workshops as a way of teaching them life skills. Up until then he had lived in Hyena Sprawl, a notorious square block in the in Manzese on the economic margins of the city.

for all of us, life, breath and being is held with seconds. We have to fight for each and every one.’

His work, Sekunde, captures what Lazaro describes as a rise towards clarity, and like all of his pieces is premised on story—in this case the second-by-second struggle for life borne by our bodies and mind. It comprised of sixty pieces arranged in a square, with each work being 20cm high and wide, all displayed in crystal white frames that emphasize a marriage of fierce brushwork and careful colour arrangement that have marked Lazaro’ ascent.  His artistic statement for Sekunde is typically humorous and instructive, “If you avoid the struggle” he begins, “they will say of you the deceased story is brief— he was born , he walked around and he died.” It goes on to explain the central theme of the piece, the manner in which a lifetime’s work may be quantifiable in seconds, such is the multiplicity of being.  His statement closes on words of particular resonance at this time. “For this man, and for all of us, life, breath and being is held with seconds. We have to fight for each and every one.”

Lazaro Samuel in front of his work Sekunde at ON THE CUSP (Credit – Rehema Busch)

It is difficult to explain the relevance of struggle for Lazaro.  As COVID-19 rewrites social scriptures, it is easier than ever to discern the intense humanity required to emerge from marginal places. Each of Lazaro’s artistic statements are given in the same manner; as minute observations on the cycles of urban life, revealing that the kind of avid attention to social detail we are all quickly learning is a function of extended uncertainty. “My stories, like my art, comes from the where I find myself in” he says, “in corners on streets. I sometimes note down words I see scribbled on walls or jokes I overhear. I like these stories. But for all this I am just simply the messenger.”  

There are overtures of loss in the titles, statements and stories accompanying his work that should give us pause for having occurred in what we may describe as normality. His first exhibit, This is Where I Live Now, was largely a chronicle of years spent living on the streets of Dar after running away from his native Singida at nine years old. The 500-kilometre journey was referenced in works such as Chassis, a rigid spread of metallic hues on which crusted reds, blues and blacks sit in nut and bolt forms that reflect on the manner in which he managed to evade detection on public buses. “Four of five could fit just above one wheel, “he said at the time, “then afterwards, after mud, dust from the road, dust for the tarmac, well you can imagine what you would look like,” he laughed. 

Untitled-Ongoing-Project (Credit – Valerie Amani)

Watching him now, almost a year on, the humor is more clearly allied to ambition. His first exhibition was part of an international exchange that required the submission of 13 new pieces in little under two weeks. “I would leave work at 5 and get home at 9pm and paint until 2am” he confesses, “I did this every day for two weeks because I have learnt to always recognize a chance.”

We have had to force our way into places we were never meant be

The resulting work was some of Lazaro’s finest. Muarbaini (of the forty) – named after a tree whose leaves are said to cure 40 disease – featured black swirls dotted with subsumed colour on a canvas of deep greens and rising reds. It’s the green, he told me then, of the forests at night accompanying runaways back to their towns after a failed attempt to reach the city. Another, in which jagged reds diagonally protrude into linear splatters of white-flecked sky blue was named Hyena Sprawl. The This is Where I Live Now showcase was the moment Lazaro’s flights of inspiration took the form of an enduring body of work and secured his name among the 10 young African artists invited to the triennale. 

He remembers his experience in South Africa fondly.  “We were like brothers and sisters, a real a family” he says, but is careful to evade narratives of personal triumph. “It was difficult. Over forty other people took the same workshops I did but now there’s just a few*.  And we have had to force our way into places we were never meant be.”

Lazaro Samuel Detail of Work in Progress (Valerie-Amani)

A poem by Audre Lorde, A Litany of Survival, that is referenced in the concept note for the Triennial encapsulates this particular perspective. For Lazaro, like Lorde, collective blindness to structural inequality means “it is better to speak, remembering, we were never meant to survive.” For those on the margins success merely necessitates vigilance and as we enter what may be the crisis of the age, it is wise to temper longing for normalcy and dare to imagine futures that would preclude us as a whole from this kind of enduring uncertainty. As COVID-19 moves us apart we should seek Lazaro’s resilience and, as a minimum, define our response as emerging from this, more sure of our humanity. Finding, supporting, sharing and discussing as much art as it is possible to love may be a worthy place to start. 

*Samwel Japhet and Joseph Kumeza, now contemporary dancers at Nafasi, were also part of the original group. Each child was brought to Nafasi by the Makini Kids organization. 

Lazaro-Samwel-Studio Portrait (Valerie Amani)

Nafasi’s online gallery also features work by a range of visual artists.