During a residency in Zambia, writer Matt Kayem asked artist Aaron Samuel Mulenga about the mash up of ideas, religion and spirituality in his installations.

I first met Aaron a month ago when my host here in Lusaka called him for dinner. We chatted about his work and art career over a meal of katogo (cassava and beans), one of the dishes from my country, Uganda that my host has fallen in love with. He had just been in the country for less than two weeks after fleeing the corona-virus situation back in the U.S where he’s pursuing a PhD at the University of Santa Cruz, California. I thought his practice is well grounded and we could further the discussions in a more intended manner. Aaron Samuel Mulengaʻs work seeks to interrogate the tensions and overlaps in various representations of transcendence, which have shaped his spirituality. His work does this by questioning how these tensions have featured in Eurocentric Christian iconography and Zambian cultural practices, particularly cultural artifacts used for spiritual flight, housed in Zambian museums. Despite the precarious nature of the times, I tracked Mulenga down for a discussion about all that makes him up. Our conversation touched on art education, African spirituality versus Christianity and the times we are living in.

You’ve previously mentioned in one of your online videos that our people don’t see art as something to aspire to do and many feel it’s a hobby. Is art something you always wanted to do and how did your parents handle the fact that you wanted to be an artist? 

When I was younger, I thought about getting into ministry and sharing the gospel of Jesus with people that way. However, at the age of 16, my father spoke with me and asked me what I was passionate about. I had never been asked what my passion was before then, so I didn’t know. He gave me time and told me that I could respond to him when I was ready. The following day I had an answer, and I told him I was passionate about art. I thought to myself, art was the one thing I could do without feeling time pass me by. 

His response surprised me because he said, “If you are passionate about art, then that is what you should pursue. Never do something to please another person; do not choose a career path because you think you will make money or because you think this will make your mother and I happy. Do it because that is where your passion lies.” He further went on to say, “You do not need to become a preacher to share God’s word. Each one of us is gifted differently and so even in your art you can share the gospel.” His way of thinking caused a paradigm shift in my 16-year-old brain. I was able to think about art and my faith in a way I had not done before, and both my parents were supportive of my choice. 

How have you managed to convince those around you that it is a worthwhile career?

That is not my aim in life. I am living my life and pursuing my passion. If other people see it and want to talk about it I am down to do that; however, if others see it and are not happy with my decision, well that’s fine too because they are living their lives. I am living mine.

I know a bunch of artists who are not big fans of art education and I could be one of them. But you have a Masters’ from Rhodes University and are now pursuing a PhD in University California Santa Cruz. Do you think it’s important for an artist to get those papers?

What I will say is that it is important for people to keep learning, whether you are an artist, an engineer, a fuel attendant, a domestic worker …whatever profession you are in there is always room for improvement and there is still room to make yourself better. You need to decide what that looks like for you. I do not think formal education is for everyone, neither do I believe it is an answer to many of the problems that we face in society, but I do think there is value in receiving an education, be it a degree, an apprenticeship or a trade. I believe it is necessary to figure out what you want and go after that.

What’s your general opinion – positive and negative – on the contemporary and historical use of religion and culture in art? 

Yes, this question elicits a subjective response because it could go either way, as you have pointed out (positive and negative). I think there is a place for religion (faith) in art, whether one is a practitioner or has something that they want to say about a given topic in that area. I think the same goes for culture; this is because the topics are so broad and vast that they can contain so many diverse opinions, whether these opinions are “good” or “bad.” So, my take is that if you have something to say about these topics as an artist, you must share your views on them. 

‘My personal experiences with faith and religion play a role in my work because it is part of my source material for the work I choose to create’

I understand that you are a Christian like you said last time at the dinner. How have your personal experiences with religion impacted any of your work?

I try to use my art as a way to think about my life. I mean that I am consistently thinking about and engaging with art in my mind, so art is one of the ways that I try to make sense of the world around me. I try and release my thoughts and emotions into my work because words sometimes feel insufficient to express my emotions or experiences. Regarding my faith and my art, I try to integrate them because they form a big part of my life. I read my bible daily, and so I draw some of the material I work with from the scriptures I read. I also come from a particular place in the world (Zambia) and so I try and incorporate my lived experience into what I create, which allows for there to be a mashup of ideas presented in my work based on my personal journey. All in all, my personal experiences with faith and religion play a role in my work because it is part of my source material for the work I choose to create. 

I often think of African spirituality and the Christian faith as two divergent institutions, the latter seeking to replace the former, but in your work, Zambian culture (in this case, Bemba) merge and overlap in complex ways. Why and how does this come about?

Why? Because, when I think about the normative representation of Christianity and the images, I have seen that are used to represent Jesus and characters from the Bible, I always felt that they did not represent me. This is because many of the images I saw made Jesus and the Bible characters white. With my work, I try to find ways that these scriptures relate to me, and I try to express this visually. Yes, I also use my heritage as source material to better connect to my faith and my art because I think it matters where in the world we identify as home. I also believe that it is possible to identify one’s home in more than one place, but for me, I choose to draw heavily on my experiences in Zambia to speak to the topics I engage with. 

‘Does it matter that someone comes from Africa or America; does this show in one’s work, and how is it perceived when it is presented in the world?’

How are your studies and your stay in the U.S affecting the nature of your work? For example, religion is dealt with differently in the U.S as there is a rising number of those not affiliated to any religion.

I think it may not be right to claim that there is a rising number of those not affiliated to any religion because equally, someone who is a believer in a particular faith may claim that the opposite is true because that is all that these are – claims. But to answer your question, my studies in the States have affected me in a way that has me thinking about my environment and where I am currently located. By this, I mean, when I was studying in South Africa, I felt a sense of Ubuntu (community and camaraderie) to some degree. On the continent, the few African countries I have been to, one thing that stands out for me is how open people interact with one another. This feels different in the States, where people are more impersonal before you really get to know them. It’s different. For the most part, people seem reserved and somewhat distant, in a way that is different when I am back in Zambia or another place on the continent. That being said it may just be my personal experience, and I would not want to generalize this to be the case in every part of the States. 

In regard to my art practice, I have been thinking more about power dynamics and how one positions themselves in relation to others. For instance, how is knowledge production in Africa perceived in comparison to the West? Does it matter that someone comes from Africa or America; does this show in one’s work, and how is it perceived when it is presented in the world? These are some questions that have come up while I have been studying. 

You were a guest artist at the inaugural Stellenbosch Triennale at the beginning of this year. What were your experiences?

My experiences there were awesome, except for one or two racialized encounters that left me sad that we still have a way to go even on the continent, particularly where racial prejudice is concerned. I was showcasing an installation called Last Supper, where I present the last supper of Christ, or at least my interpretation of it, through what I would call an Afrocentric lens. By this I mean that I looked at Zambian culture as a reference point to pick elements that represent Christ and his 12 disciples. I placed these elements on dinner plates, which were positioned on a reed mat that sat on the floor (similar to the way I ate some meals growing up). I chose to present this work in this way because I want to see Christian imagery referencing African heritage more explicitly. Through my work, I am choosing to subvert these narratives that showcase Christianity as a Western religion by representing the broad spectrum of Christianity’s practitioners. 

The Triennale was also a great opportunity to meet so many artists, a lot of whose work I have admired. The Triennale provided a platform to meet new people and have wonderful interactions with while making new connections. I am truly grateful. 

Are you creating any work during this period of the corona virus and what are your thoughts about what is happening globally?

I recently created a short stop motion video that I put up on my Instagram page, which explores several themes such as hair; particularly that of men. It also looks at power dynamics between individuals and love, care, spirituality, amongst other themes I am interested in. One of the things I am thinking about during this time is how do I as an artist continue creating work and sharing it with people beyond the Instagram posts. I feel that I am thrown off balance during this time, as I know many people around the world are, but now more than ever is when there is a need to keep rallying behind one another and supporting one another. So I thank you for taking the time to ask me all these questions and give me a space to share my practice with others I do appreciate it and I am always looking to speak to people about art so anyone reading this wanting to chat further on the work they see should get in touch.  

All images provided by @aaronsamuelmulenga.