‘Chinese Born in Zambia’

Zambian Contemporary Arts and interview with William Bwalya Miko

The series ‘Chinese Born in Zambia’ was produced by a renowned Zambian visual artist William Bwalya Miko. Born in Mwense, Zambia in 1961, Miko holds a Diploma from Evelyn Hone College of Applied Arts and Commerce, a BA and MA degrees in Fine Arts from Middlesex University in London, UK. Miko is an interlocutor, one of the founding members of the Zambia National Visual Arts Council in 1987 and was the manager of the Henry Tayali Visual Arts Center in 1994. Miko has been extensively exhibited in Africa, Europe and the US. Typical and recurring themes found in Miko’s work tackle issues such as displaced people and communities facing economic woes, war or instability. Over the decades, Miko has seamlessly worked between mediums such as painting and sculpture. Miko currently lives and works in Lusaka where he was instrumental in the establishment of the first ever fine arts degree program at the Zambian Open University in 2010 where he lectures and heads the Fine Arts department.

Miko’s ‘Chinese Born in Zambia’ series is intensely inspired by the influx of Chinese nationals in Zambia. The discourse Miko brings to the fore is based on his observations as two continents develop closer relationships over a period of time. Witnessed globally, a recent FOCAC summit hosted by China had 50 African heads of state present and described Sino Africa relations as ‘strategic and cooperative partnerships’ and at ‘their best in history’ by President Xi. For most nations in Africa, the economic ties have brought development in regions that were stagnant for decades after gaining independence from Western colonial powers. Furthermore, Miko highlights concerns raised at these ‘strategic’ arrangements and partnership clearly overwhelmed by China’s influence. Therefore, conversations surrounding these new relationships tend to bring forth strong emotions with a particular focus on Chinese owned companies conducting business in Zambia. From mining activities, road rehabilitation and building of major infrastructures, local Zambians are seen to criticize the freedom awarded to Chinese entities and Chinese nationals by the Zambian government. Even if it is a ‘Free-market-economy-policy’ being pursued by government, Zambians wonder why Chinese nationals are so extensively allowed in every macro and micro economic activities: seen in every business that includes selling vegetables, chickens, roasting maize cobs along and on the side roads. Through the artworks, Miko highlights and questions this rising tension. Tension bringing about xenophobic tendencies towards China and its overwhelming influence in Zambia.

Topical themes and topics summoned by Miko are migration and displacement of peoples. The exhibition unpacks narratives, techniques and practices pursued by William Miko with a series titled the ‘Chinese Born Zambia’ produced from 2016 to date. Visually, the artworks mirror profile pictures as if derived from an identity document. Each is carefully executed on paper with acrylics / oils and charcoal. Miko particularly observes racial attitudes and the evolution of identities by Chinese economic migrants in Zambia. The series seamlessly deconstructs future Chinese identity in Zambia but also questions those born in Africa of Chinese descent. At the centre of the discourse, Miko challenges perceptions of being a Zambian and who will hold that identity in the future. At the centre of the discourse enchanted by the artist is one major question: is the Chinese influx in Africa, Zambia, stoppable or non-stoppable? If the answer is the latter, then the next question arises: is this a mutual and equitable economic war or a form of new colonialism? If both are taking place, then the human interaction is obviously taking place – that is cultural interaction and social assimilation. Chinese siblings are being born in Zambia. They may not be seen at the moment as they are still babies strapped in a Chitenge wrapper at the backs of the Zambian women, but in the next 20 -30 years, these babies will have grown up and will be strolling in the streets of the cities and foot-paths of the rural villages of Zambia. These kids will be Zambian by birth, thanks to the current changes in the Zambian Constitution which now allows for holding dual citizenship. Therefore, Zambia does not have a problem in this area of streamlining citizenry at the moment. But, is China ready to acknowledge these Chinese gene carriers as part of their own populace too? Herein lies an issue for China.

What has prompted this series of artworks from your studio Miko?

“To me, art is a surgical blade which I use to dissect society at any given moment of our existence as mankind. Tangible or intangible materials are just means of expression of any given thought process. When all is said, dusted and done, these artwork series are a presumption and visual evidence reminder to Zambia of its own future paradigm shift. And to China, a recollection of the effects of its own ‘One Child’ policy that was sustained for a long time in which, although it was not part of the government policy, couples preferred to terminate feminine pregnancies and kept masculine conceptions. This individual couple preference led to more boy-child births than girl-child. Therefore, China has upset a natural biological phenomena that require the natural population scale to have more females than males.”

Miko acknowledges the unstoppable force, appropriation and influence by China in Zambia. But poses a series of questions on how one justifies xenophobic sentiments inspired by domestic mainstream politics and unbalanced views. At the same time, questions arise as in whose interest arrangements or deals presented in the form of investments from Chinese companies are?

What do you think is the source of conflict in this economic/cultural relationships?

“Culture is dynamic really. The difference in cultural value is a source of conflict in this debate. As such, perhaps this apparent symbiotic and dichotomous challenge of our time is rooted in the fact that our understanding of people coming from populous nations such as China, in terms of their humane side of nature and value placed on human life needs more understanding on our part as a people from a less populous country such as Zambia? Could this perhaps shade light on their attitude to accident victims, low wages, luck of adherence to safety regulatory measures and other related issues and general conditions of labour force.”

How do you see the future?

“For all we know, a few decades from now, an international football match like the World cup soccer tournament between Zambia and China will have a team outlook similar to that of the French team that won the 2018 World Cup – players of all shades of skin colour, mostly African outlook. While watching such a match, one would be compelled to ask whether the values, attitudes and skills displayed by both teams’ players would be reflective of Zambia or China or indeed as one culture. Such a team, one would postulates that it would encapsulate the values and character of both cultures, which the ‘Chinese Born in Zambia’ and ‘Mbeu Zakwathu’ series assert to represent in this paradigm shift.”

Miko does not ignore the influence by the Asian powerhouse and therefore challenges Zambians to have a change of attitude towards Chinese presence. Evidently, visionaries like Miko are described as a ‘person who has the ability to imagine how a country, society, industry will develop in the future and to plan in a suitable way’. In contrast to narratives promoted via domestic and political campaigns through this channel, Miko approaches the discourse on the Chinese presence in Zambia by challenging perceptions and unbalanced opinions. The series asks whether the Chinese presence can provide opportunities to see and seek alternatives.
Holistically, the artworks ask Zambians to revise their prescribed thinking but critically participate in conversations that promote a culture where one considers possibilities that China presents. Can one emulate the Chinese approach by adopting Chinese genealogy for the future Zambia? Today, Chinese nationals are asking for a burial site in Zambia. Thereby leveraging and strengthening a nation’s position in relation to China. Miko also indicates the possibility where both Zambians and Chinese will have appropriated each other’s genealogies beyond economic ties. This terrain and conception of ideas, debate and contribution to visual dialogue is what Miko, as a concept engineer refers to as “Echoes of My Mind”.

By Lee Garakara
Mwimbi Fine Art Hong Kong

All photos are from Exhibition
‘Chinese Born in Zambia’, Mwimbi Fine Art