Notes Toward a Biography of Henry Tayali
A Pecha Kucha
October 8, 2021
Oct 8, 2021
[The Village. Silkscreen Print]
I was born with a language seared on my tongue. I sipped from
the same bottle of pale ale as my father rocked me to sleep. I have
starved a mad dog until it could learn to kneel to me. I have held
a chicken down before my grandmother cleaved its neck clean.
I ate its body whole, sometimes chewing the bones.
[Bull. Scrap Metal]
Our summer of love at Victoria Falls. Zamrock the culprit.
Bodies whirling to Paul Ngozi. In the gyre of apartheid further
south and being over the edge of independence. What was
freedom if not our bodies thrust from ourselves and we
trying to catch them in our arrested dances?
[Regina in My Dreams. Stencil Sketch]
I pull a petal off a Blue Curiosa and you blossom from its
edges. Bees gossiping around you. The rattle in your legs—
a barefooted dance in white sand. A child’s delicate step
on his mother’s back. I want to learn to pronounce your body—
enunciate its ridges. Fold your name at the back of my mouth.
[Untitled. Oil on Hardboard]
The canvas begins with no paint or name attached. I go back
to my birth in Serenje by the Nsalu Caves. When Zambia was
Northern Rhodesia. My wails winnowed like Wilson’s Snipe.
The scene where my father held me as if I was artifact. Rooms
that coated us into primary colors as we tugged against our skin.
[Herd Boy. Scrap Metal]
The West was calling my name. Kaunda’s dream to show the
African has imagination. I longed for Paris or Florence, but settled
for Germany at Staatliche Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. I learned
their language, read and studied their canon. Caspar David Friedrich
and Adolph von Menzel. For this, I was anointed civilized.
[People in the Summer. Oil on Canvas]
At the touch of a paintbrush, or chisel, before I approached the
canvas, block of wood, or scrap metal, my anxiety was that I
saw the body as Western. I was trying to get away from myself
so I turned to the abstract. Hid in the splotches of color coated
bodies to hide beggars, huts, villages, and the African.
[Unfinished Self-Portrait with Brother Bright Tayali. Stencil Sketch]
We grind our bodies on the rise. Lick last night’s fog from our
lips. Rub the cruel visions captured from our eyes and muzzle
our mouths until screams or swelling moans exhaust themselves.
Recycle the carnage into rage and the courage it needs to blossom;
the dismal loneliness required to live or leave this life.
[The Other Side of the Bar. Woodcut]
Sometimes the night is generous and I don’t drown as much.
Enough munkoyo courses through me. A drop more and I
passover to the other side where I become pantomime for my
body strung out at the corner of the bar. Silence subdues me.
I want to leave this country something other than my body.
[Abstract Painting. Oil on Canvas]
I was trying to understand my country in the erasure. Women
whose features I did not define and left as polka dots with
head wraps or chitenges around their waists. Was it shame
that defined me? Hiding in the edges of my art to make room
for universal appeal? To be regarded as an artist erased of race?
[A Measure of Cooking Oil. Woodcut]
Is modernity shedding ourselves to become exotic fixtures upon lips
of critics? I remain a son of my country. I am a fragment of it. A particle.
My art is concerned with the suffering of the people. I want it to be the
echo of that suffering. I see the problems of the continent. I am recording
what I and my people feel, but I do not attempt to provide answers.
[Leica SLR Negative Filmstrips]
A child eating cassava. Regina’s twisted mouth, cursing me in a
mixture of Nyanja, Bemba, and Tonga. David Livingstone’s grave.
Regina dancing with a white cloth in her left hand. A man burning
a kwacha note. A plate of nshima and kapenta. Lusaka at night,
littered in variations of light splotches and dark voids.
[The Beggar. Woodcut]
I was thinking of the man I saw in Kitwe, resting at the side of a dirt
road. He reached his hands to the sky, pretending to fluff one of the
clouds before feigning to sleep on it. Maybe he dreamed about finding
a country. One not landlocked. His hands outstretched to reach his
people. Each of them singing in varied tones of an insatiable hunger.
[Destiny. Oil on Canvas]
Realism attempts to render the truth while expressionism is a bad
liar who wants to be honest. This is where I found myself when my
dream of Destiny awoke me. It needed to come from the excavated
land I saw Zambia becoming. I took red soil, mixed it with oils and
threw away my watercolors— my fear of their dilution of me.
[Huts. Silkscreen Print]
The straw spires send me back to running through fields, brushing
against corn husks. The smell of clay hollow rooms, food laid on mats,
the water bowl we passed to wash our hands. Firewood burning in a
small enclosure. Its blue flames we held all July where we saw winter
pass with a thief’s caution, stealing what remained of our warmth.
I see three contours of Regina. All of them the woman I loved and
lost. Gina, is it not you I see in the woodcuts I chisel into effigies?
Their backs shaped like kandolos. Your face, Zambia’s best export—
copper. In the mind, I seesaw from the living to your grave. What I’d
give to peel the afterlife’s underside to see you under life’s awning.
[Pounding Maize. Woodcut]
I keep a picture of my mother pounding maize in my front shirt
pocket. Photography is best for its simple truth: thought is brief,
whereas the image is absolute. This is how I want to remember her:
the care in the handle of the falling log; my clinging to her back,
wrapped in a chitenge, her movements lulling me to sleep.
[Lusaka Burning. Stencil Sketch]
Birds in flight, fleeing their nests. Flapping flames off wings. The
Zambezi river a shattered disco ball spitting out shards of crystallized
water. Zambia’s language milieu where the word for pain is a shared
dialect. Nyanja is a fire language, crackling the mouth, and shearing
consonants off tongues. What is left is no country, but the imagination.
[The Omen. Watercolor]
The moon started to fold into itself. Crows waking at dawn, dusting
dusk off their backs. The revelation that stretched my life from star
to star. The small thread of a man’s life and where he chose to plot
and root himself. If I were to weave that thread once more, I wish
for more scenes of holding Regina, letting my art be background.
[The Brothers. Oil on Canvas]
On a drive through Lusaka, it is W.I.T.C.H’s tender vibrato that holds
me. I know this country tethers us. We will all share the same death.
The phantom blood of the ‘80s which moved our lives at the pace of
a stone in a child’s hands upon view of open water. The scene that took
me back to reading by candlelight until the wick burned into itself.
[Mother Afrika. Woodcut]
This country does tether us. A coiled cord pulled from the Zambezi river.
Our birthright to our father’s tribes, but we are always our mother’s children.
Bury me here when I inherit the still life of my woodcuts. Smear my ashes
on the Nsalu cave paintings. I am thinking of my father who adorned
himself griot. I do not worry about legacy— let my art remain.
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October 08, 2021