Massa Lemu scales great heights in arts


By Peter Kanjere & Sam Banda Jnr:

INNOVATION— Lemu’s piece of art in his studio

United States of America (USA)-based artist Massa Lemu has always embarked on futurist projects that are ahead of his time. Ironically, for all his genius, he is probably the least recognised and celebrated back home.

However, those who follow fine arts would rank Lemu in the class of the last best thing to have happened to the brush and paint in Malawi—Kay Chiromo (now deceased).


Whether as a poet, musician, writer and visual artist, Lemu has— from his time at Chichiri Secondary School in Blantyre then University of Malawi – Chancellor College in Zomba to USA via South Africa— never been afraid to take his skills and imagination to new areas of artistic expression.

Little wonder, Lemu, who is a visual arts lecturer at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, has ventured into horizons that Malawi arts fanatic can only dream of.

Lemu calls himself an artist who makes concept driven art, which is art whose main focus is the beauty of the concept behind it rather than the object.


He has featured sculpture, text, performance, photography, and video in his work to tackle issues of aid, colonisation, migration, and the environment. Lemu also writes about art and is a poet.

Lemu was recently selected to one of the top artist residencies in USA called the Bemis Centre for Contemporary Arts in Omaha, Nebraska, where he is staying for three months making work and interacting with other 12 artists from different parts of the world.

Current artists-in-residence come from places as far flung as Brazil, Australia and Kuwait.

The programme will run from May 22 to August 16 and the visual artist wants to seize the opportunity to boost his own artistic innovation.

“At Bemis, Lemu plans to create installations which will include wooden constructions, tin, and metallic plates, tar, and rubber straps made out of tires and to research the material and aesthetic aspects for a new project titled Token Black which reflects on the politics of migration and race,” Bemis website reads.

So how does he hope to translate his Bemis adventure into something

that would enrich his career and contribute to Malawi arts development?

“The residency is an opportunity for me to read and focus on my work, to research and to experiment with new ideas and techniques, and hopefully to take my work to new audiences. I hope that the results of these experiments will inspire fellow Malawian artists in their own work,” he said.

INNOVATION— Lemu’s piece of art in his studio

Meanwhile, Lemu has created artworks utilising the shapes of a lamp which he describes as nostalgic objects that remind him of childhood.

He posted some of these works on his Facebook page which have attracted interest from people and other artists.

The works are amazing and gives one deeper thoughts on how he connects arts with different issues.

There was a time he also came out with some works which had him in the waters of Lake Malawi but putting on a suit.

He was telling a different story from what others were thinking about and it is the same with his current lamp artworks.

“We used to have these lamps in the homes, and as a child, I used to be fascinated by how they looked and how they were made. They looked like people to me. But I could also play with the knob to adjust the wick, etc.,” Lemu, said of his artistry.

He said the lamps come back to him in adulthood as figures for talking about the psyche, fragility, blackness, and race, among other things.

“I am cutting and refixing them in a process I call ‘articulage’ in order to emphasise their characteristics as ‘human beings’, so each has its traits. So in the process, some become tall and others short, some fat, some thin, some traumatized and some not,” Lemu said.

He said he has darkened the lamps to refer to the racial experiences of black people.

On plans for an exhibition, Lemu, said there are no plans for a show yet but rather just experimenting with them.

“I call them thing one, thing two etc. endearingly. I borrow the naming from the children’s book writer Dr Seuss but when you consider the theoretical term ‘thingfication’, it also refers to the process through which black people were turned into things by whites in racism, slavery and colonialism,” the visual arts lecturer, said.

He said so far, there were 10 of the works.

Probably other artists can learn from Lemu on how he uses art to discuss different issues and bring about change.

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