At Jacaranda Cultural Centre (JCC) in Blantyre, two gifted artists, Panji Tembo and Ellis Singano painted the tales of old Malawi on canvas with acrylic oil and on batic, bringing to life characters from long forgotten folktales.
It was an exhibition about a collection of illustrations and explorations of the rich, didactic and dark traditional folklore of Malawi.
Some of the illustrations were direct adaptations from stories collected by Ellis Singano Senior and Adrian Roscoe in a book titled Tales Of Old Malawi in the case of Singano and the African Traditional Religion (ATR) on the part of Tembo.
Singano’s painting on batic titled The Rope Trial is an adaptation from Singano’s father of the same title. On this painting, Singano depicts a scene of the trial of three wives of a chief who were accused of stealing the chief’s dog meat.
In the story, the first wife stole the meat in order to implicate her co-wives of theft as she always felt jealous of them.
The chief angrily asked all the wives to mention the one who had eaten the meat but they all denied. So he made a bridge using a rope over a lake and ordered the three women to cross the lake using the rope.
He said that whoever fell into the lake was guilty. And the two younger wives crossed to the other side safely but the first wife fell into the waters.
“It was now the turn of the first wife. She mounted the rope and began to sing, but as she reached the middle of the lake a strong wind blew and water splashed around her in great waves. The string broke; the first wife drowned,” the story goes.
Thus the painting depicts a moral lesson of avoiding wishing others bad. In life, what goes around comes around. The first wife plotted against the down-fall of her co-wives and ended up losing the plot.
It is a moral lesson that even the Bible teaches: whosever lives by the sword, so shall they die by the same sword. Therefore, through the painting, moral values of wishing each other well and co-existence are promoted, just as reading the original text.
Then another painting, titled The Magic Tree, depicts children who were swallowed by a giant tree during a severe storm in the village. In the original story, these children were left wandering on their own by their parents.
Following their missing, the village offered sacrifice to know where the children had gone. The ancestors told the chief the children were safe inside a tree.
“They told him that they had hidden them as a warning to parents who did not properly care for their children,” reads the story in part.
This painting teaches parents to take care of their children. There are people who just leave children to wander about on their own. It is even more relevant now with increasing cases of child trafficking.
In another painting, Chinsolo, by Singano, a story of a human head that married a young girl after her two sisters rejected to marry it is depicted. In the end the human head turned into a handsome young man.
“The girl was delighted. She introduced the transformed Chinsolo to her father, and showed her sisters the good fortune that they had turned down. Truly it was good fortune, for Chinsolo and his wife lived long and happily after,” goes the tale.
The painting teaches us to respect people of different inabilities in life as the saying goes that disability is not inability. It is rebuking people who despise others with poor background. In life, anything can happen. Those we despise today will become important people tomorrow.
Singano himself says Malawians should take care of orphans as they have the potential to be the great people of tomorrow.
“Let us not denigrate orphans. They can become bosses in future like Chinsolo,” he says.
Singano explains that he got inspiration to paint from his father’s stories: “I was inspired by my father’s stories. The stories have lessons we can apply today.”
On the other hand, Tembo’s painting titled Rhythm of the Rain Ancestors depicts people performing a dance ritual after offering sacrifice to Mbona at Khulubvi shrine in Nsanje.
Khulubvi shrine is an ancestral shrine in the religion of the Mang’anja of Lower Shire. When they experienced floods, droughts or calamities, they offered sacrifice to the ancestors to appease them.
This oil painting depicts a dance performance after offering sacrifice. The people wear black, showing this is a solemn occasion. The animals in the background depict an environment in which human beings interacted with nature peacefully.
Tembo says he painted the scenes to show the significance of the Khulubvi cult in our culture. “This place is now preserved for cultural purposes,” Tembo says.
Last but not least, there are three related paintings by Tembo that depict Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution; the first depicts scenes of Galapagos Island, the second is an illustration from Galapagos to Golgotha and the third one depicts scenes from Galapagos to Galapagos.
They are paintings that depict the creation story according to different cultures. The west believe in Darwin’s explanations on the origin of man, Christians believe in the Genesis account of God creating man in Eden and Malawians also have tales of how life came into being.
“In these paintings, the idea is to show that human beings have to decide whether they are from Galapagos, Eden or they are parallel and complementary,” Tembo says.
After all the illustrations are examined, one can draw one lesson that our past as a people is replete with stories ranging from morality to creation.