It took us two and a half days to reach Milawi from Durban, where Mook Lion and I live. We were making our way by bus, although this particular one had lost its left rear view mirror. Safety may not have been top priority, but travelling this way meant we got to see a small side of Malawi before we’d even set foot in the country.
I was travelling together with Durban street artist Mook Lion for Malawi’s annual Lake of Stars Music and Art Festival. There was no fixed plan, but I knew I wanted to photograph and Mook knew he wanted to paint.
Along the way we spent time Lilongwe, Malawi’s bustling capital, where we formed a crew with a group of local artists who ditched their craft stalls to show us the best walls to paint, and the strongest zol [marijuana] to smoke.
After some sketching with sticks in the sand, we all decided that to paint masks, together with the word “Chickalidwe”. Loosely translated, Chickalidwe means ‘the way in which a thing is,’ with particular reference to culture and tradition, in Nyanja – one of Malawi’s main languages.
The four local artists – Tiger, Banana Joe, Raz, Julius Chulu (the only ‘known’ graffiti artist in Lilongwe), Mook Lion and me scrubbed the dusty wall down with empty boxes of Chibuku – a cheap local beer resembling porridge, cane spirits and a possible hint of cyanide.
In Chipoka Village, we met ‘Chief Chipoka’, one of only five female chiefs in the 38-village district. We were taken to her small, paint-chipped house to request permission for Mook Lion and three local artists to paint a mural in her village over the festival. Permission was granted, with long discussions and short nods.
To paint wasn’t the real intention of our trip, it was just something that happened along the way. I suppose both Mook and I believe that you don’t need a formal ‘programme’, invitation or organisation to give you permission to go and paint or create. Mook organises collaborative murals in Durban all the time on his own accord – with local children, other artists, friends etc. It’s what he does. And painting in Malawi was an experiment and chance to have a new experience with different artists, in a different space.
I guess street art enables you to engage with a city in a different way. Looking for the walls to paint is half the job and in doing that, we explored places we may not have explored and met people who may have remained hidden from view.
To me, a great adventure is much like great art. And great art is not art that dazzles, it is art that grounds.
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