A gifted and exploratory artist
I n Zambia exhibition designers and museums are not as famous as soccer players and stadia. It could be the reason Jonathan Leya is little known despite his traceable pedigree in the creative industry.
Jonathan is a qualified graphic designer who has had a viable career in museums and galleries as an exhibition designer and artist. He calls himself an exploratory artist. “Art is a talent which I embraced at a tender age back in primary school, and it was nurtured through the grades until my college education,” Jonathan says.
During his fourth grade at Adastra Primary School in Choma, Jonathan exhibited his drawings at his school’s pavilion at the town’s Agricultural and Commercial Show. Participating in the exhibition encouraged him to do more. Bubbling with self-assurance, Jonathan endeavored to pursue his creative ambition. After primary school he moved to Zimbabwe and completed his high school education at Plumtree in the Matabeleland region of the country.
Jonathan’s A-level grades earned him a place at Harare Polytechnic College, class of 1986, to pursue a three-year training course in graphic art. The promising artist was introduced to the real art world – intellectually for now. “Although my course was graphic art, the training was all encompassing. It included ceramics, photography, etching, embossing, art history, lino and woodcuts, screen printing and other printing techniques,” he recounts. During vacations, Jonathan took up part-time work as a studio artist at Backer-McCormick Advertising, a Harare-based marketing agency. His responsibility at the firm was to illustrate newspaper adverts for department store products.
“In those days before the proliferation of computers coupled with additional technological limitations in printing apparatus, most illustrations were done by freehand. So my job was to produce drawings of various products such as furniture and other household items” he says.
In 1990 as a fresh college graduate Jonathan got his first salaried job as a paste-up artist in Harare. His principal assignment was to get artworks camera-ready for lithographic printing.
After a stint in the printing and advertising business Jonathan joined Elephants Walk Museum in Victoria Falls town in northern Zimbabwe. One of his duties was mounting travelling exhibitions. The experience he gained helped him get a job as principal graphic designer at Choma Museum & Crafts Centre.
Jonathan joined Choma Museum during its transformation period from a private Trust collection into a nationalised Institution. It was a demanding phase which made him become a vital participant in the documentation of artifacts and setting up of a permanent display. There was more to his duties than just designing regular text. The graphic designer by job description was also involved in the designing and execution of the temporary and permanent exhibitions in the museum. Another of his tasks was working with the research team to create educational content for the institution’s publications.
During his engagement with the Choma Museum Jonathan worked closely with visual artists and organised exhibitions for some of Zambia’s top creators such as Patrick Mweemba, Lutanda Mwamba and Andrew Macromalis among others. After leaving the Choma Museum Jonathan decided to freelance as a graphic designer and occasionally engaged in commercial screen printing as well as small production of fine art, mostly working with miniature works in water colors. It was not long before he was engaged to design the display for the newly built Lusaka National Museum. “Apart from the village scene that you see at the Lusaka Museum, which was done by Chande Kapundu, Alex Nkazi and Poto Kabwe, I did the rest of the design that you see there,” he says.
When Jonathan was done with the Lusaka National Museum permanent display, he earned himself a job as a resident graphic designer for Society for Family Health designing their publicity and packing materials. It would be his last salaried job before establishing himself as a freelance artist. And to reaffirm his presence on the Zambia art scene, Jonathan showcased his works in the Emeldah Mpilipili-curated fine art solo exhibition at Gallery Xzibit in Lusaka.
One of Jonathan’s recent design exploits has been setting up an exhibition at Zeela Art Gallery and Home Stay in Lusaka’s New Kasama, with its unique 200 meters long mural complete with a wooden paved walk path especially designed for art viewing. Jonathan is also involved in the design of promotional materials. As someone who has experienced working in museums and art galleries, Jonathan bemoans the lack of appreciation for the heritage institutions by the general public. ‘In Zambia, unlike in Zimbabwe, museums are not placed in high esteem. The reason could be that the education system does not amplify the importance of these institutions in society,’ he observes.
Nevertheless, Jonathan appreciates that children are generally more enthusiastic than adults when it comes to visiting museums and he remains hopeful that Zambian society will begin to place more value on museums.