Chanda Mwenya, NKWAZI Magazine

The beauty and tranquility of Zeela Art Gallery & Homestay located in New Kasama, off Leopards Hill Road, in Lusaka left me virtually speechless. Fortunately, I am inclined to agree with the Jesuit Conference of Africa and Madagascar president, Reverend Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator, who once described the place, as “a piece of Eden on earth – an artistic and creative re-creation of God’s original desire and purpose for our common home.” Rev. Orobator made these remarks in 2018 during the opening of the Wonders of Co-creation: Catholic Theology and Spirituality Through Art exhibition at Zeela Art Gallery.

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And true to Rev. Orobator’s words, Zeela is undoubtedly a piece of Eden. The creative and serene sanctuary was founded by Charity and Bedah Salasini, a couple with a shared passion for art, especially Zambian art. Charity and Bedah are not just joined in holy matrimony, but their thinking and interests appear to be perfectly harmonised.

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I asked Bedah how Zeela came to be and with a smile on his face, he beckoned his wife and said, “She will explain to you, she is more eloquent.” Charity confidently replied, “You know, I grew up in the village and so did Bedah. I think our upbringing in a natural environment inspired us to gravitate towards nature, and our love for culture and art just fell in place. After appreciating how much they can be a rewarding living experience, the notion basically formed the departure point of creating Zeela, as a platform where nature, culture, and art could co-exist.

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“It is our conviction that art is an inspirational therapy for the spiritual wellbeing of humanity. And we also believe that art can enhance the way we see ourselves and the way we generally perceive the world around us.

“Zeela means a place of tall trees in Mambwe, Bedah’s native language, and if you look around this place, the environment is quite natural with its tall trees, and our house was built with utmost consideration of the environment”.

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Yes, you got that right; the Salasini’s own home is the Zeela Art Gallery. Art pieces (paintings and sculptures) collected over the years are displayed around the Salasini’s beautiful house and lush garden. The house is dwarfed by the tall trees surrounding it and the perfectly manicured lawn is adorned with the works of some of Zambia’s best sculptors.

Charity noted that she and her husband had been collecting Zambian art for about 15 years. When they saw what a large collection they had amassed they felt they must share it with the public, and so Zeela Art Gallery was born in 2017. Charity and Bedah have a shared belief that art has “the power to turn a small story into big issues.” They believe art is one way to preserve our heritage and a way for Zambians, and Africans in general to tell their own stories. Various pieces depict traditional life and practices and allude to traditional beliefs and values.

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The first piece the couple collected was a wood sculpture by Eddie Mumba in 2003. Today Zeela Art Gallery has around 200 pieces that include paintings and wood and stone sculptures.

While each art piece at Zeela has its own worth and is intricately crafted, the exhibit dubbed 40 Days and 40 Nights, stood out to me. The work includes an outdoor mural stretching 200 metres, complete with a raised wooden deck footpath for viewing. In the evening the mural is carefully lit, making it perfect for nighttime viewing.

The mural depicts key moments in the life (and death) of Jesus. Besides, the aesthetic beauty of the work, another interesting aspect of the piece is that Jesus is portrayed as a black man. Indeed all other biblical characters in the mural and the rest of the 40 Days exhibit are portrayed as black. This was no accident and the Salasinis will tell you that Catholic theology has an element of inculturation which allows some aspects of local cultures in their liturgy.

The mural is a result of joint efforts; different sections of this masterpiece were brought to life by some of the most celebrated artists on the Zambian art scene. Renowned artist Charles Chambata paints the moment in which Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus with a kiss in the garden of Gethsemane. Many art collectors know Charles as a sculptor but at Zeela he exhibits his hidden talent. Chande Kapundu vividly depicts the washing of hands by Pontius Pilate, when he recused himself in the trial and crucifixion of Jesus.

Additional scenes from Jesus’ life are punctuated with creative motifs designed by Jonathan Leya. Other famed artists such as Gordon Shamulenge, Serah Chibombwe, Montfort Chinunda, and Caleb Chisha add their touch to the mural.

The long winding wooden footpath finally leads to a newly built gallery space – currently displaying pieces which are mostly focused on Jesus’ life after his resurrection. One-piece shows Jesus with his outstretched hands, displaying the wounds from when he was nailed to the cross. Another shows him ascending into heaven as his followers look on.

Needless to say, with a sizeable collection including the works of Flinto Chandia, Eddie Mumba, Rabson Phiri, Chifuchi Kandala, and Smart Banda among others and collected over many years, the story of Zeela is already a big issue on the Zambian art scene.

Zeela is not just a gallery but also a place to find peace and quiet and revel in nature without leaving Lusaka. Zeela also offers artist-in-residence opportunities. Indeed various creatives, not just artists, have taken advantage of Zeela Art Gallery & Homestay to work on their craft in a peaceful and natural environment, surrounded by one of the greatest collections of Zambian art.