Before we set out from Shiluvari Lakeside Lodge, Abel Baloyi, my guide for the day, turned to me with a serious face. ‘I’m going to take you to see an artist but please don’t feel, you know, that I’m just taking you because this is rural Africa and it’s therefore compulsory to see African people carving wood and making pots and so on … no, NO, Thomas Kubayi is the real deal, an artist who is known in Germany, the Netherlands and those Swedish countries. Let’s go,’ he said.
As Avis’ capable Hyundai ix35 rocked and plunged down Elim’s back-roads towards Tom’s workshop in Tshivhuyuni Village, Abel gave me the local legend’s biography. ‘The guy’s a Tsonga, born and raised here in Gazankulu. His father was a wood carver who taught him to make he calls ‘functional art’ such as walking sticks, salad spoons, that kind of thing. When he was 18 he moved onto crocodiles and drums and met John Baloyi, a legendary South African sculptor from this area, who died tragically in a car accident in 2006. He also met and worked with another local legend, Jackson Hlungwani, who died last year.
For years Shiluvari Lakeside Lodge has actively marketed the Ribolla Arts Route to guests (Shiluvari’s majority stake owner, Michel Girardin, is every bit as civic-minded as his great grandfather Dr. George Liengme, the Swiss missionary who founded Elim Hospital). With the passing of Hlungwani and Baloyi the tour is now somewhat abbreviated, with Kubayi the last of Elim’s internationally-recognized sculptors. ‘He’s not the end of the creative bloodline though’, Abel explained.
‘He has several students, it was a dozen not so long ago but the number varies as they pursue different things in life, some of them coming back, some leaving for good,’ he said. We passed a church made of sticks and mismatched planks and Abel said ‘Eesh, man, people are into their religion here. You will see’ – we had stopped to inspect the church – ‘that the chairs and tables inside this structure are not touched by thieves — that is the power of religion in this place. In fact, those artists I have mentioned, their art is strongly influenced by religion too … religion mixed with traditional belief.’
‘Why are you smiling?’ I asked. Abel had a cunning look on his face.
‘C’mon, tell me.’
‘Thomas has been rewriting the bible, he’s introduced a new angel,’ Abel said, and it was on this mystery note that we turned in to Kubayi’s workshop, an area of well-trodden earth beneath a msasa tree, where a few of his protégés were reclining on large animist benches. The master, they regretfully told us, was not in residence, he was transporting mielie meal with his bakkie (bought after he sold an enormous cow-hide drum for R35,000) to supplement his income.
But the angel, importantly, was in, and would be receiving guests in Tom’s mud hut showroom, flanked by a woman with a very ample heart-shaped derriere, touching her toes, and another with large breasts, a wonderfully supine neck, and the body of an ostrich.
‘What do you think?’ Abel asked expectantly.
‘Well, it certainly looks like him.’
‘It does, it does, it is a truly wonderful likeness.’
‘What’s he carrying?’
‘Seeds in the one hand, and a calabash of water in the other, to water the seeds.’
Of course I didn’t need to ask, ‘Why the wings?’ Even a child will tell you, and perhaps especially a child, that Nelson Mandela is already more angel than human. I caught up with Tom back at Shiluvari Lodge, where he and a collective of local musicians had been drumming to aid the digestion of the Swiss ambassador, who happened to be spending the weekend there trying to convince several presently-gathered Limpopo bureaucrats to revive the Elim Hospital and secondary school. Tom, younger than I expected, was completely at ease amidst the suits in a green vest and shorts.
He explained that in 2009, when the newspapers started to worry about Mandela’s health, he’d wanted to create a monument to the great man that would simultaneously function as message to South Africa’s current crop of politicians.
‘The seeds he’s carrying are obviously seeds of hope, the seeds of reconciliation and opportunity, from which a new nation was supposed to grow,’ he said. ‘The calabash contains water, symbolizing his intention to grow this new world but the wings tell us that he will not be with us much longer, and his expression asks us, what has become of the seeds I planted? These days there are not many people working for South Africa, like he did, they are working for themselves. Politicians are destroying what he planted,’ said Tom, not minding if any number of local bureaucrats heard him.
I asked Tom what he thought of Jacob Zuma’s decision to put Limpopo-premiere Cassel Mathale’s government under national administration. ‘Well, it would be good if we saw people from National coming to make a difference but we don’t see them. Most of the people in my village don’t even know who Mathale is either. Here you concentrate on surviving, politics is a game for others,’ said Tom.
And it was no doubt the issue of survival that made him look away when I asked about his hopes for the extraordinary sculpture. ‘Obviously I’d like to see it in a public space. This one, out of everything I’ve done, is special. I’d like to give it as a gift to President Mandela and some people I know are exploring how to get this news to him. However, one must make a living, and if a private collector offers the right price I can’t afford to say no,’ Kubayi said. I’m no expert but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Kubayi’s angel is worth a hundred times its sale price ten years from now. Consequently, I’ve never felt more compelled to make a considerable speculative purchase. But in the end I didn’t, Kubayi’s Angel Mandela didn’t fit my pocket.
To prove that I’m not overly covetous here’s Tom’s number, with his permission, for the gallery owners and art prospectors out there: 072-180-2398
Advisory: If you’re seriously interested you’ll need a fair bit of cash … and a sunroof.
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Tags: Angel Mandela, Art, artist, avis, fair trade in tourism, FTTSA/Getaway Blog Advenutre, Gazankulu, Getaway Blog Adventure, Limpopo, Nelson Mandela, Ribolla Arts Tour, sculpture, Shiluvari Lakeside Lodge, Thomas Kubayi