A colossal De Klerk, complex dream-pictures in wood or a monkey with a transistor radio and a bright pink rear end.

Rotterdam’s Museum of Ethnology is showing some 30 sculptures by South African Venda artists in a remarkable display.

‘If there is one general characteristic to be given to contemporary African art, it is an unstoppable narrative drive.’

Publication The storytelling art of the Venda, Paul Faber @ Museum magazine Vitrine, Rotterdam 1 August 1994

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In northeastern South Africa, the area of the former republic of Venda, Noria Mabasa works in a yard surrounded by low painted walls. The entrance is flanked by life-size, colourful clay figures. In the yard is a round, traditional house and a western-style, rectangular house. Mabasa works a large block of wood with a chop, chisels, knives and sandpaper. Relatives and friends walk by, watching, talking, busy with their own employments. In this isolated spot, surrounded by a lush landscape, narrative images of great eloquence emerge under her hands.
On two elongated floorboards – one lying flat on the ground, the other raised slightly above it with a curved back – her sculptures are now on display in Rotterdam’s Museum voor Volkenkunde. They are part of a gathering of some 30 figures, all brought to life in distant compounds of Venda land.

The open space, the loosely placed texts left and right, and kitchen chairs standing all around (a design by Frans Vogelaar) evoke associations with the informal atmosphere of their native soil. It is an amazing company that no one passes by unfazed. Each sculpture has its own character. Sometimes we can immediately identify the figures, like the two neatly dressed people modestly standing off to the side. Other images look like three-dimensional cartoons. The ‘clever businessman’, a turtle busy on the phone, elicits a grin of recognition from us several thousand kilometres away. Yet other images create confusion, referring to a not immediately accessible world of symbols, a story or myth. But even in these cases they appeal to us. They are figures you would like to get to know more closely. As Owen Ndou puts it: `Carving is speaking to the world’.

The makers of the sculptures belong to the Bavenda, a people who migrated south from Central Africa across the Limpopo during the 17th and 18th centuries and founded a first empire on the site of the Venda republic until 27 April this year. Culturally related to the Shona, the Sotho and Tsonga, they have their own language and traditions. The legendary monarch Tho Ho Yan Ndou is now considered the cultural hero for the Venda and gave his name to the capital. From time immemorial, the Venda have had a tradition of wood-carving that manifested itself in utensils, court paraphernalia and ritual objects, such as the large drums that play a role in the Domba, the Venda’s initiation ritual. These historical lines provided the breeding ground for a new development that took place in the 1970s. Many Venda moved to South Africa’s big cities to find work and earn money. Conversely, Western media, thoughts and markets reached Venda land.


This confrontation between tradition and ‘modern life’ opened up numerous new possibilities. Stimulated by interested buyers and traders, several artists tried out new subjects and gave free rein to their imagination. The sculptural tradition, the many local woods and classical tools proved flexible enough to give shape to a new repertoire. The religious, social and political changes themselves provided an inexhaustible amount of situations to respond to. The new Venda art was born. The 11 exhibitors represent an important and representative group of now active Venda artists, a term incidentally also applied to artists from the neighbouring regions of Gazankulu and Lebowa. Brothers Owen (1964) and Goldwin (1954) Ndou form a particularly prolific duo. The youngest started his career straight out of school, and then led his brother to follow this trail. They still maintain a close professional contact today. Owen is an ambitious sculptor. He creates his large standing figures in relatively rough-hewn forms and paints them in matte colours. His depiction of a female Gabriel (`Who said Gabriel was a man?’) with sombre gaze, and a colossal, huddled De Klerk, form figures that remain etched on the retina.

A similar monumentality has his golfer: a large monkey-like figure with heavy hands, dressed in a checked jacket. Of his Giant clever rabbit, Owen Ndou says: ‘I want people to know that if you are clever you cannot suffer in the world.’ Noria Mabasa (1938) shows a much greater diversity in her work. She makes modest, round modelled clay figures from the 1970s onwards, also painted, which are endearingly self-effacing, like her mother with child. These sculptures are akin to traditional Matano figures and are repeated by her with minor variations. At the same time, Mabasa creates much more personal sculptures in unpainted wood; complex compositions whose representation, she says, is handed to her in dreams. Impressive are The Dam and the miniature performance Flight from Mozambique. In both cases, the large form is determined by the properties of the pieces of wood from which they are carved. That relationship is not just pragmatic. Philip Rikhotso (1945) says: ‘Wood is a mystery and harbours hidden meaning’, and Phutuma Seoka (1922) speaks of ‘the spirit of the wood that dictates form’.


With Freddy Ramabulana (c. 1930), too, the dry, light-coloured wood he uses forms a main component of the character of his spindly, tormented figures. He increases the realism by dressing up his sculptures, such as his Zulu warrior who, wearing trousers, jacket, spear, shield and helmet with marbles as eyes and with real teeth, makes for a restless encounter. Despite the ample presence of serious subjects from religious, mythical and political backgrounds, there is a decidedly light-hearted touch. Goidwin Ndou‘s hairy monkey (Gorilla radio, 1993) with a radio on its belly, blue chequered sandals and a bright pink rear end is hilarious. So is Seoka’s giant, towering above the viewer on huge flat feet, and Johannes Maswanganyi‘s jolly Jesus walking on the water (1949), waving a red cross. This unbridled creative urge, in which there is no trace of self-replication, forced creative compulsion or leaden abstractions, leaves the viewer short of eyes. There only seems to be a ‘joie de sculpture’, driven by an unstoppable narrative urge. If there is one general characteristic of contemporary African art, it is this.


Contemporary artistic expressions, produced anywhere in the world, can no longer be separated from so-called mainstream art. Mutual contacts, information flows, personal mobility and interactions on a global level drive new developments towards a new pluralistic world art. The corridor from Venda to Rotterdam is easy to trace. New works by Venda artists soon found their way from the capital to Johannesburg. Through the galleries, the alluring and surprising sculpture came under the eyes of curious Western museum directors and art dealers, although the cultural boycott long acted as a brake on free circulation. David Elliot of the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford showed some of their works in his exhibition ‘Art from South Africa’ in 1990.

The political changes of recent years facilitated contacts. Following a visit by Achille Bonito Oliva, the 1993 Venice Biennale presented a survey of South African art that was taken over by the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam at the end of that year under the title ‘Southern Cross’. Also in 1993, Amsterdam gallery-owner Charlotte Daneel included some Venda sculptures in her presentation at the Holland Art Fair in Utrecht. Earlier, she drew the attention of Rotterdam curator Erna Beumers to Venda art, upon which the latter decided to take a look herself. In February this year, she visited a large number of artists, compiling a collection of loans and new works, some of which were acquired by the museum. With these initiatives, Venda art now figures on international stages. Not only does this demand a response from the Western (art) world, the Venda artists involved will also have to come to terms with these developments.

It is unpredictable how the encounter will proceed between the individual artists, working in their distant compounds, and the international artistic jet set and the mechanisms of the art market, especially now that the South African republic has taken a leap into an unclear future. For now, the strength of the artists seems so strong that they will be making their own noise for a long time to come. After all, as Vernie February aptly put it in his opening address with a Surinamese proverb: ‘Yu kan kribi granmama, ma yu no kan tapu kosokoso: you can put your grandmother away, but never keep her from coughing.’

‘Venda: contemporary art from South Africa’, through 26 Feb. 1995 at the Museum of Ethnology, Willemskade 25, Rotterdam. Open: Tues. to Sat. 10-17 hrs; Sun. 11-17 hrs.


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