Book review – The Sculptors of Mapungubwe: A cautionary tale gleaned from history

2013-11-10 14:00

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A powerful new word is created by author Zakes Mda in his epic The Sculptors of Mapungubwe.

The word is ‘mbisili’ and it is used “to describe any work of art that was both abominable and strange, and that worked against social cohesion and nation-building”.

It is a word that will, by the end, spread through the ancient kingdom like a disease.

“From then on, anything the rulers don’t like is mbisili.”

The word is created by a career politician, the king’s sculptor, Rendani. He uses it to fight his half-brother, the mystic genius Chata.

In telling the story of the two artists and Marubini, the woman they love for different reasons, the book is a fiery piece of social commentary on contemporary South Africa – from a thousand years ago. It is also a page-turner.

A pre-colonial cultural bodice ripper.

Despite being set in a mythic kingdom of unusual names and places, it reads as easily as, say, Black Diamond, a romping comedy set in the New South Africa.

Of course, Black Diamond is pooh-poohed by Mda purists, who stress the importance of his grand mystic-realist works.

They will be greatly pleased by this one, which taps the lofty traditions of an Okri, but charts its own unique idioms.

It begins with history sung by birds and the first humans moulded from black clay.

Almost at once though, there is the wonderful Mda naughtiness: “A floor that shone as if rock rabbits had peed on it.”

The Sculptors of Mapungubwe may be set a thousand years ago, but Mda breezily uses words like ‘chuffed’ to describe emotions.

I will confess that at times, while going through the pages, I pictured the author in his study dancing like a lunatic around his laptop.

There is a freedom of language and convention that compels, that never takes itself too seriously.

By taking us along for the ride, Mda is able to deliver some powerful blows in the end.

The tale begins with the arrival of mirrors in Mapungubwe.

The king gets one and so does Chata. It sets the artist up as an alternative leader.

Chata is born from the finest Mapungubwe stock – combined with the DNA of the nomadic !Kung people.

He is trained to channel spirits and commune with nature, asking forgiveness of the buck he kills for food.

As trade – in ivory, silk, beads and humans – begins to flow, the connection with the ancestors is strained.

Gold is the centre of it. Rendani wants it for money and power.

Chata wants it to create an extraordinary sculpture that is soon worshipped by the locals, a gateway to their ancestors.

The sculpture infuriates Rendani.

“What was the good of gold if it was not used to enrich one’s life with power and wives, and the luxury items that the Swahili brought from across the sea?” Sound familiar?

Mda whisks the reader through slave-trading in Mogadishu and fighting with the Azande army – where, incidentally, “victorious soldiers are rewarded with intercrural sex with teenage boys”.

It’s just a small reference, but Mda makes a powerful point. Homophobic laws arrived in Africa with the colonialists.

By choosing a pre-colonial setting, the author is able to unencumber history and ask what we can learn from ancient Africa.

It’s not all good news. Trading and immigration are destined to corrupt the kingdom’s leaders. A drought sets in.

“The royal household had accumulated heavy debts because of its addiction to luxury goods?...”

The rhino, once “a sacred totem in the kingdom” is soon under threat.

And so too is the artist who serves natural creativity and spiritual ends – instead of glorifying the king.

“It was one long orgy on the hilltop while the ceremonies and rituals that sustained the land were in abeyance. As a result, the whole rhythm of life was put off balance.”

It is, at heart, a cautionarytalegleaned from history.

With it, Mda plants his flag firmly on a hill, defying the idea that artists are here to serve – and be sponsored by – the state.

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