In the belly of a helifish

2010-07-13 00:00

WHEN a light plane buzzed near a playground at a school near Bergville, KwaZulu-Natal, one day in 1986, the pilot had no idea that he would ignite a life-long passion in one of the young people on the field below. He’s probably still unaware that in that moment he sparked the boy’s creativity, and an artist was born.

The young man who stared at the plane, seeing one for the first time in his life, was 17-year-old Sibusiso “Punch Mbhele”­, who was born and raised in Zwelisha village between Woodstock Dam and the Drakensberg amphitheatre.

He was fascinated by what he saw and told his friends that he was going to build a plane, which he did, the moment­ he got home from school. Later, his brother showed him a picture of a helicopter and he started to make choppers from waste metal and wire.

Not content with small replicas of aircraft, Mbhele embarked on a far bigger, more challenging project, one that matched the scale of his vision: to build a home shaped like a helicopter. He has been building helicopter houses ever since.

The first one he built in his mother­’s yard caught the eye of foreign visitors and is recorded in a work on outsider art (see box). Raised on stilts to simulate flight, the home’s interior was decorated in bright, fantastical colours enhanced by coloured lighting. Mbhele’s planes also caught the attention of local and international gallery­ owners and started to earn him an income. However, with fame also came the envy of some in his community who caused trouble for him.

He went through a difficult period, alienated from his village and inhabitants who were fiercely resistant to attempts by outsiders to harness his talent. The more they tried to control him, the more he resisted until he eventually fled to Johannesburg­ where he took shelter with a benefactor.

However, the mountains and the silent­ space of his rural home called him and he eventually returned to reconcile with the community.

Keen to set up home on his own, Mbhele laughed as he explained how his helicopter house collapsed when he tried to tow it to a new location with a tractor. That was several years and seven structures ago. He has lived on his current plot since 1997 and the home he now lives in is the eighth that he has built. It is not finished, he stressed, as it still needs a cockpit.

Mbhele calls his home a fish helicopter.

“I like the shape of fish and the way that they move; and helicopters move just like fish do.”

He was taken with my suggestion that he call it a helifish and wanted the word written down to mull over. The structure is built from corrugated-iron sheeting and the shells of wrecked vehicles, particularly VW kombis and Toyota Hi-Ace minibus taxis, which form the door and some of the windows. He said that it is a workshop, hence its workman-like interior, where piles of waste material are heaped together alongside finished artworks. His bedroom is on a seperate deck raised above his work bench.

He creates planes from wire and flattened motor oil cans, explaining that many other cans have plastic lining that makes them unsuitable for his purposes, especially food tins. He showed me the prototype of a new artwork: an elegantly streamlined, three-dimensional leaping springbok that has been created from panels of flattened and sandpapered oil cans. His imagination has also been sparked by bicycles and he is keen to experiment with old bicycle parts to build a tandem bike.

Mbhele’s nickname, Punch, belies his nature as he is quiet and softly spoken. He explained that his father named him after a washing powder, rather than for any aggressive tendencies­. As with many outsider artists, he is reticent, almost reclusive.

When a local tour guide heard that he had not only co-operated in an interview, but that he had allowed me into his home, she was very surprised.

“Sometimes when I take tour groups there he won’t even come down to talk to us. He just tells us to go away,” she said.

Since his first sighting of a plane Mbhele has seen a few more, mostly crop sprayers, but aircraft are infrequent visitors to the remote area.

Has he ever been for a ride in an plane? “Yes, someone took me in a plane at Harrismith in 1989 and I enjoyed it very much. But I prefer to stay on the ground and make my own planes,” he smiled.

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