The Midlands’ own art dynamo

2011-01-15 00:00

SOMETIMES in life you don’t choose the things you finally end up doing — and that’s exactly what happened to Malcolm Christian who opened the doors to Caversham Press a quarter of a century ago.

He found the idyllic midlands location by chance during a visit to David Walters, the potter, at Caversham Mill. Walters had bought the mill in 1978, restoring and using the beautiful property as a studio.

“I always broke my journey here when I came to visit family in Durban,” Christian, who was lecturing at Wits University at the time, said. “One day, while I was out walking, I saw this derelict church. I climbed over the fence and wandered round the graveyard. Then I peaked through the broken windows and thought what an amazing space it was and that it would make the perfect printmaking studio.”

The 1878 Wesleyan chapel was owned by the Methodist Church and after approaching them, the church agreed to sell him the land and buildings provided he took care of the 50 or 60 graves on the site. He happily agreed although a few people did raise their eyebrows at the thought of Christian and his wife, Roz, and two children, Terry and Sally, living in a graveyard. “They thought I was a bit cuckoo,” Christian says with a grin.

After buying the property, he approached Robert Brusse to help him restore the evangelical buildings . The result was a peaceful haven, which has been offering artists and writers the chance to stretch their creative wings since 1985. Among those who have spent time at the centre are William Kentridge, David Koloane, Zwelethu Mthethwa, Deborah Bell, Mmakgabo Sebidi, Robert Hodgins and Bonnie Ntshalintshali.

Christian said: “I wanted to emulate what was provided at university and technikons so artists could cross-pollinate across different mediums. But having to charge for the use of the facility became a barrier of exclusivity.”

After an exhibition in Grahamstown in 1990 he decided to make a greater contribution to the artistic community through an educational programme which included working with artists from township backgrounds and teaching school children about etching and litho.“The demand for an educational programme and my commitment to that grew, and in 1993 I started a trust [The Caversham Press Educational Trust] to raise money to expand the programme,” he said.

“We have gone from printing to a broad-based initiative which has so many different ways of connecting with artists ... we could simply have grown master printers, but what I wanted to do was to create a gift of significance and to help grow a person’s life and sustain that.”

Since 1993, the trust has contributed to the skills development of more than 250 artists including Wonderboy Nxumalo, Ezekiel Mabote and Vulindlela Nyoni.

Caversham has also helped communities in KwaZulu-Natal through its CreACTive Centres. The first of these opened in 2002 at Jabula Combined School in Lidgetton. The children named it Ulwazi (Place of Knowledge). Other centres have been opened in Rorke’s Drift, Mtubatuba, Kwambonambi, Jozini, Umlazi, Kwadabeka, and with partners in Pieter­maritzburg, Durban, East London and at art@school in District Six, Cape Town.

Works made by members of the CreACTive centres will form part of an exhibition by Caversham at America’s Boston University. Some 180 pieces will be on show in the 808 Gallery, an old Cadillac showroom dating to the 1920s,from February to the end of March/beginning of April, after which a smaller exhibition, featuring between 60 and 70 works, will travel around the United States and hopefully South Africa.

The centre is also hoping to tour its recent 25th anniversary exhibition at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg. “People, Prints and Process — Twenty-Five years at Caversham” featured over 100 works by 70 artists, including Kentridge, Magkabo Helen Sebidi and the late Robert Hodgins and Gabisile Nkosi, and told a remarkable story of faith in creative people and the processes of human interaction and empowerment.

It’s a story Malcolm Christian hopes will continue for another 25 years and beyond.

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