Home is where the art is

2010-10-15 13:15

 The work of sculptor Noria Mabasa can easily seem like outsider pursuits of a ­rural artist who’s out of kilter with a scene gone beyond the postmodern. ­

However, no reading could be further from the truth. A pivotal undertow in Mabasa’s creative practice is part of a grand ­contest for the texture and character of South ­Africa’s visual arts culture.

Historically, the type of art practice that she is engaged in has been “masked by dichotomies”, which persist today and divide our visual culture between “craft and art, tradition and modernity, rural and urban, to didactic and auto-didactic”, as curator Andile Magengelele says.

A number of Mabasa’s works are on ­exhibition at the Becomo Art Centre in Kliptown, Soweto. Here Mabasa contests, rather well, for attention on behalf of artists from the periphery.

The works on show consist of clay sculptures and wood carvings, all brought together under the title Home Coming.

This is in reference to the artist’s return to Soweto since she left the township as a 16-year-old for Venda to help look after goats on her ­father’s homestead.

Mabasa was born in Venda’s Xigalo village in 1938 before her short spell in the famous Joburg township.

Hence her residency at Becomo also provides a way of reconnecting with a part of her past.

As a self-taught creative, ­Mabasa’s imaginative ­resources are rooted in the age-old ­indigenous ­traditions of the Venda people.

She is ­famously on record as ­saying her art is revealed to her in dreams. It makes sense, for it’s only the freedom of dreams that could have yielded some of the motifs that Mabasa fashions into high art.

Exemplary here is the piece titled Bust II, a ceramic sculpture or stylised clay pot.

It depicts a bare-breasted figure ­sitting with her hands resting on her knees. It is headless and decorated with geometric patterns made from ash patina and char.

Though it looks like a traditional domestic pot, it resists easy designation as a purely functional object.

The piece weaves a subversive narrative, first by ­traversing the craft-art divide then by opening up space for a rural ­feminine ­presence in the high art space.

But perhaps Mabasa is at her full strength when dealing with wood carving which, incidentally, in Venda happens to be the exclusive ­reserve of men.

Her depictions here, too, are sinewed in the mythical ­beliefs of her people.

She carves out shapes that merge human and animal figures into each other to form intricate, organic patterns.

The viewer can tell that even as she is creating unique forms out of a piece of wood, she is responding to its natural dynamic too.

So that, to an extent, the artwork is co-creating itself ­under the incisions of her adze (a traditional Venda sculpting tool).

Mabasa’s life-size and larger sculptures are a semiotic for a world where crocodiles, ­pythons and people are all connected into one elaborate dance.

» Home Coming is on until tomorrow

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