Major artwork unveiled

2008-11-06 00:00

ON Friday evening, an astonishing piece of locally produced art will be unveiled to the public for the first time in the Schlesinger Theatre at Michaelhouse. This is the African Crucifixion from Ubuhle Beads, the Lidgetton-based craft company.

The work measures 7,5 metres by 4,5 metres and has been made with beads sewn onto and completely covering the black backing fabric. The design is complex and sophisticated, and the beads give the piece the appearance of micro-mosaic work. The figure of Christ on the cross is in the centre, with trees on either side — on the left a stark, angular tree of defeat and destruction, and on the right a more organic, softer tree of life. Images of the work are embargoed until after it has been unveiled by Dean Fred Pitout of the Cathedral of the Holy Nativity in Pietermaritzburg on Friday, but there will be a photograph of it in the Weekend Witness on Saturday — a chance to see this spectacular artwork in all its glory.

Tomorrow evening, there will be a chance to buy smaller Ubuhle panels, many showing the same tree theme. There are about 25 pieces, some by Ubuhle’s top beaders who worked on the Crucifixion. There will be a silent auction and the highest bidders will own a special, unique piece of art.

Valued at R2,5 million by the Everard Read Gallery in Johannesburg, the African Crucifixion, which took six months to complete, will be travelling to London next year to be displayed in the British Museum. Co-founder of Ubuhle, Bev Gibson, says that when it returns, she would love to see it back in KwaZulu-Natal.

“I want it to stay in the area,” she says. “It can inspire those who see it to believe in rural people and see them as part of the solution, rather than just the problem. Invest time and money in people and their skills, and they can produce works that are amazing.”

The Crucifixion symbolises hope in a time of despair, drought and sorrow. New opportunities arise and, says Gibson, this is how the rural women who beaded the piece have taken control of their own lives.

Ubuhle began in 2000 when Gibson and co-founder Ntombephi Ntombela met on the north coast. Ntombela was making jewellery to sell to tourists on the beachfront. The two began to expand the range, and sell work to friends. In 2002, Ubuhle moved to the midlands and the company has gone from strength to strength.

They are responsible for the sparkling panels in the revamped Playhouse foyer in Durban, and for a massive wall-hanging in Anglo-Gold’s headquarters in Johannesburg — even bigger than the African Crucifixion.

But, insists Gibson, in the end Ubuhle is about the people rather than the beadwork. “I have a vision for the future,” she says. “I would love to see an African design village here, making everything from lucky bean necklaces to the finest Ubuhle pieces. And it would be a village for the women on the farm.”

She believes the midlands needs a place where genuinely local craft can be sourced. “We’re all tired of buying Chinese junk,” she says. “People want to buy something that puts something back into the community.”

But Gibson is determined that Ubuhle is not seen as a “be-sorry-for-me” project. “We’re a project of hope,” she says. It is something the African Crucifixion represents, and when the viewers see it tomorrow evening their emotions are likely to be admiration and pride that it has come from local artists. The British Museum should be proud too that they are going to have a chance to display it.

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