Spiritual solace in art

2009-01-20 00:00

A handCrafted ceramic plate, painted with images of monkeys and candles covered in South African flags, is possibly one of the most poignant pieces on show in the Ardmore Positive exhibition at the Tatham Art Gallery in Pietermaritzburg.

Created by the late Wonderboy Nxumalo, the plate, Praying to God with a Smile, seems to show the artist’s need for spiritual solace — unsurprising when you discover that it was painted in the months before he succumbed to an Aids-related illness.

Nxumalo, who died last year, was inspired to create works detailing the effect that Aids and HIV were having on the Ardmore artistic community, after they lost Phumelele Nene in 1998 and Bonnie Ntshalintshali, Phineas Mweli and Miriam Ngubeni a year later.

Speaking to visitors at the museum during a walkabout on Thursday last week, Zimbabwean journalist Derick Matsengarwodzi described the piece as “the one which strikes me the most because it is so personal”.

He added, “Wonderboy incorporated words into his pieces and used primates instead of humans in his paintings … but if you look closely the monkey’s faces are almost human.

“His later plates seem to show Wonderboy’s own need for spiritual help and guidance when he was feeling unwell. The candles are symbolic I think. When they are burning we are still alive, but when they get small, it shows you are sick but have noone to help you. People run away from you.”

The primate theme is continued in the work of Vusi Ntshalintshali, whose baboon vase shows female baboons repelling males as an example of abstinence, and Sfiso Mvelase, whose monkey candlesticks use humour to convey a serious message about the need to practise safe sex.

Ardmore’s desire to educate people through its art has not, however, been without controversy. Andrew Sokhela, a painter from Mooi River’s Bruntville township, decided to tackle the issue head on with his plates showing people dealing with the effect of HIV and Aids. Using a comic-strip format, he depicts, among many things, parents dying and leaving older children to care for their siblings.

The pieces are powerful, none more so than the Bonnie tribute bowl. Matsengarwodzi said of the work: “Andrew’s exposure to the media greatly influenced his work. One of his works, the Bonnie bowl, was to prove this. His wording on the piece — “Died from Aids” — was seen as undiplomatic and, therefore, unAfrican.”

It also infuriated Ntshalintshali’s family and led to Sokhela receiving death threats. Ardmore founder Fee Halsted briefly put a stop to works with an Aids and HIV theme, but creativity cannot be confined and the artists were soon hard at work producing sculptures, some of which can be seen in the exhibition at the Tatham.

Matsengarwodzi closed the talk with an appeal to the South African leadership not to fail its people and to invest more money to help those affected by HIV and Aids.

Last Thursday’s walkabout was preceded by a workshop during which Ardmore sculptors Sabelo Khoza and Wellington Sikhosana showed children how to create sculptures of birds. These were placed on a pot, which will be fired and returned to the Tatham for display.

Painters Wiseman Ndlovu and Alex Shabalala then demonstrated the painting techniques employed at Ardmore. Ndlovu explained that each piece is a collaboration between sculptor and painter. The sculptor makes the piece, which is then fired, painted by a painter, fired again, glazed and fired for a third time.

Asked if they had enjoyed working with the children, Khoza said: “It has been wonderful. They have been very interested and have asked lots of questions.”

• Ardmore Positive: Ardmore Ceramic Studio’s response to HIV and Aids can be seen at the Tatham Art Gallery ceramics room until February 1. The gallery is open from 10 am to 6 pm, Tuesday to Sunday. For more information contact the education officers by e-mail at Kobie.venter@msunduzi.gov.za or thulani.makhaye@msunduzi.gov.za or phone 033 392 2801.

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