The idea of modernity as an ontological status or experiential reality that is exclusive to the West has been contested by a number of authors, theorists, and art historians over the past twenty years. This paper tackles the particular ways in which the modern has been constituted for and about black South African artists, particularly those who have lived most of their lives in “rural” areas as opposed to those living in large cities. What constitutes “rural” as an identity or status opposite to “urban” is contested today more than it was in the 1980s. This is partly because labeling an artist as rural participates in the conflation of distance between people in time with distance between people in space that Johannes Fabian (1983) pointed to as characteristic of the West's engagement with the so-called primitive. It also calls up the specters of the categories of “folk” and/or “outsider” art in the ways it functions to separate these artists and their works from the “mainstream” art world of the contemporary urban metropole.
In the South African context of the 1980s, when many of the “rural” artists first came to the attention of the South African art world, the “rural” came to be associated particularly with artists from the apartheid-engineered homelands, especially Limpopo and Mpumalanga. Not only were these “reservations” deliberately distanced from major urban centers, they were specifically engineered to remain rural and traditional. This distinction was not new. From the start of white settler- and colonialist-led occupation of the land in South Africa, white rural dwellers had set themselves apart from and in control of indigenous black occupants. The towns established by settlers had followed European models, and black people had been largely excluded from urban developments except in their capacity as laborers. The urban/rural divide was, however, largely constructed as a racialized binary, especially with the mass urbanization of white peoples in the 1920s. From the late 1940s, the distinction was constructed as one between white farmers and white urban dwellers on one hand, and black laborers and tradionalist, rural dwellers on the other. It was brought into very sharp focus under Nationalist Party rule and apartheid. In the black “homelands,” initially called “reserves,” then “Bantustans” by the Apartheid state, black people were expected to maintain their own traditions, living off subsistence farming and some income from migrant labor. The inextricable coupling of the “traditional” and the “rural” was entrenched in apartheid ideology but was equally evident in colonial structures. I use the terms somewhat interchangeably throughout this essay.
While Western-style education had been available to a small minority of black people under the pre-apartheid Union government, this often ended after a few years of primary school. Art education was not generally part of the curriculum under the so-called Bantu Education system: Visual arts were generally taught only in the framework of craft. In mission teacher training and vocational training centers, drawing was taught as part of other subjects and painting not at all. Some artists who were to become professional were trained only in the context of teachers' training institutions such as Grace Dieu in the Transvaal (Rankin 1989, 2011b) and Ndaleni in Natal (Magaziner 2016), others in workshop models at the Polly Street Recreation Centre in Johannesburg (Miles 2004) or at the Lutheran Evangelical Mission at Rorke's Drift (Hobbs and Rankin 2003, Rankin 2011b).
However, throughout the colonial and apartheid periods, there were men and women living in the rural black homelands who produced objects, often representations of people and animals, in a variety of media, for a variety of purposes, but often simply for their own sakes, i.e., as artworks. Some were based in forms that could be considered “traditional” in that they were passed down from one generation to another, sometimes for ceremonies that owed nothing to colonial or settler influence. Others, however transcended any “traditional” or historical connections to a particular culture, even though a subset of these has subsequently attained the status of the “traditional.” Many artists in the homelands in the 1970s and 1980s were men who sculpted images from wood, using an expressive but limited naturalism and apparently maintaining links to “traditional” art- and lifestyles (Burnett 1989a; Younge 1988; Nettleton 2000). I argue that it has been through an invocation of these historical social conditions and biographical details in the discourse of the “rural” that arose around them that their works were imbued with a power of a nostalgic order, resulting in a particular notion of authenticity that threw the modernity of these contemporary African works into question (Nettleton 2014). Van Robbroeck (2011) has argued that early twentieth century black intellectuals in South Africa had an ambivalent relationship with both tradition and modernity; I contend that a similar ambivalence continues to cloud our understanding of works produced by those whose lifestyles are conditioned by their distance from the metropole.
DISCOURSES OF DIFFERENCE
In March 2015 Wits Art Museum mounted a reprise exhibition of sculptures by some of these artists, many of whom still live and work in the northernmost parts of South Africa (Nettleton and Mdluli 2015). These artists have been categorized in many ways, from “Venda” artists to “transitional” artists (Nettleton 1989, 2000; Nettleton and Mdluli 2015; Dell 1989; Richards 1990), and Younge (1988) even called them “township,” artists, although most of them spent only a little time in townships and few had produced art there. The fame and fortune that these artists enjoyed lasted for only about ten years—from 1984 to 1994—after which most faded from view (Duncan 1994; Nettleton 2000). Although some of their works are included in the four-volume set of essays Visual Century (Pissarra 2011), there is no discussion of their significance in the challenge they mounted to hegemonic artworld definitions.
There were numerous factors at play in both their rise to prominence on, and their disappearance from, the urban gallery art scene. One of the most powerful that influenced their rise and, ironically, their subsequent fall from favor was the development of a particular discourse, centered on their practice, which emphasized both their cultural difference from the artists of the urban artworld (Nettleton 2014; Mdluli 2015) and the apparent authenticity of their traditional, rural lifestyles. The historical context in which these discourses of the “rural,” the “primitive,” and the traditional/“authentic” was generated has been considered by a number of authors with varying results, although all conclude that the question of the classification of such artworks is problematic (Dell 1989; Richards 1989; Nettleton 2006, 2014; Mdluli 2015).
In this paper I explore the ramifications of the discourses of difference, of “inside” and “outside,” especially the “rural” and the “folk,” for a trio of artists from different geographical locales who were not really ever included in the general discourse of the “transitional” and thus did not appear in historical surveys of South African art. One, Samuel Makoanyane (1909–1944), was a sculptor living in Lesotho (then Basutoland in the 1930s) who produced delicately modelled figures in bisqueware (Fig. 1). The other two, Julius Mfete (1956–2008) (Fig. 2) and Zolani Mapente (b. 1972) (Fig. 3), are wood sculptors who lived/live in the Eastern Cape. All three worked/work in a much more naturalistic style and on a much smaller scale than the artists of the Northern Province, and I argue that their use of realism is as much a statement of modernity as the apparently expressionistic/modernist work of an artist such as Jackson Hlungwani (Burnett 19989a, b; Gule 2007; Nettleton 2009, 2012, 2014; Mdluli 2015: 66–68) and those discussed by Pissarra (2013), and the more naturalistic yet untrained naturalism of artists such as Nelson Mukhuba (Dell 1989; Richards 1989; Nettleton 2000; Mdluli 2015: 97–98) and Noria Mabasa (Klopper 2017; Becker and Straughan 2002).
Earlier twentieth century black South African artists who worked in a naturalistic mode include both well-known figures such as Gerard Bhengu and Hezekiel Ntuli and lesser-known artists like Simoni Mnguni, all of whom were represented in Steven Sack's The Neglected Tradition (1989) and Elza Miles's Land and Lives (1997), exhibitions staged at the Johannesburg Art Gallery and in the publications that accompanied them (Sack 1989; Miles 1997).
Here they are were separated from other contemporary, modern, and formally trained urban-trained artists, possibly because their realism was seen as not modern. Trained artists' works made it into art galleries rather than the curio shops and furniture outlets in which works by Bhengu, Mnguni, and Makoanyane were sold and bought. Van Robbroeck (2008: 218–19) argues that the choice of realism as a representational mode by artists such as George Pemba, Ernst Mancoba (before his departure for Europe), and Gerard Bhengu was made both to prove their “advanced” status on the scale of civilization as measured by white hegemonic culture and in order to subvert a system that sought to primitivize and silence their political voices. Whether the argument that realism was a tool through which to assert one's modernity could be considered relevant to Makoanyane, Mfete, or Mapente is less clear. Their work was never primarily aimed at the fine art market, and they did not voice their intentions.
FOLK ART: THE LACK OF A FOLK TRADITION
The simplified naturalism and somewhat nostalgic qualities of much of the iconography of these artists' works calls to mind some of the qualities associated with “folk” art. Without wanting to get caught up in definitions and terminologies appropriate to these Eurocentric categories, it is important to consider why such divisions are so particularly problematic in the post-apartheid context. Fine (2004), in a study of the social and economic dimensions of the “folk art” category in the United States, outlines the defined hierarchies within the art world. He considers “folk art” to be in a position relative to the “high art” world similar to that occupied by “outsider art” and suggests that “folk” and “outsider” categories may overlap in significant ways. However, while the “folk art” category does not ordinarily hinge on a question of the kind of psychological othering of the artist—because a folk artist must be an insider to his/her “folk”—this seems to be the prevalent mode of classification for assigning “outsider” status to artists and their works. Cardinal (1994: 30) maintains there is a significant difference between “outsider art” and “folk art” in that the latter follows some kinds of formal stylistic and iconographic precepts, generally striving for recognizable and naturalistic images and following a tradition, whereas outsider art “shuns realism.”
It is in this rejection of realism that Danto (2000) sees the appeal of outsider art for the artists of twentieth century European modernism, a view backed up by Lippard, who claims that outsider artists are those who “live in their heads” and are “ignored by a society that fixes on outsider appearances and economics” (Lippard 1994: 5). It can be argued that it was the lack of regard for realism and initial isolation from the art world at large that saw artists such as Jackson Hlungwani rise to prominence in South Africa the late 1980s (Burnett 1989a-b; Gule 2007; Nettleton 2014, 2012). In fact Hlungwani was given a mantle of “shamanic” identity by many authors, suggesting his “outsider” status as some kind of visionary (Gule 2007), which, as I have argued elsewhere, reinforces the notion of his authenticity and “primitive” connections (Nettleton 2014, 2012, 2009).
In contrast, at first glance the works of Makoanyane, Mfethe, and Mapente all appear to fit quite neatly into the category of “folk art”; they follow a naturalistic style and represent aspects of everyday life, sometimes venturing into the invention of imagery for supernatural beings. Yet they are possibly what Robins (1994) would call “folk sculpture without folk.” Mfete was working in a preexisting tradition of sculpting naturalistic figures drawn from everyday life, where skills were passed down through an “informally transmitted regional tradition” of a type argued by Zug (1994) to be a hallmark of folk art. But all the works produced in this tradition were aimed at consumers outside the artists' own communiuties—i.e., at persons not of their “folk”—by Mfete and the isiXhosa-speaking carvers of the Eastern Cape and by Makoanyane in Lesotho. Some of the buyers were holiday-makers, others local white landowners, and all had white entrepreneur intermediaries who promoted their works. Working in modern traditions aimed largely at outsiders, these artists drew on the same understanding of sculpture as a form of representation, as art works, as their buyers did.
In this respect, these sculptors' practice can be paralleled with that of Osei Bonsu and other Asante carvers discussed by Ross (1984). These Akan artists' works, however, drew on a wider-spread and longer-established tradition of wood sculpture made for shrines in indigenous religious practices (Cole and Ross 1977: 107–17). Throughout his career, Bonsu received ongoing commissions for objects from Asantehenes and other Asante patrons (Ross 1984), marking his clear insider status and simultaneously masking the modernity of his praxis. While the sculptors of the Limpopo Province also worked for outside patrons, they generally drew on longstanding indigenous traditions of stylized figure carving made sometimes for local patrons (Nettleton 2000), producing works that could be considered modernist. Makoanyane's, Mfete's, and Mapente's practices contrast with both Bonsu's and the Limpopo artists in this respect: None worked on commission for traditional leaders. Although Damant (1951:1 3) records that two Sotho traditional leaders collected Makoanyane's work, his, Mfete's, and Mapente's sculptures were largely aimed at a white clientele (Damant 1951; Armstrong 2008).1
BLACK ARTISTS AND WHITE INTERMEDIARIES
An important feature of this history is therefore the part played by white intermediaries in the development of these black artists' works and the survival of a corpus of works that can be considered. Samuel Mokoanyane (1909–1944), whose career spanned the period between 1930 and 1944, was to a large extent promoted by C.J. Damant, who ran the local branch of Fraser's Trading stores in Maseru, the capital of Lesotho. Damant's (1951) published account of Mokoanyane's life and some of his works provides a short but useful summary. Makoanyane was born in Johannesburg but spent most of his life in Lesotho (Basutoland). He lived in village called Koalabata, in the Teyateyaneng district, about four or five miles from Maseru. Damant observed that many baSotho had turned to craft production in the economically trying times of 1930 to 1933, with women, in particular, working in clay. Makoanyane, however, crossed the traditionally gendered craft divide by modelling clay into sculptures of animal subjects, most based on drawings in children's books, including Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopaedia (Damant 1951: 3). These Makoanyane hawked around the district of Maseru and Damant sold on consignment in the Fraser's store alongside grass hats and pots. Makoanyane subsequently started making figurines representing important figures from Lesotho's history, using drawn images made by missionaries of the Protestant Evangelical Mission (Damant 1951: 4) as source material but altering them to correspond to observations from life. He further added elements such as headdresses, spears, and shields in their original materials (feathers, fur, wood, and leather) (Figs. 1, 4–5).
The appeal of Mokoanyane's work lay in three attributes: scale, subject matter, and naturalistic attention to detail. The scale was determined by Damant (1951: 3) because not only were Makoanyane's earlier, larger figures fragile, they were also solid and consequently very heavy, which prevented Damant's being able to mail them to curio shops across South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). On Damant's suggestion, Makoanyane reduced the size of his figures and concentrated on particular iconographic subjects, because Damant saw that new iconography ate up a lot of the artist's time in making and remaking preparatory works (Damant 1951: 8). Certainly Damant considered that when Mokoanyane increased the scale of his figures they were not as fine as the smaller ones. While one cannot ignore the particular appeal of the miniature and its imbrication with aspects of longing and nostalgia, as outlined by Stewart (1984: 59–60), the practical dimensions of these decisions needs to be remembered.
Makoanyane had made likenesses of some of the white Catholic missionaries in Maseru. Damant (1951: 5) discouraged him from making these, however, in spite of the fact that they were “very good,” and encouraged him rather to reproduce the figures that represented culture heroes of Sotho history and the everyday pursuits of contemporary seSotho-speaking men and women in the rural districts of Lesotho (Damant 1951: 4, 7). Several commissions also guided him in this direction, one by Percival Kirby, in 1936, for eight figures playing indigenous musical instruments and another from “Beukes of the Transvaal Museum” for three figures—one of a warrior and two of women with babies on their backs—for the British Empire Exhibition of 1936. After this exposure, Damant (1951: 10) claims that the demand for Mokoanyane's work outstripped his ability to produce. While Damant's actions as intermediary between Mokoanyane and the market determined his reception and positioning as an artist who represented “tradition,” the very praxis of making such realistic representations placed Mokoanyane squarely within the realm of modernity.
A similar, but not identical argument can be made for Julius Mfete. Born in 1957, Mfete was an isiXhosa-speaker living in Mpondo territory and was also “discovered” (a term that establishes a clear link to the notion of colonial engagements already noted) and encouraged to work as an artist by predominantly white patrons. Mfete was ably promoted by Gail Sink through her shop in Port St. John's. He attended Western-style school and passed Standard 2 but left to find employment and a means of subsistence. After some time working on the mines, he returned to the area of Port St. John's to his home in Teteni location, where he began to make sculptures, following, Armstrong (2008) records, an already-existing tradition of work made for tourists by carvers in the area. The modernity of the making of art for travelers from outside one's own community, so-called tourist art, has been masked by the idea that tourist art is more like craft and less important or valuable than fine art. But Mfete's work is unlike much tourist art in that it reflects contemporary life contexts of his community, not a romanticized vision of past primitivity.
Mfete's use of wood as a medium immediately puts him in a category of artists who could be considered, according to conventional stereotypes, as quintessentially African and therefore “authentic” and in some sense “traditional.” Because much African sculpture in the past was made of wood by artists sculpting figures, masks, and other items, this “fit” with a form of Africanness was commonly invoked for contemporary practitioners, including the artists of the Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces (Nettleton 2000; Pissarra 2013). But there the similarity ends, although—for Mfete was an isiXhosa-speaker—he did not belong to or work in an indigenous historical tradition in which freestanding or relief figures were sculpted in wood for traditional purposes. He made neither traditional works conventionally Mpondo in style (whatever that might be conceived to be), nor did he produce stereotypical forms of Africanity or Africanness for tourist consumption, such as the bone birds so commonly sold to tourists on the coast south of Durban in the 1950s. He seems rather to have followed an individual path, possibly inherited from his father/uncle, making essentially naturalistic, sculpted representations of a variety of subjects as a commentary on contemporary life within what was still largely a rural context (Figs. 6–7). His oeuvre included a number of different subjects, covering a wider range than what we know of his father's oeuvre or of Makoanyane's. Possibly this difference can be laid at the door of their respective intermediaries, with Gail Sink playing less of a directorial role for Mfete than had Damant for Mokoanyane.
FOLKLORE, FOLK ART, AND IDENTITY: WOMEN'S PLACE
In discussing the ways in which Andean ritual dances acquire a particular status as modern, Poole suggests that
[I]f “ethnicity” or “identity” is to be “represented,” it is presumably done so for the benefit of those spectators who do not share this identity. The outsider or tourist is thus placed in the sensitive position of omniscient observer, the viewer without whose gaze “folklore” would not exist (1990: 120).
Some of Mfete's subjects are more embroiled in versions of “folklore” than others and differ quite strongly in this respect from Makoanyane's. Both artists produced images of women, some dressed in traditional clothing, executing traditional chores: carrying and grinding corn; carrying pots, baskets, or kindling on their heads; some with children on their backs. From the images reproduced by Damant (1951), these appear to be the most common subjects in Makoanyane's oeuvre. Makoanyane's women, however, are all clothed in ways that suggest missionary and Western influence and a degree of Christianized modesty (Figs. 4–5): Their ballooning, often pleated skirts, blouses of woven cloth, and decorated blankets are now constituted as “traditional dress,” but were not so before the arrival of Europeans in the subcontinent. Only one of Makoanyane's female figures located thus far has bare breasts (Damant 1951: centerfold). That Makoanyane's figures of women reflected his contemporary and essentially modernizing environment in a modern way is reflected in a story from Damant (1951: 12). Makoanyane requested that Damant not show his works in the window of Fraser's store in Maseru because he, Makoanyane, had been accused by some women in town of “copying” their figures (as one would in a photograph). Such exposure of their images can be seen as a form of modern exploitation and Makoanyane did not want to be so accused.
Similar information about Mfete's sculpted women is not available. They are almost always shown as Mpondo women, dressed in the conventional skirt, with breasts covered, some with a mop-like hairstyle and a headband and others with a turban (Fig. 6). Some of Mfete's figures of young women are shown with bare torsos, very sensitively carved, pert breasts, and some wear short skirts denoting their youth (Figs. 9–10). Women are often pictured with a child on their lap, on their backs, or carried in their arms, while some are shown tending to chores such as cooking and grinding corn—the last a theme shared with Makoanyane. A suspension of disbelief is required in the viewer due to both the small scale of most of his work and their largely subdued, almost monochromatic appearance. These figures of women, in their “traditional” garb, invoke a past, or a level of maintenance of past customs in a modern universe, in which women appear to be the only participants.
Today, one does not encounter women dressed like this in Pondoland, and contemporary Mpondo traditional dress for women has the body completely covered, as can be seen in the uniforms worn by the traditionalist group Imvela Yamampondo. Yet Zolani Mapente, Mfete's successor, continues to make sculptures representing women in “traditional” dress and doing tasks in traditional ways (Fig. 2). These are almost historicizing and are thus similar to some other subjects, including those drawn from folklore. All these artists' images show women's domestication in their occupations as carriers of wood, water, and children and their grinding of corn. Poole (1990: 120) suggests of Andean dance that “history suggests that the ‘message’ or content of dance depends both historically and structurally (i.e., choreographically) on being seen and mis-seen by outsiders.” The outsiders are travelers, missionaries, and settlers, part of a wider modernity looking at the rural through the lenses of external social precepts. Although agriculture and farming are pursuits that must be associated with the countryside, with the rural, although not with the wild, the representation of the rural is often expected to be be nostalgic and backward-looking, rather than contemporary, modern, and even futuristic. Rural women in these artists' oeuvres are apparently locked into the past in ways that male figures are not, and they are presented by the artists and mis-seen by outsiders as ur-folk.
FOLKLORE, FOLK ART, AND IDENTITY: MEN'S PLACE
Makoanyane was also famous for his images of a heroic warrior ancestor (Fig. 1) and a seated chief (Fig. 11). Damant (1951: 5–6) closely documented the ways in which these figures reference actual history and tradition. Apparently the image of the striding man in traditional garb was made to represent “Joshua” Makoanyane, one of King Moshesh's most trusted warriors. It was based on a drawing of this personage by staff of the Protestant Evangelical Mission Society, which Damant claimed to be drawn from life and “correct in every detail”—thus enabling Samuel to produce models that were “historically accurate” (Damant 1951: 4). But the face of Samuel Makoanyane's warrior figures, of which he made approximately 250, was apparently modelled on Samuel's father's face, while the original warrior was, in fact, Samuel's great-grandfather. The seated figure of King Moshesh, also based on drawings by missionaries and also shown dressed in traditional skin garments, was made in an edition of approximately 150. The published record of Makoanyane's work does not include as many male as female figures. Damant illustrated only four, two of the warrior type already discussed, one of the seated Moshesh, and one standing figure of a barefoot “Basuto chief” wearing a blanket, trousers, a Sotho headdress, some kind of collar, and carrying two weapons. In addition he appears to have made some portraits, such as one of G. Masopha in the collection of MuseumAfrica (Fig. 12). This shows a man dressed in European-style trousers and jacket, with elaborate epaulettes on its shoulders, and strong lace-up shoes. Apart from the small, round-headed club he holds in one hand, he references nothing associated with the tradition Makoanyane insisted upon with his other male figures. Makoanyane used extraneous materials for some elements of these male figures—skin for shields and wood for spears and clubs, a feature that is found also in Mfete's work.
Mfete's male subjects, however, are rarely shown simply as single figures. The are usually part of idyllic scenes of men milking cows, ploughing with cattle, and riding horses or donkeys, as well as scenes which deal with popular indigenous beliefs concerning witchcraft and magic, such as men riding backwards on the backs of baboons, the latter being notorious among isiXhosa-speakers as witch-familiars. Zolani Mapente today continues this tradition with few differences from his mentor. These subjects are all situated within the context of a particular view of life in the rural areas where all persons engage in that most “rural” of occupations, agriculture and extend to aspects of trading.
MEN AND MODERNITY
But much of Mfete's imagery draws lines cross-cutting any spatiotemporal placement and thus disrupts the alignment of rurality with tradition. If we take two of his figures of a horseman as a start, we are faced with a conundrum. In one (Fig. 13), the rider is a man decked out in a Western -tyle suit: shoes, hat and a pipe with a bent stem—a detail that (besides everything else) suggests that this is a white man. He is astride a very sprightly, finely carved horse, on a saddle with long stirrups, a feature particularly of farmers' styles of riding. All in all, this image suggests that Mapente is imaging (or imagining) a white boss riding out on his farm. But it is equally possible that this is a well-to-do, modern Mpondo man riding his horse out on a Sunday to visit neighbors in his district, as has been the wont of Mpondo and other Eastern Cape peoples from the mid-eighteenth century onwards. This is borne out by a number of other Mfete sculptures of horses with finely detailed saddles and bridles made of leather, ridden by men in shirt, trousers, hat, and shoes, but with a blanket to denote “traditional” clothing, like the magnificent example in Figure 14. Whichever way one sees the images, they are clearly situated in a contemporary space: Neither belongs definitively or exclusively to a traditional Africa of times gone by, as is clear in the image of a woman riding a donkey and shielding herself with an umbrella (Fig. 15).
The horse itself is a modern introduction to the area—horses have no indigenous presence in Southern Africa. They were introduced in the Eastern Cape by settlers after 1820, but by the 1840s the amaXhosa had over 700 mounted men in their fighting forces (Swart 2010: 20). They became increasingly linked to prestige and are the prized possession of isiXhosa speaking men to this day (Rhodes University 2013). Mfete's figure of a traditional healer on a mule (Fig. 16) represents one end of a scale of prestige and his images of jockeys on racing horses, reflecting the modern, imported practice that has become so popular in the region, speaks of the other pole of competitive local prestige.
Similar observations can be made about his ploughing/seeding sets (Figs. 17–18). Here a man drives a plough or seeder with two or more oxen in-spanned. The oxen are closely observed, realistic in their execution, and the plough or seeder, too, is accurately reproduced in miniature. The man who drives most often wears a Western shirt and pants and long Wellington-style boots that enable him to walk across the rough soil of the imaginary field on which he and the animals toil. This scene, like Mfete's milking scenes (Fig. 19), is unmistakably rural—and while it couldn't happen in the city, it was nevertheless firmly grounded within a context of modernity. Neither Mfete's ploughman nor his milkman is here dressed in traditional Mpondo costume—although he made a few versions of the subject where the man is traditionally attired—and his cattle-drawn ploughs are not of indigenous design and manufacture. The nostalgia or longing that the idea of animal-powered agricultural work invokes is located in its imaging/imagining of a contemporary relationship among men, domesticated animals, and the land—that is, on a notion of rurality. This rural imaginary is not even clearly or particularly African, nor peculiarly Mpondo. It could be an image from just about anywhere that people in-spanned oxen to do this work. Cattle-drawn ploughs and seeders have been part of an extended present in South Africa for more than two centuries, a part of coming into modernity, as has been the wearing of Western-style dress.
Mfete's imagery when drawn from folktales, as in Figure 5, presupposes the presence of wildlife, animals that do not often appear in modern high-rise cities, even if baboons are more intrepid and monkeys incorrigible enough to swing around the banana trees of the coastal towns. One of Mfete's favored themes was a man riding on a baboon (Fig. 19). Naked, he sits astride the animal, but facing its tail, which he holds in his hand. This image is apparently linked to notions of witchcraft, the man being a sorcerer (only women are witches) and the baboon his familiar. Mfete invests this image with as strong an attention to detail and smoothing of forms as he invests in all his other works, suggesting that they are as real, as indexical because of their realism, as the things which he might actually have observed. This subject nevertheless not only invokes the rural, the simple and, of course, a nostalgic past, but also a modernity in the way it can be represented. In this sense it is similar to the ways in which cinematic film and animation can be used to bring to life imagined and fantasy worlds. In some senses it is therefore inimical to any understanding of his work as being of the past and thus “traditional.”
THE RURAL ARTISTS' SKILL AND THE RECOGNITION OF THE ART WORK
“Pictures” (representational images and objects in any medium, verbal or visual) have lives of their own and that those lives are founded in want, that is, in desires as both a negative lack and a positive longing for an object (Mitchell 2001: 168).
Makoanyane's, Mfete's and Mapente's figures are minutely observed, extremely finely modelled or carved, with the smallest details clearly rendered. They appear, in Mitchell's (2001: 178–79) terms, to have lives, almost as “fossils”—they represent and thus animate a “real” rural past and/or present for which we have a desire. The rates of urbanization of African societies have intensified in the past seventy years and the rural now features as something belonging in the past, yet the rural is contemporaneous with and as modern as the urban context.
Mfete's and Mapente's figures are finished to a satinlike surface and given visual interest through the use of different woods to create color contrast. Their and Makoanyane's figures were almost all made on a scale small enough to fit easily on shelves in a domestic interior, suggesting an intimacy of viewing close up. They are intriguing in their clean lines, detailed telling, and anatomical correctness but retain particular clarity of form and line that makes for good illustration. Their realism, like any medium which reproduces the appearance of the real such as photography or naturalistic painting or drawing, is, in the context of most African societies, something linked to modernity, but here it serves to fill a lack and appease a longing for a rural past. Realism in representation was not part of most African artists' historical stylistic lexicon, so the modernity of Mokoanyane's and Mfete's praxis is one in which the past is reflected but not reenacted. Through their work, the viewer sees the world through the eyes of men who lived in relatively but decreasingly rural contexts, were in continuingly limited contact with traditionalists, and practiced a form of carving/modeling that was only loosely tied to some ancestral roots yet fully reflective of their own modernity.
The continuation of this tradition in the work of Zolani Mapente is now removed even further from traditional forms of rural community and life. Living in the relatively isolated coastal environs of Port St. Johns, Mapente continues to carve figure sculptures of the same themes (Fig. 20), but he travels frequently to the urban centers of Pietermaritzburg and East London to sell his work through galleries and African craft shops. He also works on commission for urban art buyers. His work is the very antithesis of the stylized, abstracted, and nonnaturalistic sculpture associated with the supposedly “untrained” rural outsider artist. The urbanite buyer recognizes in his, Mfete's, and Makoanyane's work a skill that possibly transcends mere illustration, which offers a sense of an interpretative hand and mind at work, one that sees the rural through a lens of the modern.
The research for this paper was funded by a Research Incentive grant from the National Research Council of South Africa.
Everatt, personal communication; Sink interview 2016.