Against the Grain, SA National Gallery and Sanlam Art Gallery (2013-14)

Iziko South African National Gallery l 15 August – 17 November 2013 l Sanlam Art Gallery 3 December 2013 – 7 February 2014

Against the Grain profiles five wood sculptors from the Cape – Isaac Makeleni, Ishmael Thyssen, Shepherd Mbanya, Timothy Mafenuka and Thami Kiti. Working for decades with little support and public acknowledgment, these artists have produced significant works that are skilful and imaginative, earnest and playful. They address a diversity of themes that engage with the recent and distant past as well as the contemporary present. Against the Grain questions the dominant narratives of South African wood carving, firmly in place since the Tributaries exhibition (1985), that have failed to recognise the existence of black wood-carvers outsides of the “Venda” region. It also questions the reasons behind the low visibility of black African wood sculptors internationally, suggesting that black wood-carvers have been unduly prejudiced since the development of new discourses in contemporary African art since the 1990s.

Click here for the exhibition catalogue

Isaac Makeleni (b. Vasco, Cape Town, 1950; d. Nyanga East, Cape Town, 2008)

Ishmael Thyssen (b. Jan Kempdorp, Northern Cape, 1953; l. Retreat, Cape Town)

Shepherd Mbanya (b. Bishop Lavis, Cape Town, 1965; l. Khayelitsha, Cape Town)

Timothy Mafenuka (b. Gugulethu, Cape Town, 1966; d. Khayelitsha, Cape Town 2003)

Thami Kiti (b. Machibini, Eastern Cape, 1968; l. Khayelitsha, Cape Town)

The exhibition opened at the Iziko South African National Gallery (14 August – 17 November 2013), before travelling to the Sanlam Art Gallery (3 December 2013- 7 February 2014). The exhibition featured 25 wood sculptures by the five artists, accompanied by an additional 9 paintings and panels. These comprised a selection of works produced over three decades. Photographic portraits of the artists were also included, along with a filmed interview (see DVD below). The exhibition was curated by Mario Pissarra and opened by Prof Lize van Robbroeck (SANG exhibition) and Prof Sandra Kloppper (Sanlam exhibition).
A 64 page full-colour catalogue has been produced (print-run of 800 copies). The catalogue text was written by Mario Pissarra and includes an introductory essay along with essays on the individual artists. 800 copies were printed (including 100 hard cover copies), a limited number are still available and can be ordered from ASAI (
A 90 minute interview with Thyssen, Mbanya and Kiti has been produced by ASAI in collaboration with the Centre for Curating the Archive. The DVD is available for researchers and educators at nominal cost.
A five-day workshop was held at the Michaelis School of Fine Art in November 2012. The workshop provided a unique opportunity for Thyssen, Mbanya and Kiti to work alongside each other, and to share and learn from each other. A workshop for school pupils was organised by the SANG and Cape Gallery and ran at the SANG Annexe. 
Public discussion
A public discussion was held at ISANG on 8 September 2013. It was organised to coincide with the annual conference of the South African Visual arts Historians (SAVAH). Panelists were Prof Juliette Leeb-du Toit, Prof Anitra Nettleton, curator Sipho Ndabambi and Mario Pissarra.
Online archive
Extensive documentation on the artists and project is published on the ASAI website.

Workshop organised by Iziko Education Dept and the Cape Gallery on 24 September 2013