Against the Grain

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.

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)

Against the Grain: Makeleni, Thyssen, Mbanya, Mafenuka and Kiti, sculptors from the Cape.

Wood sculpture and African art Wood sculpture has been closely associated with the very idea of ‘African art’ for almost one hundred years. While Africans have produced (what today is widely accepted as) art for millennia, it was the ‘discovery’ of ‘primitive art’ by Picasso’s generation that led to the gradual admission of Africa into the western-dominated discourse of art. The European avant-garde was particularly interested in masks and shrine sculptures whose visual forms they adapted for their own aesthetic purposes. African artistic traditions in regions where such cultural practices were absent or less prominent fell outside of the parameter of what came to constitute ‘authentic’ African art.

The first studies of ‘modern’ African art were published in the latter half of the 1960s, the decade when most African nations achieved political independence. For this emerging discourse the idea of an African modernity represented both a break and continuity with old traditions. Within this paradigm African wood carvers were presented as adapting ancient cultural practices for new social contexts. A more aggressive challenge to Western domination of research, curating, collecting and marketing of art from Africa began to take shape in the 1990s. A new generation of intellectuals, notably including Africans working in the west, popularised the concept of ‘contemporary’ African art. For these curators, academics and artists it became necessary to find and validate ways of working that challenged established assumptions about art in Africa. Wood sculpture, which was strongly associated with Western ideas of a timeless Africa, became a casualty of this new discourse. That a major paradigm shift was occurring can be seen in the changing face of major international exhibitions, particularly from the 1990s onwards.

The impact of the international reframing of African art on South African art can be seen in comparing the international careers of two of South Africa’s best known wood sculptors, Jackson Hlungwane (1923-2010) and Claudette Schreuders (1973-). The rise and decline in international interest in Hlungwane’s work parallels the shift in reception from Magiciens de la Terre (1989), where the artist as shaman was a popular concept, and the subsequent critique of the exhibition as a primitivization and exoticization of the non-western ‘other’. By the mid 1990s Hlungwane’s meteoric rise to international fame was seriously waning. In contrast, over the last decade Claudette Schreuders has established a successful international career, and she can be considered a ‘traditional’ wood sculptor in the sense that she carves her figures from blocks of wood. As an Afrikaner woman working in an idiom associated with the polygamous wood carvers of western and central Africa, Schreuders’ work fits comfortably into curatorial regimes that have become almost fixated on breaking stereotypes. Iconoclasm has become normative, it runs smoothly within the grain of the dominant discourse of contemporary African art.

Wood sculpture in South African art history

Within South African art history, wood has seldom been the medium of choice associated with prominent artists. This is not to deny remarkable precedents such as Lippy Lipschitz (1903-80), Ernest Mancoba (1910-2002) and many more. But it was not until Cecil Skotnes (1926-2009), best known for incised wood relief polychrome panels, as well as woodcut prints, that we find a prominent South African artist closely associated with wood. Skotnes’ use of wood is commonly assumed to affirm his identity as an African artist, and the only obstacle that stood in the way of his inclusion into the evolving canon of modern African art during the 1960s and 1970s was South Africa’s awkward political position in Africa – most of the early studies avoided the apartheid state, others consciously ignored white South African artists. Later revisionist projects such as The Short Century would reinscribe Skotnes as part of a continent-wide movement in modern African art.

In 1985 Ricky Burnett curated Tributaries, a landmark exhibition that opened at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg, before travelling to West Germany. Tributaries has been widely celebrated for crossing the divides between rural and urban, folk (popular) and fine arts. The exhibition was also acclaimed for announcing the emergence of an indigenous movement of wood sculptors of which Hlungwane, Nelson Mukhuba (1925-87), Noria Mabasa (1938-), Phutuma Seoka (1922-), Johannes Maswanganyi (1949-), and Johannes Segogela (1936-) are among the best known. The identity of this ‘movement’ was closely tied to the Venda region (today part of Limpopo province) where trees are in abundance, carving historically linked to initiation practices, and belief in the spirit world common. Many of the inhabitants of this region have links to Tsonga, Shangaan and Ronga cultures north of the border where woodcarving was fairly widely practiced. The ‘discovery’ of these artists provided a demonstrable link into Africa from the northern parts of South Africa. If the white dominated South African art world needed to identify and champion more contemporary black producers as well as find threads to link into the art of the continent, Tributaries provided ways of repositioning South African art during the period of late-apartheid. That much of this work contained naive qualities that bordered on the satirical, but lacked the militancy of much contemporary urban black art being produced in some of the community arts centres, enhanced its appeal to a burgeoning, white dominated market.

Following Tributaries Elizabeth Rankin curated Images of Wood, the only overview of South African wood sculpture to date. Produced for the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 1989, Rankin authored an important catalogue, providing illuminating insights into the position of wood sculpture in South African art history. One of the important observations that can be gleaned from Rankin’s survey is that celebrated wood sculptors, such as Lippy Lipschitz and Moses Kottler (1889-1977), did not in fact survive professionally from their work in that medium. Their production was diverse and their income supported by teaching at university (Lipshitz) and public commissions in other media (Kottler). Rankin also foregrounded the role of missionaries in supporting black wood sculptors in KwaZulu Natal (KZN) and the Orange Free State such as Bernard Gcwensa (1918-85), Ruben Xulu (1952-85), Jacob Tladi (c. 1930-85) and Joel Noosi (c. 1935-77). These artists are comparatively obscure when compared with those popularised by Tributaries, and here Rankin provided another important insight concerning the existence of a receptive local market for the ‘Venda’ sculptors.

Rankin notes that the process of ‘discovery’ of Hlungwane, Mabasa and others was begun by academic researchers (principally Anitra Nettleton and Rayda Becker). This was followed by curated exhibitions (notably Tributaries), and the dealers subsequently followed. One may also note the contributions of authors of influential surveys produced in the late 1980s (Manaka 1987, Younge 1988, Williamson 1989) in consolidating and enhancing the visibility of these artists. Rankin further noted the support of local government which highlighted the link between tourism and cultural heritage so well that today it is unusual to see any official promotion of the Limpopo province without visual reference to sculpture. This convergence of interests is a complex and entangled affair which demonstrates the need for a convergence of key stakeholders in providing a conducive environment for wood sculptors to flourish.

Wood sculpture in the Western Cape

During the years in which sculptors such as Hlungwane, Mukhuba, Mabasa, Seoka, Maswanganyi, their peers and followers were attracting a national and international audience, the artists featured in Against the Grain were little known outside select networks in Cape Town. Thyssen and Makeleni had been producing wood sculpture for several years, Mbanya, Mafenuka and Kiti were at early stages of their careers. Important exhibitions from the mid-to-late 1980s such as Tributaries, Images of Wood and The Neglected Tradition were curated for Johannesburg audiences and their research tended to focus on the northern part of the country. That Cape Town-based authors, such as Gavin Younge and Sue Williamson, overlooked or were not aware of these artists suggests that even within the Cape Town art scene these artists were not well known. Consequently they are visibly absent from the corpus of exhibitions and publications that have come to define South African art of the 1980s.

That Cape Town was emerging as a centre for wood sculpture was indirectly acknowledged with the South African National Gallery’s (SANG) Made in Wood: Work from the Western Cape exhibition in 1992. All of the artists featured in Against the Grain were part of this show, and with the exception of Kiti had works acquired by the SANG around this time. While the SANG exhibition set an important precedent for Against the Grain, it failed to separate artists for whom wood was their primary choice of media from an interesting but unfocused selection of work.

This catalogue includes essays on the individual artists, outlining their unique biographies and exploring the qualities that define their art. This introduction considers the extent to which these artists can be said to share common experiences and challenges. Coming from a generation of black South Africans that was subjected to apartheid education, their schooling was interrupted for social, economic and political reasons, and they had limited opportunities for art education. Although centres and workshops appear in the artists’ CVs, these seldom constitute training opportunities of any significant duration. Kiti is an exception, having had a long and direct relationship with the Community Arts Project (CAP), where he was taught to carve wood by Mario Sickle.

Unlike the wood sculptors living in Limpopo and KZN, none of these artists have had easy access to trees. On the contrary, their lives and artistic practice have been located in urban townships where wood has currency as fuel, and where accessing suitable wood for carving requires a tenacious resourcefulness. Most of their sculptures carry with them stories of where the wood was found, or in some instances, are associated with individual benefactors. Rarely, if ever, was wood purchased for purposes of carving.

The artists have often had to work in very confined (domestic) spaces, or outdoors in crowded urban environments. While these conditions may appear to necessitate the production of modestly sized sculpture, they all produced large works in situations where common sense may have suggested otherwise. Storing work has been a recurring challenge, and brings with it the risk of sculptures being damaged by the elements, or forcing them to be sold at low prices. The poor communities artists reside in introduce additional risks, such as the theft of their tools, a disruptive occurrence that they have all experienced.

While access to suitable resources presents one dimension of the challenges faced by these artists, another important factor has been that these artists have often worked in relative isolation. Certainly all have established social relationships with other artists, and at times participated in artists’ networks and associations, as well as in workshop or residency programmes. But this level of support by peers has seldom included feedback or the opportunity to learn from artists working in the same medium as themselves.

Critically, there has been a small market for their work. In general, these artists have been faced with an unsympathetic environment to exhibit. Unlike the ‘Venda’ artists who received numerous national and international invitations to exhibit, or the KZN artists who are supported by the African Art Centre, Tatham Art Gallery, provincial government and also individual missions, wood sculptors in the Cape have, particularly since the 1990s, found themselves in something of a nowhere land – producing neither the kind of art promoted by leading galleries nor the mass produced curios sold in open air markets or tourist shops, nor producing work that resembles the functional craft and design that is ably promoted in the province by a network of well resourced agencies. Makeleni, Mbanya and Kiti all intermittently produced works aimed for these markets, but these were clearly economically motivated measures that were ultimately intended to support them in producing sculpture.

Lacking the resources to work towards solo exhibitions, and needing to generate income the sculptors have largely had to depend on a small number of commercial galleries who have taken their work on consignment. The limitations of consigning artwork to crowded showrooms and storerooms have been accepted by artists without space to store their own works, and the limited options available has all too often placed these artists in a weak position in negotiating terms. Very few of these galleries have actively promoted any of these artists. Of the artists featured in Against the Grain only Thyssen and Mafenuka have held solo exhibitions, for which there are no catalogues, even reviews. Thami Kiti had a joint show with the late Wanini Hill at the Irma Stern Museum. The closest Makeleni got to a solo exhibition was a three-person show with Thyssen and Wilie Bester, at Gallery International in 1992. Mostly these artists have been featured in group shows in and around Cape Town.

Recognition has been sparse. As mentioned earlier, Thyssen, Makeleni, Mbanya and Mafenuka are represented in the collection of the Iziko South African National Gallery – although it must be said that these works are seldom if ever exhibited. Thyssen is the best represented in public and corporate collections. Only Thyssen and Mbanya have exhibited abroad. International travel has also been limited: Mbanya spent three months in Amsterdam as a guest of the Thami Mnyele Foundation in 1996, the same year that Kiti attended the Thapong workshop in Gaborone. None of the artists have been the subject of a full-length monograph. Thyssen is the only one to have been the subject of a chapter in an art book. Published references to these artists comprise mostly of a handful of press articles, along with references to their works that appear on the internet.

The discussion above is intended as a frank assessment of particular challenges faced by the artists, and of the limited recognition that they have received. This somewhat grim account stands in stark contrast to informal forms of validation that lack public visibility. During the course of research for Against the Grain it has struck me how many of these artists have work in the private collections of well-known artists, prominent academics, educators, even curators and gallerists. This level of respect concurs with the generally high esteem in which these artists are held by a many artists and personalities within the art world.

Most startlingly, if success is measured through conventional means (such as high prices, prestigious collections, peer reviewed journal articles, substantive monographs, luscious exhibition catalogues, prominent awards and commissions) the modest achievements of the artists stands in stark contrast to the extraordinary skill, demonstrable creativity and imagination, and the integrity evident in their work. Clearly their work deserves greater critical acknowledgment and economic reward than it has hitherto generated.

Against the Grain

Against the Grain is a platform for the artists to showcase their work to a wider public, and for reflection on the development of five individual careers. Against the Grain also aims to provide a space to reflect critically on the place of wood sculpture in South African art history, as well as the place of black wood sculptors in the discourses of contemporary African art.

What should be immediately evident is that these five artists address a wide scope of themes, from the cultural and political to the personal, with sensibilities ranging from the earnest to the playful. Each of the artists articulates a range of individual concerns and approaches. What unites them is their use of wood as a dominant material in their oeuvre, and their common position as (black, male) sculptors from the Cape. Their recourse to art, particularly wood sculpture is in part a means towards earning an income, but in the face of limited success in sales, fame and recognition over many years it is evidently a much deeper and more intangible recourse, one that speaks to a quest for survival that is not solely economic, but also psychological, and spiritual. How else does one explain a sustained commitment to an activity that demands both time and space and does not guarantee an income, other than to recognise that the apparent irrationality of their persistence is answering a much deeper need. Ultimately it is this conviction, this expression of deep identification with wood that resonates through their work, displaying a clarity of purpose and a confident execution that produces both evocative and compelling art.

As a project Against the Grain has several components which include the exhibition and this publication. It also included a workshop where Thyssen, Mbanya and Kiti had the opportunity to work alongside each other in a conducive environment at the Michaelis School of Fine Art of the University of Cape Town (UCT). The principal intention was to create a space for them to share and learn from each other, it also presented an opportunity for informal exchanges with sculptors such as Jane Alexander, who once learned the basics of wood sculpture alongside Kiti at CAP.

The project also includes a digital archive. Documentation of the artists and the project as a whole appears on the Africa South Art Initiative (ASAI) website, and represents an ongoing effort to develop a fuller account of the work of these artists than has been possible within the constraints of available resources. An audio-visual interview with Thyssen, Mbanya and Kiti is also available for researchers and educators.

Against the Grain is the first significant platform to spotlight these featured artists. In so doing it is hoped that the project will impact significantly on their careers and reputations, as well as draw attention to the broader social and discursive contexts that have positioned Makeleni, Thyssen, Mbanya, Mafenuka and Kiti outside of the main frame, obliging them to work ‘against the grain’.


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The exhibition opened at the Iziko South African National Gallery on 14 August 2013, and runs till 17 November. It reopens at the Sanlam Art Gallery early in December and will be on view till February (dates not yet confirmed).. The exhibition features 25 wood sculptures by the five artists, accompanied by an additional 9 paintings and panels. These will comprise a selection of works produced over three decades. Photographic portraits of the artists are also included, along with a filmed interview (see DVD below). The exhibition was curated by Mario Pissarra. Catalogue 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. Catalogues are currently on sale at the Iziko South African National Gallery, and can also be ordered from ASAI ( DVD 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. Workshops 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. Further workshops, possibly including both the artists and students, will be held subject to further funding. Public discussions A public discussion will be held at ISANG on 8 September 2013. It is being organised to coincide with the annual conference of the South African Visual arts Historians (SAVAH). Further public discussions are envisaged. Online archive Extensive documentation on the artists will be published online.

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

Against the Grain catalogue

nac logo 35mm
dcas logo eng 35mm

sanlam vector 35mm

basa logo vector size 35mm

cca-logo 35mm

new michaelis logo 35mm
iziko full colour 35mm