Art as a prospect for long-term financial prosperity must be a complex and complicated choice to make when your access to anything deemed remotely first world is very much out of arms reach. You would think that, with very limited opportunity presented by living on a Google Maps blip, in a very small village, far from any bustling metropolis, that a person would be reluctant to move away from the more dependable labour that might be more accessible… Never mind even remotely entertaining the thought of being an artist or earning a living as one. But in the little village of Mbhokota, in South Africa’s Limpopo province, which provides a home for our third day on the African Ivory Route (for the other journals click here) and where art galleries and art fairs, art critiques and Johannesburg-glamourized white-wine openings don’t really exist, you’d be wrong.
Unlike Limpopo’s mountainous namesake, the Ribola Art Route itself is almost hidden. As you skid down the tar runways of the villages that skirt either side of the tar, the landscape is overwhelmingly beautiful. Stunned once again by Limpopo’s diversity and beauty, most of my time in the vehicle is spent daydreaming outside, dipping into the emerald greens, fiery golds, sky blues and earth browns of its majestic colour palette. But I’m awakened as we turn off the tar onto dirt, passing cows in yolks and chickens shoved into iron cages reared for sale. There are no flashy signs, billboards or a neat little Google voice telling you sweetly to veer left up ahead. The setting is humble and not at all ostentatious. There is no one waiting for you with a glass of wine, or well-groomed hosts standing up and greeting you from behind marbled counter tops when you arrive. The experience is as raw as the route itself, but the setting does sell the scene.
We had one day to do as much as humanly possible, so we chose four places from the route to visit that were diverse enough to present a more well-rounded view of the people and crafts that operate here. Our first stop was to visit the ladies of Twananani Textiles.
Twananani Textiles operates out of a small, one story building, right off the R578. Several brightly clad ladies greet you jubilantly, smiling like a Colgate ad, welcoming you to their office when you arrive. Inside, the room is filled with vibrant shweshwe, paint and manufacturing gear. This is where people in the group engaged in making their own colourful table cloths by etching shapes onto fabric with candle wax, and then setting the forms onto the cotton in a myriad of colours of your choosing. The resulting, quite simply, exquisite, colourful prints that breathe life into any setting now become yours to take home.
The ladies continue their work when the exercise with the visitors is finished: etching, sowing, waxing, soaking marvellous pieces one by one, before folding them and placing them on display. As you move through their office-slash-shopfront, pulling out metres of rainbow fabric, jewellery and homeware, the authenticity makes the atmosphere vibrant; Forget your Sandton City Saturdays, this is where the originals exist.
We must move on. All participants in the art and craft lesson have finished their duties and the wristwatch is telling us to proceed. Patrick Manyike and Pilato Bulala form the next parts of our tour d’Ribola. They are two of the foremost art talents in the area, one of wood, the other of metal.
Patrick, a sculptor, resides on the most beautiful part of the village, nested up in the hills. His view stretches 360 degrees around the valley, a setting presenting itself as a muse on its own. The children who live next door giggle and play in the streets, keen to come and mess around in Patrick’s yard, as they are often allowed to do. He has one little house made from clay and thatch and a formidably sized garden filled with the bigger pieces that don’t quite fit inside; This becomes somewhat of an Easter egg hunt as he leads you around his home / office.
Patrick uses Lead and Mopane wood to construct incredible works, all with their own unique stories. Laden with religion and strongly linked to human morality and the fight between good and evil, carvings of faces fill wooden structures all around. His sculpture Free Man is a light and dark skewed Mopane silhouette of a man who is said to walk the streets free from any weight on his shoulders. He is pure and good. Angel sits next to him, adorned with metal around her face. She comes down to connect us with the heavens.
Patrick used to clean up popcorn from the floor at a flashy touristy entrapment, but the call for a better life came strongly through the wood itself. “I remove the excess, to reveal what is inside,” he tells us, standing next to a foundation that is set to be his gallery. He wouldn’t leave his craft for anything in the world, not money or power, because then he can’t tell the stories in the wood. “Soon, people can then come from all over and look at my art in my gallery,” he tells us, arms stretched out wide, grinning with vision, as he stands perched on the corner of the grey bricks that outline the gallery design.
Manyike’s office is nothing like that of the ladies at Twananani Textiles. He lives where he works, in a tiny house fit with a dark brown thatch roof, a bed, a fridge and a table where all his works are displayed, and are all less than arm’s length from each other. I can’t help but be overwhelmed by emotion due to the courage and conviction of this man, doing his thing, and building his vision in the hardest of circumstances. His goal is to help people, teach kids and inspire, letting his hands do the talking and Limpopo’s wood provide the medium.
I purchase Free Man, wanting angel as well, but my wallet’s not stacked. Patrick agrees that payment will come later, with our chaperone Eleanor on her next trip through the Route a few weeks later. No greed, guilt or discontent was shown when his money would only come at a later stage, owed by me, a person he’d never met. I was humbled.
Pilato is a young kid. He takes metal scraps and crafts bits and pieces together to create reflections of his reality. There are animals made from bike chains and old gears, a car with a speaker system, a boot and bonnet that can actually be driven around, workers, Christian crosses and all other types of interesting nuances of Mbokota that adorn his gallery – a plot of land that is now his work and show space. One of the most visually striking works, is a piece of elongated black metal that sits in the corner of a small brick and mortar wall. The formation of a man, dangling at the end of a hangman’s noose is clearly visible; he killed himself because he did not pass matric.
We sit with Bulala by his display table, underneath a white and blue cloth that provides some solace from the beating sun. The table is dressed with earrings, necklaces and bracelets, constructed from disused aluminium cans, lifting these prolific soda and produce brands back up off the floor, and providing them a renewed and valuable lifespan. He tells us that he wanted to create pieces from what was available around him, something that didn’t involve too much cost, so he picked up the scrap and starting his journey towards artistry. Pilato is very industriously cunning. He helped a neighbour thatch a roof in exchange for a goat and now he has 4 goats.
I purchase the Coca-Cola can-opening earrings for my girlfriend, and hit the road, waved away by Pilato, who turns and heads back down the driveway to his workshop. I can’t help but feel so positive for this kid and his potential.
Our final stop is the home to the Vutshila Art School; An arts and crafts centre that is an attraction to the people and visitors of the area alike. We arrived to a rhythmical djembe drum chorus of Venda traditional songs. It is here we meet Kenny, another wood sculptor, the new leader of this centre, where his mentor, Thomas, who is currently piping into a flute, has recently handed over the reins.
We are treated to a great show at the end of our day; it has been action packed, but now it’s late in the afternoon and the entertainment from the band that freestyle track to track with drums, xylophones and shakers is appreciated as we rest our shoulders to the feeling of content. In the corner, covered up, lies a 3-metre white angel, a commissioned piece for a local church, she stands magnificent in the bright light outside.
Inside the humble art school building, a quaint gallery displays the works from all over the area. Kenny’s smaller works are displayed here and I am immediately drawn to them. Mopane statues that reflect pain and prophecy are highlighted on a table in the middle of the hut, the dark and lights contrasts bringing the thematic to life. They are incredible. I want them all, but they are to remain here for now, until I come back.
The day closes out as we enjoy a last round of Venda djembe in the sinking sun. It’s warm, the air is still, but the mood is euphoric. The band members are in full swing, smiling ear to ear as they beat down on their instruments in perfect rhythm. It speaks of promise and potential in the dusty and often forgotten hollows of the incredible South Africa, and I think they feel it too.
What interested me most about the experience was the approach and dedication of these beautiful people. They are artists. It’s a vocation, they did not choose it. They have embraced it with everything they have to embrace it with, as in a life where money is both the most important and most difficult piece of the puzzle to find, art sits in the forefront as more than that. Surely then, I think, this must be art in its truest form.