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Billy Makhubele stirs waters…

Johannesburg was already a tough city way back in the 80’s when artist Billy Makhuble was robbed and stabbed.

At the time of the unfortunate event, Makhubele was triumphant from his success as the first South African artist to create wire art bicycles. He could barely keep pace with the demand.  His range of wire sculptures, bicycles, penny-farthings, and cars, had exhibited at the Market Art Gallery, before Makhubele represented South Africa at the Valparais Biennale in Chili in ’85.

Twisting wire was difficult with a woefully painful wrist, although Makhubele persevered for another five years.

The ever-optimistic artist viewed his stabbing as a tragic but not fatal end to his flourishing artistic career.

One morning the consummate Makhubele decided to return to Giyani area of the Limpopo Province to reconnect with his proud Shangaan heritage. 

He began collecting rare beaded and carved items.

Simultaneously he solicited the assistance of his two wives and seven daughters to create beaded art works using newspaper headlines for inspiration. 

In the mid ‘eightees there was very little interest in this art as beadwork was regarded as a craft. 

But a determined Makhubele remembered reading that renowned art dealer Natalie Knight had co-authored a book on Ndebele beadwork for the University of Los Angeles, as well as being curator for her beading exhibition in the USA.  Unannounced he presented himself at the Natalie Knight gallery one morning and he persuaded Knight to accompany him to Giyani, where fascinated she immersed herself in the Shangaan/Tsonga culture as represented through art.

The unlikely alliance and partnership of Knight and Makhubele finally culminates in ‘Dungamanzi’ (Stirring Waters) the exhibition currently at Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG).

The ethos behind this huge exhibition collectively curated by Natalie Knight, Nessa Leibhammer and Billy Makhubele is almost 30 years gestation under Knight’s research and collection ethos.

Knight has interviewed Shangaan sangomas and artists and produced a video of the Makhubela family, including his 90-year old aunty, Nwa Manjojo. According to the gallery’s director, Clive Kellner, Knight’s perseverance has more than paid off. He says the size and buzz surrounding this exhibition is almost unprecedented. Additionally it makes history as the first major exhibition in South Africa of the Tsonga/Shangaan art from the Limpopo Province.

Accompanying the exhibition is a large colour catalogue and video documenting the history of the complex Shangaan/Tsonga nation, as told through a personal memoir of Makhubele and family, recorded over the years by Knight 

Traditional woodcarvings’ inhabits the first section of the exhibition.  Many of the snuffboxes, walking sticks, and headrests was carved in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, collected by people who did not record the carvers’ names.

The traditional wooden headrest (xhigelo) was so meaningful to an individual that it often accompanied its owner to his grave. Symbolically each headrest design describes the life, the status, and descendants of its owner.

The second section is a rich collection of skirts, headrests, sangomas and inyangas as well as medicine gourds, bones, drums and symbolic children. One would have to be emotionless not to react to these decorated gourds - an ancestral mix of differing forms.

The third section of the exhibition focuses on the story of the Makhubele family, whose members have been making beaded skirts (minceka) wraparound skirts).

 Of the beaded items Billy says, “We liked only the good news about the history of South Africa and made beaded works which showed Nelson Mandela casting the first vote for Democracy and other important events.”

For Makhubele the good news is very good indeed. Since he was stabbed he has undergone a reversal of misfortune putting him on a road far from dusty Limpopo.   

Makhubele will be exhibiting at an international Contemporary Textile Art Exhibition at the National Museum of M.K. Ciurlionis in Kaunas, Lithuania in November 2007.

Thereafter plans are underway for Dungamanzi to tour South Africa’s national galleries and African Art Museums in USA, U.K and Canada.

It makes sense to drive to JAG’s guarded parking in Joubert Park for this monumental exhibition.

Written by Lana Jacobson for Financial Mail

Exhibition: ‘Dungamanzi’ (Stirring Waters)
Venue: Johannesburg Art Gallery,
Joubert Park
Curators: Natalie Knight, Nessa Leibhammer and Billy Makhubele
Date: May -19 August



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