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A NEW HERITAGE (article first published : 2007-10-5)

The opening of the Heritage Festival Art Exhibition at the Kizo Gallery in the Gateway Theatre of Shopping drew a large crowd of art lovers and artists alike. During the opening, and in recognition for their valuable contribution to the preservation of South Africaís cultural heritage, internationally-known South African artists Esther Mahlangu and Andrew Verster received The Heritage Arts Award.

Esther Mahlangu was born in Weltevrede, a small village in Mpumalanga, in 1935. She began painting at the age of ten and hasnít stopped since. Although 72 years of age, she spends most of the year travelling internationally.

Traditionally the Ndebele style was taught to young prospective brides, they would paint the houses of their bridegroom as a reflection of their worth. A home painted with tremendous skill would reflect the work of a clever bride. If the patterns were ugly, that would show she was uneducated. The style is distinctive in colour and form, being largely purely decorative and abstract except for the fact that it relates strictly to Ndebele culture as opposed to Zulu or Xhosa.

When looking at the three smaller canvases on the show, one is struck by the precision of the lines and the perfectly-defined geometric shapes of colour. Incredibly, I learnt that no rulers and masking tape were used to create these remarkably precise shapes and lines, not even a brush in the known sense. Esther Mahlangu uses her own brushes created from chicken feathers bound together with thread. Again, when we look at the beaded blankets we are struck by the precise construction, also the fact that they were made entirely by hand by Esther with no assistance. On larger commissions she often employs teams of women to help her.

Talking to Esther, I find out she is disappointed by the quality of the work of some of the younger generation of upcoming artists and believes they should put more effort into their work as she does not want art to die in a state of mediocrity. She is actively involved in teaching learners which she does out in the open after school time.

Looking at the 'wax works' of Andrew Verster we see a different kind of heritage, what he has called the Fragile Heritage. These four tapestries, which hang in free space suspended by cables, remind one of 19th century Japanese prints in terms of their long vertical formats, approximately three metres in length and about 40cm in width. He calls them Skin Markings and indeed the works themselves have the appearance, feel and texture of skins and look like tattoos.

The works have been created from large sections of tissue paper which have been stained with coffee, tea and turmeric. A series of loose fragments of brush drawings in ochres, reds, oranges and browns on the same tissue are then scattered randomly across this expanse. Over these drawings, candle wax has been melted in a wafer-thin layer using an iron, bonding the layers and giving the finished piece the translucent quality and flexibility of shed skin or parchment.

The tattoo-like images seem to be derived from ancient European, African and Eastern images. I was surprised by what appeared to be a Samurai Warrior. The wax process is organic and allows Andrew to change works dramatically even after the wax is set, to alter the composition of these images he merely melts the wax with an iron and shifts their position or even overlaps/layers them in some cases. These shifting images appear central to the philosophy of Andrew Versterís work along with the eclecticism, appropriation and random selection he employs in the process of creating them.

The images themselves could be seen as some kind of global heritage in a local context, so in effect they become African images. He accounts for the proliferation of Indian images by talking about the two Indiaís in his life: Little India (Durban) which has been his home for over 40 years and the India he has visited in more recent times.

Andrew says, "Combined, they have changed my life and vision. The Hindu philosophy of the interdependence of everything in the universe makes perfect sense."

There are about 120 art works on show in different mediums, modes, styles and techniques. Itís an exhibition full of surprises with well-known names among them such as Velaphi Mzimba, Sam Nhlengethwa, Carl Roberts, Wakaba Mutheki, Paul Sekete, Izzy Duarte, Henk Vos, Gabisile Nkosi, Simmi Dullay and Andrew Walford, just to mention a few.

The exhibition remains on view until the end of October, so a visit to Kizo Gallery at Gateway could be a worthwhile experience. Ė Michael Croeser




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