Africa, Headlines

CULTURE-SWAZILAND: ‘We’re Artists Now, Not Just Souvenir Makers’

James Hall

MALKERNS, Swaziland , Feb 14 2009 (IPS) - A developing national arts scene requires a developing national arts center, with luck one that is owned and operated by artists themselves. In Swaziland, the growth of indigenous talent has been complemented by the flowering of a venue popular with performers, audiences and critics.

House on Fire is creating opportunities for Swazi artists. Credit:  James Hall/IPS

House on Fire is creating opportunities for Swazi artists. Credit: James Hall/IPS

Artistic director Jiggs Thorne and his brother Sholto Thorne have spent the last tens years developing House on Fire on their father’s sugarcane farm, 20 km west of Mbabane. Sholto, who is managing director for the venue, actually got his degree in agriculture, but was drawn into cultural promotion and the need to create a multi-purpose artistic venue for a country that had none.

Poetry readings where local writers perform verse began in November in this intimate venue that ceaselessly expands in an almost organic manner, responding to new needs. The original open-air stage (now equipped with a retractable roof) is used for concerts, dances and live performances from plays to magicians.

It is also the venue for Swaziland’s only performing arts festival, held in August each year when temperatures again start to rise in the Southern Hemisphere.

“We called the festival Bush Fire because it connotes a hot and unstoppable event sweeping across the country,” said Jiggs. In 2008, the festival’s second edition welcomed thousands of festivalgoers to a clearing in the sugarcane.

“I got my start at House on Fire. It nurtured me,” said Bholoja Ngubane, Swaziland’s hottest new singer. Combining jazz with traditional Swazi rhythms and singing in the melodic SiSwati language, Bholoja will record his first CD in France this year.

“He has a tremendous, powerful voice,” said Thorne. “It will be exciting to see how he grows as an artist.”

Thorne noted that Swazi artists who display talent most often cross the border to seek training and opportunities to perform and record in South Africa. Johannesburg is just four hours’ drive from House on Fire, and hosts music and television production industries that small, impoverished Swaziland is unable to sustain.

“There are very few Swazis who can earn a living through their music or art. The ones who can are gospel singers. They have a big following and their CDs can be marketed at churches,” said Vusi Nkambule, Acting CEO at the Swaziland National Council of Arts and Culture.

Aside from some clubs where popular local DJs hold sway, and a mostly shuttered theatre in the capital Mbabane, the country offers few professional venues where budding artists may develop their skills before audiences.

“That is why House on Fire is so important to us. I can develop my craft there,” said Bholoja. He was featured at last year’s Bush Fire, along with major international groups like the Soweto String Quartet. The exposure brought him to the attention of professional musicians and managers who were amongst the thousands of festivalgoers.

What impresses visitors about House on Fire is the artistic vibrancy of the venue. “This place is a work of art,” said Sarah Stewart, a cultural anthropologist traveling from the UK.

Local carvers were initially employed to create fantastic sculpted lighting fixtures and bas-relief to decorate the venue’s towers, arches and faux stone walls.

The decorations have led to a line of individual works of art their creators call “icons” that combine sculpture, painting and theatre. A creative collaboration between Thorne and sculptor Shadrack Masuku, each is a functioning piece of furniture, either chairs or sofas, with human forms rising out of the sides and backing.

Sculpted out of indigenous woods, carved African men and women seem to grow like trees from the chair backings. They are brilliantly costumed and operatic in appearance, but their expressions seem distant, bearing the secrets and dignity of African spirits. These beings – torsos morphing from chair backs and sofa sides – are three-dimensional and startlingly lifelike, but they are also elusive. You can stare into their eyes, but they look right through you.

Word has circulated through the international artistic community that Swaziland is producing works of art. Pieces from House on Fire have a gallery in Johannesburg, where the Oppenheimers, among the city’s most influential art patrons, recently set one of Thorne and Masuku’s icons amid the Picassos and Matisses of their private home gallery. Several pieces have been sold to American and European collectors.

Carving is done beside the venue’s Moorish-style patio behind the main stage. A trio of craftsmen, Masuku with Phuzi Mtshali and Themba Magagula, set to work with jacaranda and marula wood, beads and other appliqué, and paint.

“We were all stone and wood carvers in Pigg’s Peak (in mountainous northern Swaziland near the South African border). We carved animals and masks for the tourists, and sold them by the road. Now we have moved from craft to art,” said Masuku.

The carvers used to bang out five souvenir carvings a day. Now they collaborate for five weeks to produce a single icon.

“We feel we are artists now, not just souvenir makers,” said Magagula, who might earn US $10 from the sales of his roadside carvings on a good day. Now he splits the profit on an “icon” that can fetch several thousand dollars when sold internationally, like one chair recently shipped to New York.

Meanwhile, more walls, towers, and rooms are being added to the venue, all decorated with sculptures from an expanding workshop. Some of the new areas are turned over to twice yearly art shows where local painters display their works for the first time.

“You can’t have musicians without a place to perform, or painters or artists without spaces to display,” said Nkambule of the National arts and culture council.

“With more venues, there will be more artists. They go hand in hand,” he said.

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