The Venda area, in the far north of South Africa, south of Zimbabwe, is perhaps the most culturally distinct region of the country, with strong traditions of creative art and astonishing legends and beliefs.
Rarely does Limpopo feature in South Africa's top ten 'must-see's. But mention Venda Art and the better informed will prick up their ears. Two talented artists, Thomas Kubayi and Avashoni Maingaye, showed us how Venda traditions can thrive and told us why it is so important that they do - for the nation's heritage, for their communities and for young peope in particular.
Following signs through colourful villages, we spotted the unmistakable carved fish signing the way to Thomas' home studio. It is a beautiful blue and ochre building perched on a hilltop, surrounded by intriguing chunks of tree that are works-in-progress. Welcoming us with a broad grin, Thomas shows us round, explaining how the age-old Venda tradition of wood carving is expressed today.
The carved fish outside Thomas Kubayi's home studio
Some of his pieces depict sacred knowledge and the personal transformation that takes place when boys become men in initiation schools. Others offer social and political commentary on pressing issues such as domestic violence and AIDS.
As we pick up and feel the smooth surfaces and solid forms crafted by Thomas and his young students, he calls us into his music room. There we see local instruments, their forms and sounds all new to us. Soon he and a friend are playing, and offering our daughters a turn on his unique creation: A thumb harp for two.
Thomas Kubayi depicts rituals in wood, and works with young people
That afternoon we follow the Ribolla Arts Route, finding signs that lead us to the studio homes of award-winning potters, batik artists and sculptors. Already giddy with the diversity of talent and creativity, we are told "You must meet Avashoni". A cell phone call later, we have an appointment at the Centre for Arts and Culture in the small town of Thohoyandou.
Avashoni's eyes sparkle and he is only too ready to share his personal journey in painting, print-making, sculpture and the nurturing of younger artists. A visionary artist and entrepreneur, Avashoni has exhibited and taught in Zimbabwe, Europe and the USA.
But it is into the potential of young people in his local community that he invests most energy. He founded a studio open to aspiring and established artists, and is a leading light in the Centre, tutoring those with enthusiasm without any financial backing.
Avashoni Maingaye is nurturing fine art in rural Venda communities
The productivity of artists in this area of Limpopo is testimony to the significance of this form of expression to women and men, young and old. And the establishment of the Ribolla Arts Route is all the more important given a history of exploitation, of both the artists and their products. Before 1994, the apartheid government established the homelands of Venda and Gazankula, where indigenous languages and culture were supported by the government to emphasise difference and keep people separated.
With the new democracy came the "discovery" of Venda art by the modern art market, which saw talent blooming a blissful distance away from urban buyers. In both phases, the art and those who produced it were misappropriated for the gains of others. Now Venda artists are taking marketing into their own hands, inviting visitors to their studios and defining the significance of what they do. Such experiences are galaxies away from the spectacle of mass-produced, so-called 'cultural' artefacts encountered in tourist shops.
Author: Rachel Bray
Published Date: 02 Jun 2011
Location: Southern Africa | South Africa
Themes: the arts, travel | craft, art, routes and cities