Story & Photos Jim Zingarelli
Read more about the Gordon in South Africa program here.
Wednesday, May 24: Nyanga, Cape Town
"My chisels, all broken. I wake up and think I am going to go crazy. You have an idea but no tools or materials to make it."
I will never forget the day I spent with three black sculptors in the Township of Nyanga in Cape Town. They were two wise men and a shepherd--named Isaac, Amos, and yes, Shephard. These men took the entire day to take me around the township--thousands of shacks and makeshift constructions that people called home, alleyways and muddy sand, remnants of fires and the smell of refuse. And in the midst of this, they carved sculptures and made paintings of great import: portraits of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu carved from stinkwood (the remainders of old railroad ties); dolls carved and stained a deep ebony so children "can play with dolls which look like themselves"; elephants, furniture, paintings that record a new history for South Africa while not forgetting its horrific apartheid past. Amos told me, "Forgetting the past is like a tree without roots, or leaves without a tree." A new history must be created in light of what has already occurred.
Their studios? Cinder blocks without a roof and still under construction; a shack made from old fencing posts; or a pocket in one's jacket with a chisel to carve while in transit by Kombi (van taxis/buses). Their tools? A few chip-carving chisels, an old flat chisel-no mallets or sharpening stones from what I saw. And with all of this, still hope: "Sculpture can be made from anything. The burnt coal over there--that too can become a sculpture," Amos said, pointing to a burnt cinder heap along one of the meandering roads. "I have a hope for an arts and crafts shop," said Isaac, the elder statesman of the three and Amos' artistic "father" and mentor. "I hope too for an art school where these young people who have no jobs--who just sit around without anything to do, who have no hope--can come to be trained and learn what they do not know they can do."
I asked, "How often do the young people come to your studio?" The response: "Every day, looking for something to do. And I teach them without pay, but how long can I keep on doing this?"
Change is not happening fast enough in Nyanga. "For two weeks I have not been able to work," said Shephard. "My chisels, all broken. I wake up and think I am going to go crazy. You have an idea but no tools or materials to make it." With the frustration, however, there is also great faith in a God who is our Creator, and created us to be cocreators with him. "This ability and desire to make sculpture comes from God," said Amos. It is--as I also experience as a sculptor--an inner need, a compulsion, a tug to the materials that God has given as a resource.
How can we, called as God's servants, help to provide those resources to sculptors in Nyanga? How can we too learn from their desire to see black, white and colored artists working and cooperating together in making works of art for a new South Africa? Reflections I often had along with my fellow colleagues and students: Once these three weeks are concluded, how will we respond to the needs of what we've seen? What can we take to our country of what the South Africans are learning about truth, forgiveness, and reconciliation? Two big questions among many. These seeds have been planted now in each of us.
Jim Zingarelli, M.F.A., is a professor of art and the newly-appointed chair of the Art Department at Gordon. This past summer he was part of a faculty-student team that spent seven weeks in South Africa.
Windows into Jim Zingarelli's memorable day in Cape Town with Isaac, Amos and Shephard, three sculptors. Pictured is some of their work--carved heads attached to stuffed bodies. These men produce beautiful work with limited resources--roofless cinder block studios and a few chip-carving chisels. They hope for an arts and crafts studio some day, and an art school for the young people in the township.