Women at home

Noria Mabasa

(TAXI-008, David Krut Publishing)

There isn’t much indication in the recent TAXI art book of who the author Kathryn Straughan is. But it is evident from the text that, as a writer she has sat with artist Noria Mabasa for long hours listening to and then reducing a complex biography.

Straughan’s interview, conducted last year, reveals the arduous plight of the artist, born in 1938, considered a rarity but not an anomaly in her environment. She heads up a household in Limpopo adorned with clay figurines — a sort of shrine to her ancestors that, according to what she told Straughan, put her through hell while directing her to realising her talent.

Having endured domestic violence in Johannesburg, Mabasa, emotionally ill and with two children in tow, migrated to Venda in 1965 where she lived in poverty. She got some support from her family, and “used to take the leftovers from the homemade malt beer, usually given to chickens and pigs, which she and her children would eat”.

Wracked with what could possibly have been anxiety and depression at one stage her face became constricted and she could not retract her tongue into her mouth. She endured all manner of traditional healing ceremonies and, in the process, began to respond to the ancestral visitations in her dreams.

Eventually Mabasa came up with her early trademark figurines — little uniformed officials fashioned from clay. In the art market of the 1980s Mabasa’s nurses, preachers and cops were standard fare and her work was in danger of being reduced to curio status. But her reputation as a fine artist was enhanced by her inclusion in curator Ricky Burnett’s BMW-sponsored group exhibition Tributaries at MuseuM-AfricA. Mabasa also held a solo show at the Goodman Gallery in 1986.

Since then she has done the unconventional (for African women) and also worked in wood. In a concise and valuable essay curator and collector Rayda Becker situates Mabasa’s work in the local art market place. As Becker notes, Mabasa’s art is often incompatible with contemporary trends and themes.

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