/ 10 June 2005

Art on fire

God, angels in pink knickers and dancing queens mingled with the merely mortal at Franchise gallery in Johannesburg on Thursday evening for the opening of Royal Flush, a quirky new exhibition all the way from the mountain kingdom of Swaziland.

A school of fat jacaranda fish swam the direction to the gallery and Paul Hanmer played gentle acoustic melodies while folk relished the opportunity to feel like royalty for a few hours by snacking on candyfloss and canapés and lounging in the eclectic array of royal thrones.

Jiggs Thorne, the creative brain behind the eccentric mix of chairs, goddesses, candelabra and windowpanes, spoke to the Mail & Guardian about a unique collaboration that has taken two little-known wood carvers from the side of the Piggs Peak road to a contemporary art gallery in Milpark’s trendy 44 Stanley Avenue.

How did the collaboration come about?

Shadrak Masuku and Boy Mdzinisa were roadside crafters I met about five years ago on the Piggs Peak route. They were [instigators] of the cat-table revolution of the early 1990s. The concept came from Bali and somehow found its way into the hills of Swaziland. Shadrak was part of a group of brother carvers that worked in the mountains. Boy was from the lowlands and somehow found his way up into the mountains. They picked up their skills from people around them.

I really enjoyed the humour that came out of that work. I started working with them, overseeing projects and taking work to Johannesburg to sell, but there was a lot of wear and tear going backwards and forwards like that, so we developed House on Fire.

What is House on Fire?

It’s a bit like the Owl House of performance. We are building it every day, developing it and the sculptures are part of that process. It’s a kind of fantasy-scape. It has been a wonderful process. The ideas have grown and we have refined our skills.

We have a sunken afro-Shakespearean globe theatre with royal boxes. It has been going for four years. Elle magazine called it the best club in Africa. [There is] music, theatre, we host corporate events … It is a very unique, inspiring place. It is a place that becomes you. It is really great for the performers because they can really get into the space.

What are your influences?

We’ve borrowed from a lot of places. There is a lot of Eastern influence; also, it’s a collaboration we call the juncture of hum, where different places pull together.

A lot of the pieces are influenced by poems. We like to play with images that come out of words. Most of it is functional. I believe in embodying the aesthetic with the functional. I think it is important to have functionality in art.

Describe the process behind your work. How much of it is your influence and how much comes from Masuku and Mdzinisa?

The work is collaborative. I come up with the concept, which is then translated to what is coming out of the wood. It is the coming together of stories. I liken it to people bringing different plates of food to the table. It makes for a great feast at the end of the day.

Do you think the success of this work will inspire other crafters in your area to broaden their scope?

[There are] few people who have taken a concept and made it their own. I believe we are becoming that. I hope that [what we have created] becomes a platform for other artists [in Swaziland] to go forward.

Instilling the idea of becoming an artist allows people to express themselves, their feelings, their artistic energy. They gradually take ownership, make the story their own.

Would you call your work art or craft, and what — in your opinion — is the difference?

I’d definitely say we’ve made that step from craft to art; I think [the fact] that we’ve arrived in a Johannesburg art gallery [is testimony to that].

It is very subjective. I’d say [what makes this work art is that it] retains a certain magic. It is grounded in the Earth, created art out of myths, stories, icons … art is a feeling you get from a type of work. The work is humorous. There is a play on words. There is a warmth in the work that I find missing in a lot of art today.

We call House on Fire a new contemporary African brand in entertainment, and this is the new element of that brand. I think it is a real step forward. It is hard to put your finger on it [but it is an] interesting departure.

The message … is about searching, fantasy, warmth. [I am] inspired by how to get closer to one another. We are three people from different backgrounds, working on the same project. It brings a kind of warmth. It has not always been easy, but this exhibition is [bringing on] the next phase. There is a lot of hope; it is the next step forward.