Remembering a wood warrior

Acclaimed South African wood sculptor John Mehwana Mehlwana Baloyi (42), and an assistant who was travelling with him, died tragically in a car accident in Elim, Limpopo, on May 15.

Baloyi was the first artist in Limpopo to open a rural-based gallery—the Mashamba Art Gallery and Museum—elevating the status of the often-ignored and marginalised artists of the Vatsonga and VhaVenda. His mission was to bypass art dealers and middle-men, believing that the production of art is integral to a person’s full development by giving them a sense of history, identity and dignity.

Baloyi used his meagre resources from the sale of his arts to build his gallery in an area lacking substantial economic growth, where people live in mud huts and water is scarce. He bought a generator to enable fellow artists to work after dark and was planning to drill for water to install flushing toilets.

The gallery took almost a decade to build and housed the work of some of South Africa’s leading wood sculptors including Jackson “Xidonkana” Hlungwani, Lucky Makamu, Thomas Kubayi, Owen Ndou, David Murathi, Sarah Munyai and the renowned Mukondeni potters. It was his hope that it would create a demand for art from the new black middle class and, I reckon, allow them to acquire pieces at reasonable prices rather than be instrumental in the production of art solely for export.

A month ago, when I last saw Baloyi at a Limpopo Arts and Culture Association (Laca) conference in Polokwane, he lamented the lack of support from the government. He dearly wanted funding to finish his gallery and build proper sanitation. His work may have graced glossy tourism publications, but he received no meaningful official support.

Justice Albie Sachs, a staunch defender of the rights of artists, spoke at the opening of Baloyi’s gallery in 2005. In his address he urged the government to buy art. It was the relationship between Sachs and Baloyi that inevitably led to the placing of his major Angry Godzilla—carved from mbambangoma (lead-wood)—at Constitution Hill in Hillbrow. The artist took more than 10 months to complete this mammoth work.

Baloyi’s work reflected a deep knowledge of history, world politics, African mysticism and contemporary lifestyles. His lexicon included fictitious beasts, aquatic symbols, birds of prey, fish and reptiles. Before he became a full-time wood sculptor, he was well-known for his functional art such as mats, baskets, chairs and coffins—a skill he learnt from his father—gifted sculptor Churchill Madzivandila.

Baloyi, like his eccentric mentor Hlungwani, was a prime tourist attraction in the Makhado/Elim/Mashamba area. He was part of a highly regarded set of artists—including Noria Mabasa, Avhashoni Maingane, Phillip Rikhotso, Johannes Maswanganyi and Hlungwani—in the province.

Baloyi continually showed respect for nature and cared for the sustainability of the environment. He made carvings from dead and dry wood and never felled a living tree, even when the demand for pieces from art buyers was enormous.

Baloyi’s work can be found in private and corporate collections in South Africa, Holland, Belgium, Botswana, Korea, Germany, Italy and England.

He is survived by four children from his estranged wife, Maria, as well as the mother of his new one-month-old baby.

John Mehwana Baloyi: Born December 16 1964, died May 15 2006

Vonani Bila is a cultural activist, poet and editor of poetry magazine Timbila, based in Elim, Limpopo

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