Down to earth at the Cradle of Humankind

It’s been an important week for the area known as the Cradle of Humankind, northwest of Johannesburg. On April 12 news broke across the scientific world that two fossils of the species Australopithecus sediba, discovered in the area in 2008, had been studied and analysed. No fewer than six separate research reports had cautiously agreed that they were indeed “a possible missing link in the development of the human species”.

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The skeletons of a mother and son were found by palaeontologist Lee Berger, with his nine-year-old son Matthew, while out on a field trip. About two million years ago tragedy struck at the now-famous Malapa cave at the Cradle World Heritage Site and today we are richer for it.

There, where the largest array of ancient hominids was discovered, an inseparable pair was trapped. A pool of water had gushed around them and over millennia a kind of cement had formed that preserved their bones; meanwhile our lives evolved.

A few kilometres down the road I found myself climbing a 3m-high fence, quite illegally, to trespass on art patron Benji Liebmann’s land. The Nirox Sculpture Garden, situated in Liebmann’s private nature reserve, demands that one make an appointment before entering during the week. And although I had booked myself in, Liebmann had clearly forgotten I was arriving and the gate was locked.

The only solution, because I was miles from home and reluctant to return without an interview, was to defy gravity and climb over.

Had I been of the species Australopithecus sediba, things may have been easier. The ancient humanoids apparently had chimp-like feet and would probably have been better than us at getting a grip on things, literally.

The point, I suppose, is that this neighbourhood — The Cradle — is world famous for its role in evolution. And that no doubt includes the human ability to provide creative solutions to physical and mental challenges.

Having jumped Liebmann’s gate I found him cycling through a lush, idyllic landscape replete with waterways, willows, pavilions and bridges. Workers were busy building a new hospitality centre for dining and exhibitions, and artists were putting finishing touches to their outdoor installations.

At length I got my interview, which provided an apt introduction to the show titled After the Rainbow Nation, which was due to open two days after my arrival.

“I don’t want to be anywhere near the gallery space — although I enjoy [visiting] it,” Liebmann said during an outdoor afternoon stroll, referring specifically to the business of art.

It was obvious why he doesn’t want to be an art dealer in a city gallery. Viewing the weatherproof, large-scale sculptures in the cool autumn light made a welcome change from trying to decipher fragile works in a sterile white cube.

“The activity of looking at art always for its commercial outcome is destructive to me. There’s a big gambling element because, in a way, you’re betting. But then there’s also a commodifying side of it that says: ‘If I market it right and if the artist behaves in the right way, and he’s got the right social connections, well then this is going to be a successful artist.’

“And, yes, the work has to have its merit. But [this system] is not enough about the work; it’s too much about too many other things.

“On the other hand,” Liebmann said, about his approach to offering artists residencies and staging large-scale outdoor shows, “here we have an opportunity to make art that is, frankly, for itself.”

If Liebmann has provided the template, the Cradle has provided the context in which artists have been able to contemplate the meaning of their work.

“I have been concerned with our corporeality, or the figure, from the start of my career. But if you work with bronze it doesn’t translate our physicality as well as dirt does,” says sculptor Angus Taylor about his mysterious figures and heads, which seem to grow from the very earth they are installed upon.

“If you work with something natural that is closer to your own being it is easier to bring forward a physicality that I identify with.

“Initially I tried [to work] with stone but the logistics of that were difficult. The material we have in our country isn’t as soft as marble. Granite, to carve, is almost impossible. But if you work with rammed earth, being the oldest way to build in Africa and still the most widely used, you can make sculpture in a material that is almost of no value.

“It’s not a commodity that one can sell because when it’s made in a spot then that’s what it is. If you move it then you have to remake it.

“But it is material that I feel translates our fragility of being much better than everything else,” Taylor says.

Geographical context
Sculptor Kim Lieberman has used the figure of Berger as subject matter for her work. The steel black cut-out of the renowned professor squats like a canine sentinel, claiming territory or perhaps searching for clues in the dust, under a canopy of red woven cables.

Lieberman says the figure is “in its geographical context. And the lace and cabling is all about human paths, human influence and the impact we have on each other.

“The canopy gives it a conceptual underpinning that talks about how we are not just our human selves — we are out there. Our influence, our impact and our energy ripples out and impacts on the world.”

Curator Mary-Jane Darroll sums up her show, which is an extension of a showcase of South African sculpture held at The Hague in the Netherlands in 2012.

“We suffer in Jo’burg in that we don’t have free public space where one can feel at ease, and wander and enjoy nature, as well as sculpture,” Darroll says. “An exciting thing about this show is that the sculptures tend to enliven the landscape. They create an entirely new environment. It is difficult to curate a show where you have a group of artists and different themes.

“But I think that what After the Rainbow Nation has done is to look at The Cradle as a site. It celebrates our humanity, our origin and our creation.”

New developments at the Nirox Sculpture Garden include a recently announced partnership with the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in the United Kingdom; the first Winter Sculpture Fair, presented by MasterCard, which will take place on May 4 and 5; and upcoming residency by an eminent literary figure, yet to be named, who will also be a guest at the Mail & Guardian’s literary festival in August.

The Nirox Sculpture Garden is open to the public on weekends and public holidays until July. Appointments must be made to view during the week. Tel: 076 903 7819. Website:

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Matthew Krouse
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