Maverick Life


The art of dreams and dead wood – South Africa’s ‘living treasure’ Noria Mabasa still a tireless inspiration

The art of dreams and dead wood – South Africa’s ‘living treasure’ Noria Mabasa still a tireless inspiration
Noria Mabasa. (Photo: Department of Arts and Culture)

Globally recognised sculptor Noria Mabasa began sculpting in 1974. Now in her eighties, she still works on her art every day and remains an inspiration for students from around the world.

‘I was so happy when my name was called and seeing the standing ovation accorded to me by people in the hall. I felt like my legs were shaking due to joy,” says artist Noria Mabasa (85).

She is referring to the honorary doctorate in art and design conferred on her by the University of Johannesburg in April.

Speaking at her home in Ramukhuba village, near Thohoyandou in Limpopo, Mabasa recalls how black artists were marginalised in the past and could not compete with their peers from around the world.

“All that was because of the apartheid policy the previous government was practising. Thanks to democracy, we can now go anywhere in the world to exhibit our art,” she says.

Installation view of ‘Noria Mabasa – Shaping Dreams’ (2022) at the Villa-Legodi Centre for Sculpture at NIROX Sculpture Park. (Photo: Lucky Lekalakala / courtesy of the artist, the Centre, and !KAURU African Contemporary Art Project)

“In the past we were also not allowed to board a plane, but now, because of these hands which create and produce art, I can go anywhere I want.

“Art has opened doors for us – due to democracy and freedom I can go anywhere in the world and I am given the respect I deserve.”

Mabasa’s unique wood and ceramic sculptures, as well as clay pots and paintings, have earned her acclaim globally. Her sculptures are included in various collections in Africa and abroad, and have been part of numerous exhibitions locally and internationally.

“I have been to countries such as Britain, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and many more where I was exhibiting my work,” says Mabasa.

“Some international tourists also visit my studio gallery here at home. Some come to learn, while others just come to satisfy their eyes with these beautiful sculptures scattered all around.”

Channelling ancestors: Noria Mabasa. (Photo: Yusuf Essop)

In South Africa, some of her works are on display in the Union Buildings in Pretoria, at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, in Sandton’s Mandela Square and at the Constitutional Court.

Mabasa will not discuss the prices her work fetches because of the “high levels of crime”, but says she earns enough for her and her family to survive.

Guided by ancestors

Mabasa says she is still strong and works on her art every day.

“The art studio you are seeing here was built by the government in 2002 during the time of former president Thabo Mbeki and the then deputy arts and culture minister, Brigitte Mabandla.

“They both came here to see me and I’m grateful for their humanity. If it was not for them who supported my work, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

(Photo: Lucky Lekalakala)

Work from Noria Mabasa’s exhibition ‘Shaping Dreams’ at the NIROX Sculpture Park. (Photo: Lucky Lekalakala)

On this particular morning, she is busy carving a wooden sculpture that depicts a woman with her chin resting on her right hand, looking surprised at what she is seeing. “This shows how women today are shocked and surprised by the social ills of things that are happening in our country today – atrocities such as the murder and rape of women and children.

“So, this woman you are seeing here is shocked, hence she puts her right hand on her cheek,” says Mabasa.

She recalls one of her favourite sculptures of women that she created, which depicts the historic Women’s March to the Union Buildings in 1956, when they protested against the apartheid government’s oppressive pass laws.

“That sculpture talks a lot because you can see women marching with their fists raised, which means power. That sculpture, if I am not mistaken, is still at the Union Buildings.”

Inside her studio are wooden sculptures, African drums and clay pots. Around her yard there are many more pots. She gets the wood she uses for her sculptures nearby.

“There is dead wood a few metres away from here on the banks of the Luvuvhu River, where I sometimes spend some time crafting. My home is situated near the banks of the river, as you can see,” says Mabasa, as she walks around her yard.

All the people in the hall joined me in jubilation, ululating.

She says her sculptures are often inspired by her dreams. “After dreaming about something, I immediately start working on it the following day, as shown by my ancestors.”

Returning to the topic of her receiving the honorary doctorate, she describes the event: “The hall was full. I was the only one who was being  honoured that day – the rest of the graduates were students.

“It was a special day. After [the doctorate] was bestowed on me, I wanted to kneel down, as it’s often done during  graduation ceremonies. But the lady responsible said I should not get down. She stood up and touched my head. Then, from there I started celebrating. All the people in the hall joined me in jubilation, ululating.”

Installation view of ‘Shaping Dreams’ (2022). (Photo: Lucky Lekalakala / courtesy of the artist, the Villa-Legodi Centre for Sculpture and the !KAURU African Contemporary Art Project)

In its proposal for the honorary doctorate, the visual department at the university described Mabasa as a “living treasure”, saying: “The department recognises the role that Noria Mabasa has played in decolonising the South African art world and exposing South Africans to the richness of diverse cultural practices which had remained hidden for many years.

“We applaud the manner in which she has courageously encouraged many women to explore artistic labour outside of the conventional domains of ‘male art’ and shared her indigenous knowledge with not only those in the community, but also the wider world.

“[We] hold Noria Mabasa in extremely high esteem as an elder artist who brings another dimension to the work of the academy, opening the eyes of pupils, including our senior students, to indigenous knowledge systems and ways of conceptualisation that are often unavailable within the conventions of the academic study and the studio arts.”

Mabasa says students from the nearby University of Venda also sometimes visit to observe her making sculptures and doing pottery. Takalani Dzaga, spokesperson of the university, says she does valuable work teaching art students. “There is no doubt the arts can improve teaching and learning in various disciplines.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: On the instinctual strength of Noria Mabasa’s art

In 2002, Mabasa was awarded the Order of the Baobab in silver by Mbeki, for “exceptional achievements in unique forms of fine arts under trying circumstances”.

“The awards that were conferred [on] me from around the world are many,” says Mabasa proudly.

“Former president Thabo Mbeki and his officials have been so good to me. They promoted the work of art I and others are doing in the country.”

Gordon Froud’s crown dedicated to Noria Mabasa at the launch of #GiveHerACrown exhibition in Lonehill, Johannesburg, on 24 November 2020. (Photo: Gallo Images / Alet Pretorius)

Mabasa started doing art in 1974. These days her granddaughter, Tshifhiwa Mabasa, is her personal assistant, helping her to get around now that she is elderly.

Mabasa, however, still looks strong and healthy. “I wake up early in the morning every day and start doing my work. Health-wise I am still okay. It’s only arthritis that sometimes gives me problems.”

Her long, grey, dreadlocked hair, neatly curled into a doek, has not been cut for more than three decades. “I don’t cut my hair so that I should continue dreaming art,” says Mabasa. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.


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