Samson Mudzunga

Page 1


Cover: Samson Mudzunga, Mutsiko Venda, 2005, wood, cowhide, fabric, paint, polish, wheels

MICHAEL STEVENSON Hill House De Smidt Street Green Point 8005 PO Box 616 Green Point 8051 Cape Town tel +27 (0)21 4212575 fax +27 (0)21 4212578


Samson Mudzunga (born 1938) lives in the Nzhelele valley in Venda, a region in the northern part of the Limpopo Province in South Africa. His stone house and outbuildings stand at the foot of a rocky hillside and overlook the densely populated valley where houses in the traditional style are intermingled with buildings of brick and corrugated iron. At the time of his most recent performance on 5 November 2005 the rains were very late; cows and goats roamed in search of scraps of fodder and the leaves of the fruit trees curled and withered in the heat. The occasion for this performance was to bid farewell to a large drum departing for Mudzunga’s exhibition at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York in February 2006. Mudzunga’s performances of the past decade have become increasingly elaborate. On this occasion he coerced, as accompaniments and accomplices, a group of more than 100 young boys to play the tshikona flutes; a troupe of about 30 women dressed in cross-cultural uniforms including black cowboy hats, colourful Venda appliqué skirts and blue-and-white striped towels to do the tshigombela dance; and, most surprisingly, a group of teenage girls wearing short beaded skirts to do the sacred, snaking domba dance. Throughout the day these groups alternated their performances, usually to the beating of a group of large drums by Venda women, as is the custom; the day unfolded at the command of Mudzunga, the participants and viewers uncertain of who would next be summoned to entertain. After his ‘burial’ inside the drum and reappearance in different attire, a huge feast commenced, organised by his wife Dorcas, and continued into the night.

The performance at Samson Mudzunga’s home on 5 November 2005, with (this page, from top) tshikona players, the tshigombela dance and the domba dance, and (facing page) Mudzunga’s ‘burial’ and re-emergence from the Fundudzi Airforce drum. Following pages: The domba dance Photos by Michael Stevenson

The inclusion of the domba dance brought to the fore the latent theme of Mudzunga’s work – transgression. This element is easily overlooked by outsiders who are transfixed by the rhythms and spectacle. This occasion was the first time that even some of the Venda men present had seen the domba danced in public, as it is traditionally only seen by initiated men and women. A similar though lesser transgression is the tshikona players who traditionally performed for chieftains and were readily identifiable with a particular chief through the pitch of their music. The very fact that Mudzunga periodically hosts these huge gatherings is an affront to the hierarchical structures of Venda society, where generally only the chiefs would have the required status and financial means to do so. Another central transgression that Mudzunga flaunts is his close association with Lake Fundudzi. This natural lake has many sacred associations in Venda cosmology, and tradition dictates that only the head of the Netshiavha lineage can make offerings to the lake. The Netshiavha are the historical guardians not only of Lake Fundudzi but also of the hot springs at Tshipise, the falls at Phiphidi and the sacred reed grove at Tshiendeulu (near Mianzwi) from which the reeds for the tshikona dances used to be obtained. Although Mudzunga is of Netshiavha descent, he did not inherit the headship, and the manner in which he makes Fundudzi integral to his work (and even

dreams of establishing a guest house at his homestead that will serve as a point of entry for visitors to the region and specifically the lake) can be contested. It is thus not surprising that Mudzunga’s relationship with the traditional power structures and tribal elders is fraught. In the past he has been imprisoned on charges of arson and attempted murder for allegedly burning down the house of his cousin, the local chief Ntsandeni Netshiavha, and supposedly plotting to kill him. The motives behind these vendettas revolve around a sequence of events relating to Mudzunga’s access to the waters of Lake Fundudzi. As a result, the ruling chieftains do not attend his performances, and lesser, often rival chiefs consecrate the events. Mudzunga ascribes the feuds simply to jealousy of his success and prominence as an artist. Mudzunga also transgresses conventional conceptions of contemporary art practice. He shifts effortlessly between urban white-cube gallery spaces and the rural landscape of Venda, each of which has its own distinct, and different, expectations, values and practices. He is a provocation to his Venda community because he undermines and subverts their traditional customs, yet he also provokes the self-referential western art world to question its assumptions about the making and exhibiting of art as well as performance. He co-opts figures in the art world – art historians, curators, critics, dealers, collectors, museum directors – to support and realise his work, and resists classification as either an artist with pronounced tribal or ethnic associations or a conventional artschool trained artist. Muzdunga exhibited for the first time in 1988, at the age of fifty, when he showed his figurative sculptures in Johannesburg. At this time the work of Venda sculptors had just been discovered by the art world and was suddenly to be seen on exhibitions in South Africa and abroad. However, very few of these artists have been able to sustain their creativity or adapt their work to contemporary art practices, and in this respect Mudzunga stands almost alone. His ever-larger drums, in ever-more imaginative forms distinctly unlike those of the traditional Venda drums, started evolving in the mid1990s, and he presented his first performance in 1996. The performances always entail his climbing into a central cavity inside the drum through a hinged door (a distinct characteristic of his large drums), and later emerging in different attire, making bold statements to his audience. On the morning after his most recent performance, thunderclouds brought torrential rain and the dusty earth road turned into rivulets of red mud. In this rural and farming area, the arrival of the life-giving seasonal rains is imbued with meaning. The coinciding of Mudzunga’s performance with the downpour only reinforced his maverick status in the community and affirmed his belief in his profound connection with the ancestors. Michael Stevenson Thanks to Anitra Nettleton and Alan Jacobs for their assistance with this essay

AEROPLANE DRUM, 1997 wood, cowhide, fabric, polish, wheels approximately 180 x 190 x 170cm Photos by Hannelie Coetzee

MUTSIKO VENDA, 2005 wood, cowhide, fabric, paint, polish, wheels approximately 89 x 234 x 82cm

FUNDUDZI AIR WAYS, 2005 wood, cowhide, fabric, paint, polish, wheels approximately 90 x 180 x 80cm

FUNDUDZI AIRFORCE, 2005 wood, cowhide, fabric, paint, polish, wheels approximately 180 x 300 x 170cm detail and front view overleaf

SUKA AFRICA FUNDUDZI, 2004 wood, cowhide, fabric, paint, polish, wheels approximately 70.5 x 120 x 92cm

MASINDI, 2005 wood, cowhide, fabric, paint, polish, plastic approximately 200 x 90 x 70cm

EVE, 2005 wood, cowhide, fabric, paint, polish, plastic approximately 150 x 130 x 60cm

TSHINAKAHO, 2005 wood, cowhide, fabric, paint, polish, plastic approximately 160 x 140 x 60cm

SAMSON MUDZUNGA Selected exhibitions 1995 Siyawela: Love, loss and liberation in South African art, Birmingham City Museums and Art Gallery, Birmingham, and Gertrude Posel Gallery, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg 1995 Far North, First Johannesburg Biennale, Johannesburg 2003 Suka Dzivha Fundudzi, Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg 2004 New Identities, Museum Bochum, Germany, and Pretoria Art Museum, Pretoria 2004-6 Personal Affects: Power and poetics in contemporary South African art, Museum for African Art and Cathedral of St John the Divine, New York, and The Contemporary Museum, Honolulu Performance history 29 June 1996: First funeral event, Venda 28 September 1996: Lake Fundudzi performance, Venda 8 March 1997: Marriage performance, Venda 29-30 July 2000: Burial performance, Venda 13 August 2000: Resurrection performance, NSA Gallery, Durban 9 August 2003: Performance, Johannesburg Art Gallery 3 July 2004: Freedom performance, Venda 15 September 2004: Freedom performance, Michael Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town 23 September 2004: Freedom performance, Cathedral of St John the Divine, New York 5 November 2005: Farewell performance, Venda 9 February 2006: Performance, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York 23 February 2006: Performance, The Contemporary Museum, Honolulu Further reading Oren Kaplan, ‘Art worlds: the performances of Samson Mudzunga’, in S Nuttall and CA Michael, Senses of Culture: South African Cultural Studies, Cape Town, 2000, pp 85-106 Kathy Coates and Stephen Hobbs, Samson Mudzunga, Johannesburg, 2001 Pitso Chinzima, Stephen Hobbs and Anitra Nettleton, Suka Dzivha Fundudzi: Samson Mudzunga, Johannesburg Art Gallery, 2003 Anitra Nettleton, ‘Shaking up the gallery…’, Art South Africa, 2(2), Summer 2003, pp 42-47 Tracy Murinik, ‘Interview with Samson Mudzunga’, in Sophie Perryer (ed), Personal Affects: Power and poetics in contemporary South African art, New York and Cape Town, 2004, Vol 1, pp 100-107 Colin Richards, ‘Samson Mudzunga’, in Sophie Perryer (ed), 10 Years 100 Artists: Art in a democratic South Africa, Cape Town, 2004, pp 253-257 Photo of Samson Mudzunga by Mario Todeschini, courtesy of Season South Africa

Catalogue no 20 February 2006 Edited and designed by Sophie Perryer Photography by Kathy Comfort-Skead Printed by Hansa Reproprint

Issuu converts static files into: digital portfolios, online yearbooks, online catalogs, digital photo albums and more. Sign up and create your flipbook.