Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Horn Carvers of Zululand

Among the many disappearing crafts of the old way of life among the Zulu people, horn carving is fighting back to take its place as a vibrant and modern skill. It is hard, hard work as few carvers have the power tools that would ease the laborious chore of removing the outer and inner shells to reveal the glowing browns, pearlescent whites and gleaming blacks of the polished horn. 

For them, it means three grades of rasp, fourteen grades of sandpaper and a final rub of metal polish – after the horn has been boiled and scraped inside to remove the soft tissue. Only then can pieces be cut to create beautiful jewellery and ornaments.

The doyen of horn carvers in Zululand is Willis Nxumalo, teacher and artist based at The Empangeni Art, Culture and History Museum. Willis has been carving since his youth and also works in wood, bone and stone. Horn, however, has a special place in his heart as he is able to use it to make traditional items such as medicine and snuff bottles and snuff spoons that are still requested by sangoma and inyanga for their medicines. As an artist, he is able to create these functional items as elegant ornamental works, such as this beautiful set of black snuff bottles from the collection of the Vukani Zulu Cultural Museum in Eshowe.

One of the most important aspects of Willis’ work is his dedication to teaching, for which he is prepared to travel far afield. Having worked under a number of traditional carvers himself, he appreciates the need to pass on what he knows and there are at least three young horn carvers working from the Vukani Museum as a result of his efforts. Siya Zungu, Sandile Manqele and Zama Mbatha not only produce delightful bangles, pendants, rings and earrings, but they have each been outstanding educators in their turn. Each of them has spent time teaching school children about their craft and using it as an example of the heritage that is being lost. This opens discussion about the value of heritage and its role in keeping us aware of the way we have built our lives on that of our forebears – that we are who we are because of who they were. Their humour and informality has enabled them to engage with the youth in a way that no older person could. 
Siya Zungu is 23 and is passionate about art, poetry and philosophy. He attended a course run by Willis Nxumalo at Vukani Museum, then spent a year studying drawing, graphic design and interior design at Ethekweni College before family pressure sent him off to study something more “useful”. The moment that course was completed, he was back at the Vukani Museum, chisels and horn in hand, preparing for the Eshowe Heritage Festival on 19 May. He has been included in a number of joint exhibitions in Durban.
Sandile Manqele is 27 and learned his craft from Siya Zungu. As the breadwinner of his family, he is only able to afford to carve between piece jobs but is passionate about his work and would love to learn more. Sandile made all the horn trophies for the Eshowe Heritage Festival in 2012 and is also preparing work to exhibit at the 2013 event.
Zama Mbatha is one of the three women who studied with Willis Nxumalo and confesses that she mostly uses her skills to make jewellery for herself or for gifts. She is the Assistant Curator at Vukani Museum and uses her knowledge to sensitise visitors to the huge skills and technology behind Zulu craft.
Bheki Myeni prefers to carve in wood but his horn bangles decorated with pyrography are popular when he exhibits. 
Travellers in Zululand are very familiar with the horn birds that have been sold at the side of the road for over fifty years. Although there are fewer and fewer of them to be found today, these charming pieces are still available if you’re prepared to take the time to stop and examine the stalls along the road from Richards Bay to St Lucia.

Vivienne Garside

Vukani Museum, Eshowe