Farewell to Drums

The road of red soil that leads to Samson Mudzunga’s house could not be more rustic or unaffected. Mudzunga’s house, at the foot of a hill, is neither. It is an obvious sign of his wealth and success. Mudzunga lives in the town of Mphephu, in the Limpopo province.

We arrive to find that a crowd has already gathered. Among them, a group of women in colourful fabric, some baring their breasts, others not, sit on the ground, their feet tucked beneath them.

Farewell to Drums, the invitation had said. Mudzunga would give a performance, centred around the new coffin-drum he’s sculpted. He emerges from the house, his rheumy, red eyes watchful. The cement floor of his workshop is cooling. Sitting in one of two tired armchairs, Mudzunga answers questions cautiously and evasively. The drum that he’s sculpted has centre stage. It’s rectangular, like a coffin, but with softer edges. The top is painted black and has two concentric circles painted in the middle of the top surface. There are two heads carved along the top perimeter of the drum. They represent a female and a male figure, a mother and a father. This drum, it seems, is more like a womb than a coffin. It is the place into which Mudzunga will climb and be reborn. On the side of the coffin, I find the little door through which Mudzunga will climb. The interior of the drum is lined with fabric and is big enough to fit a man like Mudzunga, but only just.

Wooden chains bind Samson Mudzunga’s feet

Unlike the Biblical Samson, Mudzunga does not derive his power from his hair. Instead, he claims to get his power from drinking the water of the nearby, mystical and much revered Lake Fundudzi. Mudzunga is not eager to explain the meaning behind his work, encouraging us to assign to his work our own metaphor. He says: “Everybody must start writing about the meaning of this and this and this…”

If you didn’t know about Mudzunga’s infamy, you need only look to the walls of his workshop to glimpse his history. It is relayed in brittle, yellowed paperclippings, fastidiously cut out of newspapers and journals and proudly displayed on the walls of the workshop. Bizarre headlines like ‘Murder Most Strange’, ‘Artist Plans to be Buried Alive’, and ‘Raising Cain.’ Mudzunga’s been incarcerated twice and he says he was framed both times by local herdsmen jealous of his success.

Mudzunga’s interpreter shoos us away, tells us to patiently wait until eleven thirty. That’s when the performance will begin. “Then,” says the interpreter, “you will see something you’ve never seen before.” We wait in the courtyard for the performance to begin. The interpreter comes out to introduce Mudzunga who emerges, barefoot with wooden chains around his feet. He inches forward with a dejected expression. Once the chains are unlocked, Mudzunga holds them up, victorious. He has been freed from the jealousy of the local herdsmen and now he can work in peace.

The performance continues in the front yard. The boys and men have begun their eerie, hypnotic tune. They’re dancing in a circle, round and round, back and forth, kicking up a cloud of dust. In the centre is the drum that Mudzunga climbs into. He eventually emerges in new clothes and with a T-shirt that reads ‘Suka Afrika, Umfundudzi.’ He climbs atop the drum and gives another victorious salute. Holding his hands up, he conducts the orchestra of wooden flutes and they yield.

It was not unique, as was promised. It was the kind of performance Mudzunga has given before. But the collective effect of the setting, the music and the scent of a wood fire mingling with the smell of pap made for a unique experience. It is this, I imagine, that will be missing from the performance Mudzunga is to give in New York. Now that the drum has been inducted, it is off to New York where it will be part of the Personal Affects exhibition. The show will include works by 17 South African artists. Mudzunga’s drum will not return to South Africa. It is a gift to the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, which is one of two venues that will house the exhibition.

Diane Reddy is an independent journalist and writer