Writing Art History Since 2002

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Green walking monkey, 2004-5, umPengende wood (tapura fischeri), plaka paints and clear varnish, 80 x 90cmTimothy Mlambo, a cane cutter at Gingindlovu, started to sculpt birds on stands after Peter Engblom, on whose farm he worked, showed him carvings done at the then Natal Technikon. Subsequently, Mlambo’s carvings found an outlet at the African Art Centre. This marked the beginning of Mlambo’s association with the centre, who awarded him their annual Artist of the Year Award.Although the delightfully painted sculptures for which he is known still feature, there are signs of innovation in his recent exhibition. Movement is prominent in his new carvings. Activated space and negative shapes enliven his renderings of four legged animals, entitled Monkey, Baboon and Dog. The degree of maturity which Mlambo’s work has achieved since he carved and assembled Umfundusi is also obvious in the work Owl. Both sculptures take as their subject the ‘educated one’, a literal translation of the Zulu word used to refer to a teacher or minister of religion. Unlike the closely-knit coherence of the various elements in Owl, theearlier Umfundusi consists of separate totemic entities. Owl, on the other hand, with its huge beak, white collar, human arms and hands clutching a bible to its body becomes an image of authority, and recalls No life without religion by Gladys Mgudlandlu. Its authoritative bearing also contributes to the bird iconography of South African art.In Umthakathi, Mlambo diverts from what is pleasing in a carving that touches on black magic. His work eschews the standard portrayal of a magician riding her/his animal, usually a baboon or monkey, instead showing the sorcerer standing between two snakes ready to obey his orders.They are his familiars.The care and meticulous finish of Mlambo’s work, which is in keeping with the art of Tito Zungu, Derrick Nxumalo and Bonnie Ntshalintshali, remind one of what Jean Dubuffet once said: “Anyone who has practised art or even dabbled in it knows what steady and watchful purposefulness is required to see a work through in the same key and to fit every detail into that key.”In a manner not dissimilar the abovementioned artists’ use of intricate patterning and repetition to adorn or cover shapes, his work reminds one of the rich traditions of grass weav-ing and beadwork in KwaZulu-Natal. Not that this aspect of Mlambo’s expression is entirely regional. The urge to adorn and decorate is an ancient expression that is universally found. As such his show fits into a universal key.Elza Miles

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