Window into the past
Collection of masterpieces that are threatened by a lack of support
PHANSI Museum a powerful repository of local wisdom.
Earlier this year the developing world lost one of its more interesting cultural anthropologists.
The Gujarati Indian Haku Shah was, among other disciplines, an artist, an archivist, a documentarian and, also, an important author on tribal art and culture.
Shah was a man inspired by Gandhian principles of rural development and harmonious living with nature and, in this vein, perhaps his most important contribution over the last fifty years was in making the case for the traditional craftsman’s knowledge system being as valuable as the modern urban designer’s training. His life’s work was on blurring the line between the artist and the artisan, between the functional and the aesthetic. In his universe, a distinction between “hig” art and “low” craft simply did not exist.
“Simply because an object is common in the social sense,” he said, “does not mean that it is ordinary, not worth placing in an exhibition or museum.” Which is exactly what he did. Besides expanding the space for tribal art recognition, at the Indian Institute of Design, in the 1970s, Shah also set up the Tribal Museum in the Gujarat Vidyapeet, which was a university set-up by Gandhi, in the 1920s, to nurture an alternative system of education for Indians, free from colonial influence.
Shah died in March this year, at the age of 85.
I thought of Shah’s work and life’s purpose this week, while visiting Durban’s Phansi Museum, and contemplating the work and life purpose of Paul Mekula.
Mekula is one of our country’s more important architects, with a canvas dating from the 1970s, which is diverse, thoughtful and deeply respectful of nature. A spiritual successor to the gifted Hans Hallen and Ron Lucock, Mekula continued and enhanced a tradition of buildings, always deferential to social context and appropriate construction methods – and has made Durban’s architectural landscape richer for it.
But, it is in Mekula’s multi-disciplined contribution that one first sees parallels to Shah. In the 1990s, Mekula was a driving force behind the BAT Centre and, latterly, a powerful repository of local craft and tribal knowledge has been nurtured by him, at the Phansi Museum in Glenwood.
Drawing on 30 years of local collecting by Mekula, as well as his sourcing of more contemporary pieces by local artisans, Phansi is a repository of local wisdom, unlike any other I’ve come across in the country. Visiting it, I was embarrassed that I hadn’t heard of it before, even though it’s been around for over a decade. Here, the artist and the artisan are not separated. Under Mekula’s vision “Phansi has a particular love and interest for all people and things creative, how they are made, their beauty and their function. We exist to treasure and to inspire.”
The museum overflows with a truly fine collection of tribal beadwork, woodwork, body art, clay vessels and pottery. It’s also a space that allows the objects to tell a story not just of identity, but also given our country’s tortured history, of identity’s antagonists – that of migration, separation, erosion.
It is filled with the scent of memory and of loss. But, in the dignity of its construction and assembly, it is also a place of African humanity. Here, the amaZulu are not simply a homogenous entity for easy consumption, but brought to life as a kaleidoscope of the different clans. The artwork of the Ndwande, for example, is contrasted to the Mthethwa or the Biyela, or from those traditionally found in the Nomgoma or Tugela areas. Beadwork of the amaSwazi, Ndebele, Xhosa and Pedi are also shown. Arriving on the first floor of the beautiful building (a restored colonial-era house of one of Durban’s earliest cultural anthologists, Esther Roberts), one finds a carcass of a Limpopo tree stretched out in the shape of a beached fish, skin taut and ready for its transformation into a drumbeat vessel of communication. Except that it is actually a vessel of passage, the fish mouth opening to house the entrance to a coffin, which the artist hoped to one day house himself in. Nearby, intricate branches give birth to bulbous fish, weighing heavy but never engulfing the tree – a symbol of harmonious relations with nature.
In many of the artefacts, beadwork is a crucial instrument of shape, form and colour. Yet they also indirectly reflect the ambivalent side of colonialism; the beads having replaced the indigenous grass and tobacco leaves, which represented the earliest materials used – but, by being instruments of trade, they also hint at an encroaching Western influence. Like the Indian harmonium, an instrument brought to the subcontinent by European traders on the waves of fin de siècle empire-building, its current ubiquity masks other layers of meaning. Similarly, the presentation of objects, made with colourful telephone wire, represents both the ingenuity of local craftsmen, in incorporating innovative elements into their design – but also suggests the forced mass movement of these people into the cities and the loss of tribal freedoms.
Phansi is a valuable addition to Durban’s cultural scene and well worth a visit.
Unlike Haku Shah, however, who achieved great respect and following, Paul Mekula’s brainchild is ultimately threatened, like so many other cultural institutions in KwaZulu Natal, with a lack of support from local arts authorities and ambivalent audiences. Let us hope Minister Nathi Mthethwa is able to pay a visit there soon.