By BRUCE DENNILL
What sort of training have you received and how important do you think it is to seek training (in terms of learning first principles and refining technique)?
I have a diploma in fine art from the then Witwatersrand Technikon, now the University of Johannesburg, but my best teacher has always been my father. I am following in his footsteps. It’s important to seek training, as it exposes you to the broader art fraternity. I got to know more about art there than what I knew before my studies. Studying art helped me to have different kinds of approaches in my art-making. It helped me to refine the techniques I learned at home. I even discovered new materials and tools as I was advised by my lecturers, and this helped my father and other artists back home as well.
What is your principal medium, and why did you choose it?
My main principal medium is wood and acrylic paint. I use two main special woods – corkwood and leadwood. Corkwood is soft and mainly makes sculptures for indoors and leadwood is very hard and a solution for outdoor projects. I come from a tradition of wood carving. I am a third-generation artist, taking after my father Johannes Maswanganyi, who in turn was taught by my grandfather, Piet Mafemani Maswanganyi. For me, carving is a family legacy I chose to continue with. It’s some kind of chieftaincy where a son is trained to take over from the father when that father passes on. My father sees himself as a chief in art, who took from his father and has to pass the baton to one of the sons. That happened to be me. I choose to use carving as a form of making contemporary art. I think I have proved that you can use the most primitive methods to create something contemporary.
Describe the techniques you use most? How complicated are your methods, and why is each step necessary?
As an artist based in Gauteng, I travel down to Limpopo in the Giyani Region to go and source the corkwood and leadwood, as they are the indigenous trees from the area. I look for dead dry wood from the rivers and mountains and from people’s yards. I then pick the wood that’ll help me create the sculpture I already have in mind. First step? I cut a piece of wood to size with a hand saw or a chainsaw. I start to shape with an axe, and then comes the most important tool from my family – the mbatlo. This is a self-made tool. Absa commissioned a short story about it in 2017. After that, I involve some chisels and an okapi knife. Then I sand with sandpaper. After sanding, I fumigate for a few days and after that, I paint with acrylics. All these steps are necessary, as they are part of the process in releasing what I have in mind. Some people ask if I draw first, and my answer is no. I see the sculpture already in my mind. Sometimes I will see the sculpture in the wood and follow its instructions through the form of that particular wood. This process of sourcing materials has gone to the extent of even engaging with the wood I see in hardware shops in Gauteng. Recently, I’ve been working on what I call “sculptures on the wall” and I use wooden boards for those. I am starting to like the laminated pine. I always paint my sculptures, but after completing some works made with pine, I find it difficult to cover the beauty I see made by the pine patterns that complement my creations.
What technological tools do you use in your work?
I use a chainsaw if the wood is very big and hard. I use a drill for both drilling and sanding. My smartphone becomes part of the package, as I refer to it for broader knowledge while working.
Who is the single other artist whose style you most admire, and why?
Apart from my father and Dr Esther Mahlangu, Noria Mabasa is a thing for me. She is a world-renowned artist who does carvings and pottery. Wood carving has always been seen as a male-dominated industry, so to see a woman making it big means a lot. She is not just an ordinary wood carver. She makes big artworks with dead wood from the rivers. Her stories are mind-blowing.
Galleries and other traditional means are only one way of marketing art. What do you believe are the most important other routes, and what is the most important insight you have gained in that area in your career?
There are many ways and routes I use to market my art. First, it was art lovers who used to visit my father at home in Limpopo. They would see my work as well. My father would take some of my artworks with him to art galleries and art buyers in Gauteng when he visited art dealers. After my studies, I entered a number of art competitions, most notably Absa L’atelier and Sasol New Signatures and that’s where I received a lot of exposure and met a number of gallerists and art curators. I then participated in a number of group exhibitions and in the process my work became better known. Art galleries, curators and art dealers then presented my work to both private and corporate art collections for consideration. I am also part of a website called www.art.co.za and through it, people contact me directly and engage me about art. And I use social media, preferably Facebook and Instagram to get my work out there. As a – now – well-known artist, I get invitations to submit proposals if corporates and private buyers are looking for artworks related to what I do. Even though I still work with different curators and art galleries on part-time projects. I learned that sometimes institutions and art buyers enjoy the opportunity of meeting the artists and getting the authentic story. So I always get that opportunity to be the first in line.
Why do you create? What are your stated goals in producing art?
For me, art is a form of expression. It is part of my daily living. I think art; dream art. I get sick sick if I spend days without making art. I get this great fulfillment when I see a complete artwork. As I said earlier, I’m continuing my family legacy of carving on wood, which so far I feel I’ve been able to achieve while pushing it further. What I hope is to stay relevant as far as possible while continuing to express myself. So far so good with corporate and private collections – that was one of the goals to achieve. I am happy I’ve participated internationally and have works in collections there and I’m still looking to do more in that regard. While continuing to express myself, opportunities keep coming my way.