Looking at art in post Apartheid South Africa, one wonders at the forms in common that may exist between previously separated societies linked by a common landscape. The native art of Africa with a tradition of tribal belief and custom changed the direction of western art in the early 20th century, when artists such as Picasso searched for an expression of form to free it from the oppressive representational traditions of art. The introduction of foreign cultures and the changes in time have invariably wrought differences to concepts of art in Africa as artists explore issues of identity.

Ten years ago, six South African sculptors were asked to create a sculpture each and construct a wooden tower as part of the elevation of a new art gallery in Durban. The resulting six wooden towers stand linked by wires and topped by metal sculptures. The pole-like towers fuse a cross section of influences that are the reality of art in South Africa today.

Returned from an extensive experience of art activities in South Africa, sculptor Abdul Jabbar Gul, examined the scene from the perspective of a three-month residency program at the ‘Bag Factory’ in Johannesburg, a non-profit organization promoting visual arts through a broad range of activities. There, artists may rent studios for a nominal sum ‘in a cultural environment that encourages diversity and cross-fertilization of ideas and practice.’ Its aims are to foster cultural exchange and understanding between artists from many corners of the world, to initiate dialogue and a sharing of ideas.

Preparing a collection of new work, conducting workshops, explaining his own sculpted forms and the diverse expressions coming out of Pakistan brought the artist in contact with people from all strata of society. The project culminated in a hugely successful exhibition, Shared Diversities that Gul shared with painter Roger Botembe from the Congo and photographer Aage Langhelle from Norway. It was an occasion declared by the Director of the Bag Factory, David Koloane, to be

The best of resident’s exhibitions they had had so far.

Reviewing the exhibition, art writer Ashley Johnson noted the exemplary artist’s residency programs and examined the three artists sharing similar ‘diversities’.

All are highly competent artists and have been resident here for three months. The title of the show points to their mutual interest in humanity but differing modes of expression…

Gul’s work also hints at a mystery within. He is a sculptor working principally in wood. His main source of inspiration is the human form but the mode of expression is muted. The carved forms are either very similar, almost manufactured to plan, and displayed in a variety of groupings or monolithic tree trunks converted into restrained, human-like forms. There is a sense of striving within the form to communicate. This tension has a powerful effect on the viewer…

A dedicated, hardworking sculptor, Gul’s carved forms were ‘booked’ before the show began. Meeting him after his return to Pakistan, the artist shared his first impressions of South Africa and of the difficulty of acquiring wood for his work.

The variety of people I met really inspired me. There are blacks, whites, colored and an Asian population that has been settled there for generations. The multiplicity of the identities, politics and the economic factors were really interesting. I met a white man who told me his ancestors had been in Africa for 300 years. He has no relatives in Europe and considers himself completely African. Another fellow told me his father was Indian and his mother French. ‘I was born in South Africa’, he said ‘so I don’t know who I am’. His answer made me aware of the complexity of the identity issue.

I started to search for solid wood for my work and was amazed that in Johannesburg only planks or thin wood used for construction work was available. Full of ideas for work, I was keen to create some small pieces as well as large forms and to get work done on the wood turning machine. My search became desperate and I took advice from a carpenter who took me to a park where cut trees were dumped. There I found suitable tree trunks which I moved to my studio. I really had to do some compromising. I carved two pieces: The Angel and Reconciliation, which comprises three separate forms.

I found Angelmore interesting because I smoked the body and left the wings in the natural color of the wood which is quite ‘whitish’. For some small pieces I used three tones of the same wood to give a different ‘feel’ to the same material and form

explained Gul.

Gul’s work was admired by the professional artists of the Bag Factory when during a presentation to artists and guests, he explained his sculpture and showed slides and catalogs of exhibitions and artists from Pakistan. It was an eye-opener for the audience.

The informal delivery helped to widen their entire perception of art in Pakistan and introduced the audience to some of our artists. They had the misconception of Pakistan as a hard, extremist country, very far away from art and cultural activities. It was a very healthy sign that after a detailed presentation, several of the Bag Factory artists were interested in showing their work in Pakistan.

The young sculptor’s African experience included conducting a week-long workshop at the Funda Community College in Soweto, once the home of Nelson Mandela and the largest township in the world. He found the college managing on very limited resources and working in a disorganized way. The students used materials at hand, including wire and clay. The students were shown how to build up portraits in clay and some good work came out. Gul feels he also learnt a lot during that week and enjoyed the interaction with the students.

A visit to the department of Fine Arts atthe Technikon Institute in Pretoria was an experience of another kind.

It was a well organized department offering Bachelors, Masters, and Doctorate degrees in almost every discipline of art. I discussed my work with the students and examined their work. They explained to me the connotations of the term: ‘Afrikan’ and how it differs from ‘African’, and of how it represents a younger generation of black, white and colored people and the language developed among them.

Known to sculptors the world over, historic Venda proved to be a beautiful area in the north of South Africa famous for an unbroken tradition of sculpture through the ages. Here the artist from Pakistan was brought in touch with well known traditional wood carvers of Africa.

I was very impressed by the commitment of the artists to their work. One sculptor named Jackson Hlungwane is considered to be one of the greatest traditional wood carvers. Now 80 years old, his work is included in collections of national and international galleries. I saw one of his piecesat a gallery in Johannesburg. It stood about twelve feet high and he carved almost the whole trunk of a huge tree.

We met a lot of young artists who are working very hard and dealing with the challenge of no proper facilities. A woman sculptor, Nouria Mabata, impressed me greatly. She has done quite large carvings and large scaled pieces in concrete. She invited us to her beautiful traditional house with a large garden filled with her work. A lot of what she portrayed was inspired by local happenings.

It was an absolutely novel experience to work in a place like South Africa. The diversity of its inhabitants really inspired me and it became the most important part of the work I produced

concluded Abdul Jabbar Gul.

The Bag Factory is affiliated to the Triangle Arts Trust started by Sir Anthony Caro and Robert Loder in 1982. It initiates and facilitates the execution of ideas and practice between an extensive continuously growing network of artists around the world. Workshops and studio residency programs operate in over eighteen countries worldwide. That there are links with artists in Pakistan is due to the efforts of the artists themselves. They work hard to keep abreast of global developmentsand find sponsors for art projects that are of enormous value to Pakistan in terms of projecting a positive
cultural image.


Source: Dawn, 17 August 2002, Saturday, 07 Jamadi-us-Saani 1423.