The sun is beating down from the wide Limpopo sky and my limbs take on the familiar kind of heaviness they always seem to do when confronted with unfamiliar heat. Apart from a thin sliver steadily crawling back toward the tiny square building from which it has been cast and a spreading acacia tree, the clean-swept yard dotted with ethereal wooden sculptures of aquatic beings and religious figures is almost utterly devoid of shade. So, we all huddle in the patches we can find.
That is until Patrick Manyike, owner of the property, calls us over to where he stands behind his humble home, atop a heap of red earth. This is no termite mound, it turns out, but rather a small hill of heavenly hope.
“This… this is my vision,” he announces serenely, gesturing to the rough outlines of a foundation beneath his feet.
“Here, I will build my workshop and my gallery, where people can come and look at my work and buy the pieces they like.”
You see, Patrick is a woodcarver with a passion for his craft that burns with an otherworldly fire in his eyes.
I listen – entranced – as he shares his dream with us and the heat of the day dissipates. His infectious energy catches on and suddenly my leaden limbs are light once more.
“I’ve tried doing normal jobs a few times in my life. But it never works out, because the wood always calls me back. I’m free when I’m carving.”
He tells us about the one month he worked as a cleaner at Carnival City in Johannesburg and how he’d spend his days mopping up overturned popcorn and spilled drinks in movie theatres. And how at the end of that month, when he finally got his pay check and a weekend off, he didn’t think twice about returning home to set his broom-weary hands to work on what they were always meant to do: ‘cleaning the wood’ instead.
Interestingly, much of Patrick’s work seems to follow an aquatic theme and we ask him about the fish and crocodiles and mermaids swimming around his yard. He explains that, to him, these creatures are a symbol of sustenance. Just like in the Bible, where Jesus multiplies the five loaves and two fish to feed the 5 000 who followed him to Bethsaida, you will always find tins of sardines or tuna or pilchards in the nearby spaza shops, even on days when they don’t have bread.
Something about the fluidity of his sculptures also suggests that he never forces a figure into being and soon enough he explains this too:
“When I find a piece of wood, me and the wood start communicating. I put it somewhere and look at it and as time goes on, I see what’s inside,” he explains.
“Like this piece,” he says, reaching out and touching a tall column of leadwood standing in front of him, “here I can see an old man who can’t walk properly like before. That’s the bond between me and the wood.”
Once the figure presents itself to Patrick, he starts following the contours of the story to carve away the excess.
Referring to the old man still stuck in his leadwood prison, Patrick concludes: “I see inside here is madala. So, my duty… for me, my duty is to remove what is not important, so that I am left with what? With madala.”
To Patrick this is his simple life task. To me, it resonates as a mystical mantra that encapsulates every aspect of life. Removing what’s not important, so you can be left with what is.
“I’m not doing this for me,” he says. “It’s a job of God for me to do. It must make the heart feel good. That’s my secret.”
While Patrick’s visionary studio space and gallery is still in the making, he does his carvings in the clean swept yard. Those that stay outside, he coats in used car oil to protect them from the harsh sun and summer rains, while the rest line a set of shelves in his little home – neatly made bed in the corner – that doubles as a shop.
You can visit Patrick too and even spend a morning learning how to carve with him, as part of the Get Crafty in Mbhokota experience on Open Africa’s Ribola Art Route.
Turning scrap metal into sculptures: Pilato Bula
With Patrick’s wisdom beating clear and strong in my chest, we hit the bumpy roads of Mbhokota and Tshivuyuni villages to our next destination: the home of Pilato Bulala, a young man with a qualification in welding and one blind eye who has coined the term ‘scraptures’ for his specific art.
Now, if Patrick’s duty is to cut away what is unnecessary to set free what is essential, Pilato’s life work is to salvage what’s been discarded and turn it into something surprising and new.
His front porch is lined with scrap metal sculptures (hence the term ‘scraptures’) – tall, skinny figures with bicycle gears for heads and -chains for belts, a charging elephant constructed out of something that looks like a sturdy spring you’d probably find under the bonnet of a tractor and even a life-size wire guitar.
Of course, they are all for sale – this is how he makes a living, after all – but Pilato also knows that not everyone who comes to visit has space to take a ‘scrapture’ home with them. So, in his down time, he upcycles cooldrink cans into stylish earrings, tiny trinkets that are easily packaged and tucked away into a pocket, a handbag or popped straight onto an ear. He shows us how he bends wire into a perfect hook and then attaches it to the full moon metal disk.
It is, however, the patchwork car, with its bicycle wheels and fully functioning blue tooth sound system that clearly constitutes the young man’s pride and joy. Yes, Pilato made it himself and yes, with the tiniest little push from atop an incline, it’s totally mobile!
But this isn’t where Pilato’s vision for his make-shift VW ends. One day soon, he will find a working chainsaw engine and pop it under the hood, make all the necessary connections and finally have a fully functioning – though not entirely road worthy – car of his own.
You can visit Pilato’s ‘scrapture’ yard and maybe even get a ride in his car as part of the Sights and Sounds of Mbhokota experience on Open Africa’s Ribola Art Route.
Feeling clay between your fingers: making pottery with Ma Florah and the ladies from Mukondeni
While our visits with Patrick and Pilato are as fleeting as they are fulfilling, our day is made with the opportunity to dig into a bit of traditional crafting ourselves.
At Mukondeni pottery village we receive a warm welcome from Florah Randela and a host of ladies dressed in colourful traditional clothes and beads. Bestowing upon each of us a beaded crown of our own, they invite us to sit on the floor of their kraal and place delightfully cool lumps of damp clay in front of our knees. There is no wheel here upon which our creations can take shape – just a small round clay saucer, which they show us how to turn and turn and turn as we mould our own versions of traditional Venda pots.
The dark grey clay squishes between my fingers and creeps in under my nails and I take joy in the act of creating. Amazingly, a little pot starts forming under my hands and Ma Florah kindly makes a fuss. While I feel like I could go on perfecting it forever, she gently tells me to stop. My shaping work is done and now it’s time to decorate, before my little round-bellied vessel gets sent to the fire pit.
Since the baking process takes about four days, we aren’t able to take our own creations back home with us, but we are offered delicately painted replacements as keepsakes instead. I think about the long road trip back to Johannesburg and the probability of a turbulent flight to Cape Town through the summer thunderclouds and decide to respectfully turn the offer down.
After all, it’s not really the acquisition of a hand-made pot that brought me here, but rather the experience of sitting at the feet of these women and being let in on the secrets of the age-old craft at which they excel.
You can also join Ma Florah for a pottery lesson when you sign up for the Hands-On in Mbhokota experience on Open Africa’s Ribola Art Route.
These experiences formed part of the recent #WeOpenAfrica road trip, an initiative to share the stories of the Ribola Art Route, and inspire travellers to pack their bags, hit the open road and explore the wonders that Limpopo has to offer. If you’re itching for a Ribola Art Route experience of your own, book now. Special thanks to Hertz for trusting us to bump along Limpopo’s wild roads in two of their cars.
Words & Photos: Nadia Krige