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Monet isn’t everything

April 22, 2009

Monet isn’t everything

William Pretorius, London Bureau Chief of South African National Newspapers, describes how art can lift us out of the ‘Kalahari of the Spirit’.

Monet isn't everything spread Few people at the World Economic forum in Davos knew about the artist Nelson Mukhuba who once lived in one of the South African homelands called Venda. Few people discussed art at the forum and few see it as an essential part of the developmental issue.

But seeing the wonderful response to the Monet exhibition at the Royal Academy where thousands queued from early in the morning till late at night I was reminded of Nelson Mukhuba in the dusty village Tshakhuma and how art can lift us out of the Kalahari of the Spirit to which poverty banishes us.

As I drove down Piccadilly with sweaty hands clutching the steering wheel in the unmoving traffic, the people exiting from the Monet exhibition looked strange with their happy smiles. Nelson Mukhuba had the same effect with his art until that day in 1987 when he returned from an art exhibition in Johannesburg, chopped down his fruit trees and in a ritual purged his wife and two daughters. He then wired the windows of his house before pouring petrol over his museum and himself. When the flames became too much he he crawled out of a window and hanged himself from a tree. Some of his dancing figures survived and still make one smile.

This tragedy is still unexplained though most people believe that Mukhuba slaughtered the demons in himself that arose when he became a commercial success and that he was torn between the bright city lights where his work fetched thousands and the fact that he felt more and more exploited.

Not far from where he lived, Mitzhak Rapalalani makes huge wooden figures of Olympic swimmers, biblical statues and so, so much more. They jump from the dust and dance around your head, take you by the hand and hit the stomach before opening the mind.

What is the value of a beautiful painting? What joy does the wonderful dancing figures bring that jump from the dust and what is the worth of the smile that the colourful masks bring?

These questions are seldom asked by development agencies and seen by most economic forums as irrelevant. When debt relief is discussed it is a question of arithmetic.

The latest economic speak will have us talk about the new dividing line between richness and poverty to be between those who know and the “don’t knows”. In Davos there was talk of “the best way to help the poor is to enable them to take advantage of a global knowledge-economy”.

Most governments in Africa have other priorities and it is understandable that education, health and security tap all the resources.

The globalisation of joy is not on the agenda. But that leaves the poorest of the poor also in the Kalahari of the Spirit with nothing to smile about and all to cry about.

There is a barren piece of land in the Cape province where I see a Guggenheim full of the art of Africa where thousands flock to see the Monets and Picassos of our continent. A building so beautiful that it untangles the weary spirit and lifts the clouds of despair. It will of course not directly help the poor, but it could generate income to alleviate their plight. And that is all it needs, to feel there is hope and restore the belief that the mind does not need to be impoverished.

A bit of water in the desert.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Paul Cook permalink
    March 27, 2012 1:36 am

    i met Nelson Mukuba in the early 70’s,,,,He gave me one of his carvings and I had no idea of what happened to him thereafter. I would love to know if there is anyone that is a collector that would be interested in this piece…please contact me.

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