Wire and Wood Exhibition at Durban’s Phansi Museum

Zamu Gumede Players

Players by Zanu Gumede.

South Africa has a thriving cultural heritage of wire and wood art. The exhibition Wire and Wood, which opens on Saturday, August 13, highlights a selection of work drawn from the permanent collection of the Phansi Museum and items loaned from friends of the museum.

Artists include: Philemon Sangweni, Julius Mfete, Raphael Magwaza, Carl Roberts, Noria Mabasa, Johannes Maswangani, Sibusiso Maphumulo, Zamukwake, Gumede and wire work from Thapiwa Musani, Thulani Mchunu, Ntombifuthi Magwaza and Elliot Mkhize. There are also items from a special collection or wirework on loan from Zenzulu.

The exhibition, which includes work dating back to the 1900s, offers an expanded view of Southern Africa’s dynamic wood and wire work and questions the dominant narratives of both genres in terms of place, people, culture and object.

Through the careful selection of wooden sculptures, carved stools, mat-racks, milk pails, walking sticks and headrests, woven baskets and bowls and wire toys created in diverse approaches and mediums, the exhibition introduces the public to the region’s dynamic wire and wood art making traditions.

Illustrating diverse styles and mediums from southern Africa, the exhibition interrogates the actual production of the object against the initial use or purpose of the object.

Richard Shange telephone wire heads

Telephone wire heads by Richard Shange.

Early examples of wood carving and wire work illustrates that the essential intention of the production of the artefact was for utilitarian or practical purposes or for symbolic value, crucial to communal practices and beliefs of the community. Fortunately, current leanings and trends recognise the absurdity of overlooking these works of art from the annals of art.

Wood as a medium brings endless potential with its inherent natural grain, form and rawness. The works on display are crafted from different types of wood sourced by the artists from their respective immediate environments.

Some sculptures are painted and others incorporate found objects and they all address a diversity of themes that engage with the recent and distant past as well as the contemporary present.

Philemon Sangweni Sunbirds

Sunbirds by Philemon Sangweni.

It is said that wire art is characteristically Southern African, however it would appear that the history is hidden in the undocumented past. Whilst some researchers say that wire art originates in Zimbabwe and Zambia, others believe that the origin lies in South Africa.

The art of making telephone wire baskets is an indigenous South African art form, which evolved from the extraordinary basket weaving skills of the Zulu nation.

First started by night-watchmen who whiled away the long nights weaving telephone wire, these early pieces are highly collectable. The exhibition includes objects of this fine art in the form of baskets, sticks, bowls and utilitarian objects.

Wire Basket by Alfred Ntuli(2)

Wire basket by Alfred Ntuli.

Highlights of the exhibition include a selection of telephone wire baskets from Zenzulu, a design led business, renowned for the fusion of contemporary design with traditional skills and the creation of innovative, premium quality handmade South African products, initiated by designer Marisa Fick-Jordaan and a life size wire Harley Davidson motor bike created by artists, Thapiwa Musani.

The exhibition, which runs until September 25, will be opened by Ian Campbell-Gillies and will include a mass ride of motor bikes, refreshments and live music.


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