The Venda and Tsonga people are known for their rich artistic traditions, particularly in woodcarving, pottery, beading, embroidery, and textile-making. Although Venda and Tsonga art are historically utilitarian — woodcarving and pottery, for example, are used to make everyday items like utensils, storage containers, and cooking pots — many artists have built upon and enhanced their traditional skills to launch their work into the contemporary art world.
Noria Mabasa and Johannes Maswanganyi, who were both born and continue to reside in villages around Giyani, are two such artists.
Noria, born in Tshigola Village in 1938, first learned to make the geometrically patterned clay pots that are the traditional domain of Venda women. But in the 1960s Noria began to have dreams, which she believes were sent by her ancestors, of making sculptures. A few years later she was making clay sculptures depicting human figures, already an unusual departure for a Venda woman artist.
Soon afterward Noria began carving sculptures out of wood. She was the first Venda woman to do so, and remains the only Venda woman creating this kind of art today. Her wooden creations are massive — some taller than a person — and depict elaborate, dramatic social commentaries about humanity and the world.
80-year-old Noria continues to carve massive chunks of wood in her outdoor studio in Tshino village. She has a commanding presence, with waist-length dreadlocks that she hasn’t cut since she began sculpting 50 years ago. Noria’s work is exhibited in prominent galleries throughout South Africa and the world. In 2004, a street in Johannesburg’s Newtown neighborhood was named Noria Mabasa Street.
Johannes was born in 1949 in Giyani. Like Noria, he received no formal artistic education but was trained by his father in traditional Tsonga woodworking. Over the years Johannes developed a distinctive style of portraiture in his wooden sculptures, which are painted in bright colours and portray prominent figures like Nelson Mandela and Jan van Riebeek, as well as spirit-like animals and biblical scenes.
Also, like Noria, Johannes’ work appears in many prominent galleries and exhibitions around the world. But he continues to produce his art from home.
The front yard of Johannes’ home in the tiny village of Noblehoek has a fantastical, dream-like quality, with sculpted flocks of birds and stern-looking wooden pastors and eye-popping depictions of hell rising up from the concrete. Sculptures are everywhere, inside and outside. Johannes’ younger son Amorous, who lives on the property, has his own collection of sculptures on display, and Johannes’ wife Esther creates beadwork. Johannes’ older son, Collen, is also an internationally renowned sculptor and lives in Johannesburg.
To schedule a visit with Johannes Maswanganyi in Noblehoek village, about 42 kilometres west of Giyani via the R578, contact him at 072-107-8730 or contact Amorous Maswanganyi at 079-432-6397.
To schedule a visit with Noria Mabasa in Tshino village, about 48 kilometres northwest of Giyani via the R81 (near Vuwani), contact Joyce at 072-404-9465 or Maxwell at 082-410-2284.
Visits to Noria and Johannes can also be arranged through Madi a Thavha Mountain Lodge.