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Michael Zondi on Edendale Excels - 7 February to 22 June 2008

Michael Zondi carved wooden sculptures using images of his family members to illustrate socio-political conditions in South Africa. Like many of his peers, he often used religious and secular themes to illustrate the effects of Apartheid on South African communities. He taught at the Edendale Technical High School during the late fifties. His friendship with Dr. Wolfgang Bodenstein from Applesbosch near New Hanover and travels in South Africa and abroad influenced his techniques and themes.

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Michael Gagashe Zondi (1926 - 2008)

Michael Gagashe ZondiZondi's connection with Edendale goes back to his school days during the 1930s, when he attended the Henryville and Calusa primary schools. As a young cabinet-maker towards the end of the 1940s, he had a brief spell working as an entrepreneur, making furniture for local clients. In 1956 Zondi was appointed woodwork instructor at the Edendale Vocational Training School. During the last 15 years of his life Zondi again lived in Edendale.

Michael Zondi, as one of South Africa's 'pioneer' artists, became one of this country's most prominent sculptors of the twentieth century. He used his literacy and his technical skills, acquired through his western mission education, to engage with a predominantly white patronage for almost four decades from the early 1950s. An intensive cross-cultural interface became the stage for the artist's creativity in wood.

After completing standard seven at the Ntunjambili High school in Kranskop, Zondi was sponsored by Gunnar Helander, a Lutheran priest, to study carpentry at the Dundee Industrial Bantu School. After a brief spell of entrepreneurship as a cabinet-maker of furniture for the Edendale community, the Swedish architect and founder of the trade school at Dundee, Einar Andreas Magni, called Zondi back to complete his teacher training. In 1956 this school was taken over by the Natal Education Department and moved to Edendale.

Michael Zondi's Moses (Leader of his People)The narratives of his early figurative sculpture, sourced in the lived realities of his own rural background, were historically inspired by the rich past of the Zulu kingdom. With family roots going back to Bambatha kaMancinza, he was born at Keate's Drift, where this Zondi chief also had his kraal in the Mvoti Division of colonial Natal. Both parents, David Zondi and Eva Ngubane, were Christians. As a member of an educated amakholwa elite, Zondi included in his early work some biblically inspired figures. He employed these for the purpose of moralizing, as well as making allusions to leadership for 'his people' under the subjugation of white rule, e.g. the portrait of Moses (Leader of his People) of 1959.

Stylistically Zondi moved from creating very smooth wood sculptures during the 1950s, to a more modernist use of his raw material. Indigenous South African hardwoods remained his preferred source for woods. From his initial portraits of great verisimilitude, Zondi began to employ the shape and texture of his wood for inspiration in creating figurative work. His bold chisel marks became a feature of his pieces from the late 1950s, as did his use of elongation. In the mid 1970s some experimentation with broad facets, possibly inspired by Cubist art, took him to the limits of his own abstraction of the human form.

Zondi's first public award-winning piece, a large yellowwood Flute Player, was purchased in 1960 by the Bloemfontein National Gallery. Taking part in the early 1960s in some group exhibitions, by 1965 he had a one-man show at the Durban Art Gallery. Zondi was the second black artist, after Eric Ngcobo, to be afforded this extraordinary exposure of his work, before a predominantly white audience. In 1966, Zondi's Calabash of 1963 was accepted for the Venice Biennale. After becoming a free-lance artist from 1972, Zondi exhibited widely, mainly in Johannesburg and Pretoria.

Through his artistic narrative, Zondi sought reconciliation between black and white South Africans, by means of an intensive inter-cultural exchange. Equally, the artist's role as mediator between warring indigenous clans was valuable during the turbulent 1980s and 1990s, linked to political mobilization in KwaZulu-Natal.

After Zondi's move to Appelsbosch near New Hanover in the early 1960s, where he became the technical manager of the Swedish Mission Hospital, he consolidated his friendship with the German medical superintendent there, Dr. Wolfgang Bodenstein. Zondi and Bodenstein had first met at Ceza, in the mid 1950s, where Zondi had sculpted the large Crucifix for the Lutheran church, in this remote area of northern KwaZulu-Natal. Zondi's life-size Christ on the Cross in the Chapel at Appelsbosch became his most emotive work. In his A-frame design for the Chapel, alluding to the Holy Trinity, Zondi used features of indigenous architecture, like the semi-circular indhlu, the 'Zulu hut' door. His interior design included a font and cement sgraffito murals, one of which was done by Eric Ngcobo.

The life-long friendship between Zondi and Bodenstein formed the foundation for an intense philosophical exchange concerning art and their shared spirituality. Through Bodenstein Zondi was able to forge discursive links with Lutheran activists, as also with the medical fraternity, many of whom became important patrons, e.g. the Pietermaritzburg Doctor, Kurt Strauss. For a number of years, both in Durban and Pretoria, Zondi lived with the Bodenstein family, in contravention of the Group Areas Act. He became 'a second father' to the four children. Zondi's most widely exhibited and famous piece was his Reunion of 1964 (Die Freundschaft, also called Reconciliation). It is a representation of Zondi and Bodenstein, the black man wearing the ibeshu, the white man long trousers. Another piece, Forbidden Friendship (also called David and Jonathan) of the same year, is also an allusion to this friendship, conducted over decades under the intransigence of apartheid legislation.

Zondi's love for, and intimate knowledge of, wood enabled him to represent South Africa at the L'Homme et le Bois exhibition at the Orly airport in 1977. Here, in a sculpting competition which Zondi won, he exchanged works with the French sculptor, Fancelli. While in Paris, Zondi frequently visited the Musee Rodin. Zondi's works found homes all over the world, as foreign patrons visiting South Africa took this modern African art back with them, from exhibitions which invariably sold out.

South Africa's socio-political landscape remained a constant inspiration to Zondi, as he covertly alluded to the plight of black South Africans in his figurative work. While Zondi spent much of his time working and gaining inspiration in the vicinity of his patrons, Zondi's home and family remained at Mtulwa, near Dalton, where his children grew up. He remained intimately connected with these rural people, who remained the source of his sense of belonging. He was laid to rest in March 2008 at his home at Mtulwa, under the orange tree where he used to sculpt.


Kirsten Nieser

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