Michael Zondi : creating modernity.
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This dissertation considers the creativity of Michael Zondi as one of South Africa’s so-called pioneer artists and the manner in which he used his art to contribute and create modernity. His creative skills initially locate him outside the classical designations of any one artistic discipline. From cabinet-making and building construction, which included an engagement as an architect and interior designer, ultimately Zondi became the proficient originator of a comparatively very large body of work in three-dimensional figurative wood sculpture. This study is largely confined to the latter body of work. The wood sculptor is located within the ambit of the black intelligentsia who, with their western mission education, was seeking to define and shape African modernity for themselves beyond descriptions mired in Eurocentric expression. Zondi’s early work emerged from crafting skills in woodwork, with thematic narratives that reflect regional sourcing among the amaZulu. Conceptually these represent a continuity of the creative practice of the generation before his own, particularly that of the black literary elite, who inspired him. He drew on the humanist values of the African communalism in which he was nurtured. As an ikholwa, he further drew on his Christian faith for guidance, using biblical inspiration for a few of his figurative works of art. Apart from participation in various group exhibitions from the early 1960s, unusual exhibition opportunities included two solo exhibitions, in 1965 and 1974, and an exhibition of his work in a group show in Paris, in 1977, which he attended personally. In the South African environment of black disempowerment and marginalization he secured his position outside party-political activism by using his art as his voice, especially among white patrons. As he found predominantly private patronage for his expressive human portraits, his philosophical exchange with enlightened friends, especially the medical practitioner Dr. Wolfgang Bodenstein, became the backdrop for his creative experience. Sensitive mentorship and informal tuition by white patrons provided Zondi with some knowledge of European modernist art. Drawing on it as an inspirational resource, the artist made discerning selections from this aesthetic in order to develop his own personal style. At the same time he ensured that his art remained accessible for a broad audience that included the rural people of his home environment, who were the source of his inspiration. Zondi’s thematic move beyond the confines of his Zuluness was the decisive factor which enabled the artist to engage in a very personal reconciliatory quest with white South Africans across the racial divide. In an endeavour which spanned the four decades of his active career as a sculptor, his self-representation through art was simultaneously an immersion in the human condition which became the expression of a shared humanity. By becoming the facilitator of reciprocity between people, it stood in defiance of the long-canonized fetish of race and segregation. By proffering his art as a means of communication, it thereby became an original and formative tool in shaping African modernity.