Michael Zondi : South African sculptor.
The art historical foregrounding of pioneer and contemporary art of black South Africans during the last two decades of the 20th century has emphasised two-dimensional media. Given the dearth of biographies on black artists in general, it is the purpose of this dissertation to reposition the three-dimensional oeuvre of a pioneer sculptor in the context of the artistic creativity occurring within the educational and economic constraints of a segregated South Africa. While Michael Zondi's school education and vocational training was forged predominantly within a western mission context, the emergence of his talent remained largely independent of any art training initiatives or art-making institutions. This research study places a strong emphasis on Zondi's interface with a white elitist patronage base. As a member of an educated kholwa elite, Zondi's acculturation and intellectual exchange with his patrons regarding mores, belief systems and world views, centred on reciprocity, as the artist sought to redefine himself in terms of western paradigms initially imposed by colonialism. The exchange found consistent expression in Zondi's stance of reconciliation, which reflected the cross-cultural friendships under the aegis of a shared Christianity which the artist forged into a syncretism with his own received belief systems. Zondi's espousal of western cultural paradigms which facilitated the interface resulted in the public foregrounding of the work of this black artist, at a time in South African history when this was exceptional. From the 1960s the Lutheran mission enterprise in Natal provided a platform for liberation theology, challenging the suppression of indigenous belief systems as well as state autocracy and the reality of a segregated society. Given Zondi's acute political awareness, he was prompted to take up that challenge, albeit covertly, with visual texts addressing moral issues and voicing humanitarian concerns. With figurative genre sculptures frequently alluding to the artist's rootedness in his received Zulu traditions, the thematic content of some of Zondi's work shows an indigenisation of the Christian gospel as he drew on Biblically inspired imagery, making his art function as a vehicle for the articulation of his dissent. This study traces Zondi's stylistic development from representational naturalism of his early work to an espousal of a modernist visual language embracing some experimentation with his preferred medium, South African hardwoods. Within his essentially figurative representational style, and in part as a result of the intervention of his supporters, Zondi made use of expressive surface textures and distortion. His pronounced use of faceting in the later 1960s was consolidated after a short sojourn in Paris in the mid-1970s, when, for a short time, he created more conceptual human forms in a cubist manner. This represented his most marked departure from his recognizable figurative style of representational carving. While some of Zondi's pieces in private and public collections were included in group exhibitions during the 1980s and 1990s (1), research has not yet revealed pieces postdating 1987. It is probable that ill-health forced Zondi to consider his retirement from sculpting by the early 1990s. (1) "The Neglected Tradition", 1988; "Images of Wood", 1989; "Land and Lives", 1997.