How one Limpopo artist is sharing his family’s legacy with the world

Prosper | Written by Moza Moyo

20 February 2017

Beauty is everywhere. It rests in the things we see every day, and in the places we visit or nonchalantly pass as we go about our daily lives. Beauty also lies hidden in places we least expect to find it. In what one might see as too ugly, too familiar, or too boring, someone like Collen Maswanganyi finds allure, inspiration, and creativity. The Limpopo-born, Johannesburg-based sculptor takes the mundane, chops it, shapes it, and polishes it until he uncovers beauty.

The 40-year-old artist features in our latest Prosper film, Mbatlo, which showcases his beautiful work. The film is part of our Prosper films series which aim to show how Absa helps people and communities to prosper.

Mbatlo, a carving tool, is a recurring symbolism that runs throughout the artist’s work. Chatting about the importance of the tool in his home workshop in Midrand, Johannesburg, Collen reveals that mbatlo and the art it creates are a family legacy passed on from generation to generation. Like chieftaincy, it’s inherited from father to son and to the ones that come after that.

“My father is an artist. He inherited art from his father. So, he always said he wanted one of his children to take up art and not let it die with him – that’s why he passed it on to me. One of my sculptures shows two men – my father and I – celebrating the use of mbatlo through dance. With the heads of mbatlo, my father says we have to go out there and shape the world as he was shaping me by teaching me how to carve,” reveals Collen.

Collen hopes to keep the legacy alive by sharing it with his son, who, at the age of nine, is already showing an inclination towards art. “My son likes to be around me every time I carve, and he likes to draw. Sometimes he tries to carve something and asks for my advice on how to do it. I hope he will continue the legacy, but as long as he feels that it works for him,” he says.

Collen is a previous merit award winner at the Barclays L’Atelier Art Competition, the most prestigious art competition in Africa. The responsibility of sharing art doesn’t end with Collen. That’s why, through a multitude of exhibitions, L’Atelier has presented a platform for the artist to share his powerful art with the world.

“The competition is a door of exposure. A lot of people know my work because of L’Atelier. My work is now in the collection of many institutions, including the Absa Gallery,” Collen explains.

In an innovative move that will enable Collen to further share his work with audiences across the world, we’ve created an exciting 360-degree virtual reality video of the artist’s exhibition in the Absa Gallery. The immersive video finds the sculptor explaining the meaning of each of his pieces housed in the gallery.

Collen draws inspiration from anything and everything, telling a story with each sculpture. Some of his work leans towards politics, while other artworks explore social issues. The father of two also likes to produce work that is personal and tells his family’s story. Other pieces, however, are inspired by his environment and the things that live within it.

“I’m inspired by everything around me. I try to find inspiration in anything I see. One of my favourite pieces was inspired by a giraffe I saw at Kruger National Park. There’s a story in everything, even this piece of wood.”

With those words, Collen picks up an unfinished piece of sculpture and starts working on it. He begins by smoothening the nearly finished part with sandpaper. He blows off sawdust and the tiny particles permeate the air in the dimly lit workshop. After that, he picks up the mbatlo and meticulously connects it to the piece of wood. With each chip, shavings fall to the side, revealing the beauty that lies underneath.

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