An entrancing exhibition of creative beadwork by artists Ceaser Mkhize and Thafa Dlamini, on display in the Main Mammal Hall of the Natal Museum, until February 2009.
Interview with KwaMashu, Durban, beadwork artist Caeser Mkhize conducted by Mthokozisi Phungula, at the Natal Museum, Pietermaritzburg, during November 2008
I began by asking Caeser questions which were prepared for the interview. When Caeser responded he ended up answering questions which I was still to ask him. As he was providing a detailed account I decided to let him talk without having to answer specific questions. Here is his story:
My name is Caeser Mkhize. I was born in 1970 on July 18th in L section, KwaMashu location, Durban. I went to school at KwaMashu until I reached standard 3 then went on to four different schools at Emandeni where I got more involved in art. I have always liked creating art, even as a child. My father played the guitar and my mother used to sew and sell clothes. My mother inspired me through her sewing – a skill I learnt from watching her.
I am an artist in the sense that I can sing, play a musical instrument, and choreograph dance. I have my own group of Zulu dancers.
I received some formal lessons in basic art through a project called Velobala at the African Art Centre in Durban. I received a certificate for attending that project. I also attended sewing course at Imbo Craft in Hillcrest. The first time I got introduced to beadwork was when I attended a beadwork workshop. There I met a lady by the name of Zanele. I realized that I was interested in this technique so I thought perhaps I should get some beads and take them home to Thafa, my girlfriend at that time, so that she could experiment with them. Thus I bought beads and took them home to her. I had not intended to use them myself as at that time I did not know how to work with beads.
Thafa took the beads and made a belt out of them. Realizing how beautiful the work she made was gave me an idea. I built a bird out of wire and covered it with a cloth, then gave it to her to decorate with beads. She decorated it beautifully, so I took it to show to someone at the African Art Centre. They were very interested in the technique but pointed out some weaknesses and encouraged us to improve on those. We took the criticism constructively and worked hard at improving our style and technique.
One Friday I took some of the pieces we had made to the Bat shop at the Bat Centre in Durban. As luck would have it the owner was looking for people to make a jacket for the then Miss Universe. Seeing the work that we had done excited her very much and she bought all the items on the spot! She was very keen for Thafa to participate in the selection process for the group that would eventually come together to decorate the jacket. Because Thafa’s work is so strong she was selected as one of the women to participate in making the jacket.
At the same time Thafa was busy with the project of making the jacket we had some work that we wanted to sell. My stitching had improved and we had made two pieces. I took them to the Base Gallery opposite the Bat Centre to sell them there but the owner could not buy them as he cited a conflict of interest with the Bat Shop. Instead he suggested that I should enter the pieces in the National Craft Competition.
Before that competition I had entered the Natal Heritage Exhibition hosted by the Department of Education where we won first prize. At the National Craft competition we were selected to participate in the Provincial competition and were selected for the National competition where we won fourth prize.
After that we were among the artists selected to represent Africa in an exhibition called Listening to Africa in Chicago in 2001, but did not go ourselves.
In 2004 we had more international exposure when the Bat Shop organized for our work to go on exhibition at the International Folk Art Market organized as a fundraiser for the International Folk Art Museum in Santa Fé, New Mexico, in the USA.
In 2006 we were selected to represent South Africa in Germany as ambassadors for KwaZulu-Natal Tourism.
Recently our work was exhibited in New York but unfortunately could not go there ourselves due to visa problems.
Our work features mostly animals. The process we follow starts with wire built up into the shape of an animal. Then we cover the wire with cloth and put some foam inside so that it takes shape and form we want. Finally we cover the whole thing with beads. We don’t use the natural colours of an animal in real life. We try to interpret colours and patterns in the way we view and analyze the animal. Basically it is our view of how we would decorate the animal if we were to make it ourselves.
We don’t use bead colours in the traditional way that people would do when making or decorating material objects. We are aware of traditional use of coloured beads but we feel that that approach is more associated with craft rather than art. Our own way of using beads is art rather than craft, and in that way we attract a wider audience from the art world.
We have our own interpretation and way of looking at the behaviour and nature of an animal. If the animal is a carnivore we tend to use a certain colour which best describes the animal, according to the way we see it. We use more red for those animals that eat meat and more green for animals that eat grass. Sometimes we look at the biology of the animal and use red on its body to represent its flesh and brown for the belly to represent intestines and perhaps big red beads to represent the eyes. We are very selective about the colours we use on our animals. We draw inspiration from our environment and from things we interact with on a daily basis.
Sometimes we are influenced by the colours in front of us, such as watching TV while we work. The colours we see on TV influence us in selecting certain colours and sometimes we find that when the TV is switched off we suddenly stop because we were getting some form of inspiration from it.
Colours talk to the mind. What the colour means to your mind has a significant effect on how you choose to decorate an object being made. We have created our own style and we are not bound by any restriction in using colour. We mix them in any way so long as we get the effect we are looking for.
We tend to use colours that are not normally used in other forms of beadwork so we are breaking the boundaries and creating our own. All in all we speak out through art and we show our views through art, making something out of nothing. We get inspiration from the world around us. We even go to museums, watch programmes like National Geographic on TV, and try to understand the behaviour of animals.
When you do this work you need to understand your audience, you must be good with colour and, of course, you must understand the nature of your subject.