New public sculpture for Durban beachfront
Durban's beachfront will soon have another public sculpture gracing its shoreline. On September 12, at the Kwa Muhle Museum, a signing ceremony marked the official acceptance of the design for a new sculpture commemorating the prophet Isaiah Mloyiswa Mdliwamafa Shembe, founder and leader of the Shembe Church.
Coming after a somewhat long and arduous process, one that probably encapsulates the terrain of much contemporary commissioning in South Africa, Andries Botha and Greg Streak signed the document allowing them to commence work on the sculpture itself.
The process started in May 2001, and by November 2002 funds were allocated to the project. In January 2003 a group of advisers consisting of Durban city councillors, various officials, artists and Shembe Church representatives set out to establish the parameters for the production of a sculpture that would represent not only a church leader but also an independent thinker.
Isaiah Shembe is said to have been a militant anti-colonial resistance hero. During the Bhambhatha uprising of 1906, against the colonial Poll Tax, Shembe accompanied the rebel chief Meseni Qwabe to protest. After 1910 he was a staunch advocator of black spiritual resistance in KwaZulu-Natal.
As Thembinkosi Ngcobo, Head of Parks, Recreation and Culture noted in his address, while Europeans such as Karl Marx argued that religion was the "opium of the masses", Shembe was advocating economic prosperity through reactive cultural processes and political resistance creating a church that became a storehouse for the preservation of Nguni ethnic heritage.
The proposed statue will be positioned on the beachfront, publicly declaring the importance of a significant African spiritual movement and officially reclaiming a space that during the apartheid years was denied to black people.
In depicting Shembe contemporary sculptors Botha and Streak have opted for a fairly traditional, naturalistic rendering of his figure. They researched his dress, paying particular attention to his official costume, and worked from the few existing photographs to make their maquette. They have created an image that does not follow stereotypical renderings of power. Instead of exaggerated gestures they opted to create a sense of quiet strength and individual endeavour.
Their selection as winners of the commission was not, however, without controversy. As white males some thought their selection inappropriate and debate was stirred up via letters to the newspapers from other contestants not selected. To assure that the sculpture was a legitimate choice, the maquette was taken to the Shembe village and church leaders were further consulted.
After having adjudged the image as "true", Botha and Streak were free to sign the contract. Shelbourne Shange and Neliswe Mvobo will assist them in the process.