Having seen his art rejected by his rural neighbours who fail to understand his production, and having seen the international art world celebrate his work with only the slightest understanding of the historical and social context of his highly symbolic ceremonial and visual language, Samson Mudzunga continues along his chosen path as an uncompromising artist. His has not been an easy life: fired from work because his artmaking upset his employers and suffering two imprisonments while awaiting trial (he was acquitted in both cases). Nevertheless he uses the transformative power of his performances, celebrations and physical sculptures to heal wounds and strengthen his resolve.
A simple, but incorrect, answer to the question: 'what is it that Samson Mudzunga does?' is to say he makes drums. Drums are what most people in the art world associate him with but that is only part of his artistic production. What he makes are events, celebrations and exciting spectacles that include audience, performers, video recordings, texts and, not insignificantly, beautifully carved and wildly imaginative drums. In this sense Mudzunga is an artist who does not limit himself to a finished product but is truly an artist of process and transformation. That he has on several occasions been buried and resurrected as part of his work is clear testament to this.
'I like drums. Why? Because you use them for performances. The Tshikona dance
is very nice and if you do it right it makes rain and it makes peace. Perhaps
I like drums too much; I can make many things � walking sticks for example � but
drums are the best for me. I also like my grave and coffin: when it's hot I go
there and I'm cool and when it's very cold and I lie there I am warm.'
'Madzunga's art has not been confined to the making of the objects, which are central to his 'performances', but is also evident in his manipulation of 'traditions' and political conflicts, many of which may be visible only to those looking on from the Venda side of the equation.'
Anitra Nettleton in 'Shaking up the Gallery�', Art South Africa, Summer 2003
'Reborn from the interior of his great tree drum/coffin carved in the shape of a rocket with fins of a woman and fish flanking it, Mudzunga emerged from the tail of the rocket through a small door without much ceremony or ostentation. Given the mythology and media hype that has been created around this performance artist from Venda, the unspectacular nature of his rebirth was somewhat surprising. Mudzunga was buried at the sacred Lake Fundudzi and was purported to remain underground, buried alive until his renascence. Whilst the media have focused on the spiritual and physical endurance of such an act, Mudzunga now acknowledges the purely symbolic nature of his piece and happily pops in and out of the rocket for any interested party. Whilst this might disappoint many seeking a cathartic response from an authentic ritual, the real power of the work lies in the drum itself. Monumental in its form and presence it resonates with an indisputable strength missing from the actual performance.'
Virginia Mackenny in 'Hayani: Six Artists from the Northern Province and Kathy Coates in Crossings', ArtThrob No. 36, August 2000
'Where Mudzunga inserts himself as a magnetic field for all kinds of social energies, we are given the opportunity to learn something of history's complex lessons.'
Cathy Coates in 'Samson Mudzunga: A Biography of Conflict', Samson Mudzunga (Taxi-002)
Currently part of the 'New Identities: Contemporary South African Art' exhibition at Museum Bochum in Germany as well as the much-talked-about 'Personal Affects: Power and Poetics in Contemporary South African Art' show in New York. In addition, Mudzunga is showing a drum and video work at Michael Stevenson Contemporary in Cape Town until October 23.
As the title of Anitra Nettleton's account of the event in Art South Africa had it, he was 'shaking up the gallery' at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in his solo show there from August 9 (Women's Day) until September 24 (Heritage Day). This exhibition was the culmination of a ceremonial event that began some time before at Lake Fundudzi. The show, 'Suka Dzivha Fundudzi' showed a selection of drums and other objects made by the artist and included performances at the beginning and end of the event. The curator of the exhibition, Pitso Chinzima, saw his performances and the linkage to Lake Fundudzi (whose title claimed by the current headman Mudzunga fiercely contests) as part of his resistance to power.
Embroiled in court cases and imprisoned on two separate occasions (all relating in one way or another to his ongoing feud with his close relative and rival for claim over Lake Fundudzi, Netshiavha), Mudzunga has taken his fair share of hard knocks. His first major exhibition in March 1988 ultimately led to his being dismissed as a driver for Kohler. This in turn led to him becoming a full-time artist.
Late next year there will be another celebration incorporating Tshikona and Domba dances in Venda, culminating in the production of six or seven new drums and an exhibition at Michael Stevenson Fine Art.
Samson Mudzunga was born in 1938 in Venda. He is married (four times) and lives and works in Dopeni Shanzha Village, Nzhelele.
SELECTED SOLO EXHIBITIONS
2004 Michael Stevenson Fine Art, Cape Town
2003 'Suka Dzivha Fundudzi', Johannesburg Art Gallery
2000 'Hayani/Crossings', NSA Gallery, Durban
1990 Zona Gallery, Johannesburg
1989 Thupelo Gallery, Johannesburg
1988 Fuba Gallery, Johannesburg
SELECTED GROUP EXHIBITIONS
2004 'New Identities: Contemporary South African Art', Museum Bochum, Germany
2004 'Personal Affects: Power and Poetics in Contemporary South African Art', Museum for African Art and Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York
1995/6 'Siyawela: Love, Loss and Liberation in South African Art', Gas Hall, Birmingham and Gertrude Posel Gallery, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg
1995 'Far North', Africus Johannesburg Biennale, Johannesburg
Chinzima, Pitso, Suka Dzivha Fundudzi: Samson Mudzunga, Johannesburg: Johannesburg Art Gallery, 2003
Nettleton, Anitra 'Shaking up the Gallery�', Art South Africa Summer 2003
Coates, Kathy and Stephen Hobbs, Samson Mudzunga: Artist's Book (Taxi-002), Johannesburg: David Krut, 2001