Digitized historical Makoanyane figurines: New Frame


Ceramic artist Samuele Makoanyane, who lived and worked in the village of Koalabata in the Teyateyaneng district not far from Maseru, showed a profound gift for capturing intricate reproductions of people he encountered in everyday life. . His advisor, agent and confidant CG Damant sold Makoanyane’s work in the Frasers Trading store in Maseru and shipped it to different parts of South Africa, then Rhodesia, and some places overseas. Throughout their partnership, Damant advised Makoanyane to create models of his own people rather than missionaries, and to keep his figures small so that they are easier to carry.

In 1935, Makoanyane’s work was exhibited in Paris and New York, according to Esther Esmyol, curator of Iziko’s social history collections. The same year, Percival Kirby, then professor of music at the University of the Witwatersrand, commissioned Makoanyane to produce eight figurines of traditional musicians. Makoanyane made seven. It is assumed that he was unable to produce the eighth piece because the instrument involved was played in the male lebollo initiation ceremony, which is shrouded in secrecy. The exhibit then noted: “Makoanyane thought it was beyond him to attempt the eighth, the lekhitlane player that was traditionally used in the lebollo ceremony. The reason why this figure was not completed remains unanswered.

Unlike other pieces produced by Makoanyane, the Kirby Collection, now housed at the College of Music at the University of Cape Town (UCT), is unique. In 1936, Makoanyane’s work was exhibited at the Empire exhibition in Johannesburg. Today his work can be found in private collections and museums in South Africa and around the world.

August 27, 2021: The musicians shows Basotho men and women playing various traditional instruments. These figurines are part of the Kirby collection from the University of Cape Town.

A booklet on Makoanyane written by Damant is a crucial source of information on the artist’s life and work. As Steven Sack, curator of Iziko’s Makoanyane exhibition, notes: “This is the only account of the life of this neglected South African pioneer of figurative portraiture in the 1930s.” The booklet shows how the great attention of Makoanyane to the details of human life and his lonely lifestyle made him a stranger. Yet he was in awe of his skill and intelligence and, at the same time, feared by people who thought his powers of observation were unnatural and sinister.

“We struggled with the title of the show,” Sack said. “I didn’t mean to call it something like An unknown artist from Lesotho. Makoanyane ended his letters to Damant with the words: Ke liha pene, which means “I put my pen down”.

“Once he built a figure, he would take a very thin pen-like instrument, known as a ‘scribe’, and write patterns and lines on it that ultimately really animated the work. It was almost as if he was writing the work in animated existence with this very fine drawing mode; engraving on the figurine. In a sense, when he finished making the sculpture and put down the scribing tool, it was like the act of writing and putting down his quill. So we decided to call the exhibition: Ke liha pene, I put my pen down.

A change in critical approach

Initial plans for the exhibition were thwarted when Covid-19 struck. “Originally, the exhibit was to be a physical exhibit of the 11 pieces from the Iziko Collection, which was held at the South African Museum, and it was scheduled to open last year in September.

“But, of course, the physical exhibit had to be canceled,” Sack said.

It turns out that the reconceptualized exhibition achieved what would not have been possible otherwise.

“Covid has produced wonderful innovations,” said Sack.

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The delay also allowed for critical reflection. “Had the exhibit been held at the South African Museum, it would have perpetuated the same old problem of placing black culture in the context of a natural history museum,” said Sack, who has been aiming for an exhibit in Makoanyane ever since. his first discovered the work of the ceramic artist in 1988, while he was preparing the first exhibition of South African black art at the Johannesburg Art Gallery – The neglected tradition: towards a new history of South African art (1930-1988).

“For me, it was important to take Makoanyane out of social history and ethnography into art,” Sack said.

For the exhibit, Sack worked with Jon Weinberg, whose company, DIJONDESIGN, is developing exhibits for the Lesotho National Museum and Gallery, which is still under construction.

“The seminal seed of this project was a meeting in South Africa between officials from Lesotho and officials from Iziko,” Weinberg said. Initially Iziko, in collaboration with DIJONDESIGN, had planned to offer training to restorers to work in the museum. “We were about to start when Covid hit. We had to realign the relationship between Iziko and the National Museum of Lesotho, and it made sense to do so in a virtual exhibition shared on both sides of the border… ”


The exhibition uses photogrammetry to make Makoanyane figurines accessible to a virtual audience. “It’s the perfect medium for those very small, very fragile sculptures that you will inevitably only be able to see behind glass,” Sack said.

Stephen Wessels, who works extensively with Weinberg, has joined the team. Wessels studied geomatics at UCT and worked for the Zamani Project, where he participated in recording heritage sites across Africa and the Middle East in 3D using laser scanning and photogrammetry.

“Steven Sack came up with the idea to create a virtual exhibit and I was led to create the 3D models of the sculptures,” said Wessels.

August 27, 2021: the figurine of Samuele Makoanyane warrior represents Joshua Nau Makoanyane, his great-grandfather and a military commander of the army of King Moshoeshoe I.

The photogrammetric method used to create 3D replicas involves placing an object on an automated turntable and photographing it at 10 degree intervals from different perspectives for a full 360 degree rotation until it is captured. from all angles. The photographs are then processed by specific photogrammetry software which aligns all the photographs and reconstructs the model based on the information extracted from the photographs.

“It was done in one day and it was a safe method,” said Esmyol. “It’s really absolutely amazing. I don’t think you can get that detail in a physical exhibit.

“Everyone was very excited and it sparked a lot of discussion about other potential exhibits,” said Wessels.

August 27, 2021: Mother with baby, Samuele Makoanyane figurine representing a woman feeding a baby.

Combine form and sound

With the inclusion of the Kirby Collection, UCT College of Music became a partner in the project. Associate Professors of Ethnomusicology and African Music Sylvia Bruinders and Dizu Plaatjies visited the Morija Museum and Archives to meet people from Lesotho who still play instruments. These musicians have recorded, and the sounds will be used for the exhibition. Filmmaker Paul Weinberg filmed the musicians for the college and the National Museum of Lesotho.

“We went there and worked with the musicians who play these little-known instruments; in fact, most are quite rare, ”Bruinders said.

“One is a very, very soft instrument called the Lekope that plays a basic rhythm and has a very little melody; few notes and very small intervals. He was played by an old woman [Matlali Khoane].

“The other instrument is a more iconic basotho instrument called the Lesiba. The construction of the instrument is unusual: it has a string running through the end of a stick, which you pluck, and a feather is attached to which you breathe out, and it vibrates the string. It has the most peculiar sound; it looks like big birds. It was the instrument that was played by cattle ranchers. The Lesiba is a male instrument while the Lekope is a female instrument.

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The director and deputy curator of the Morija Museum, Pusetso Nyabela, organized the musicians. “Pusetso was instrumental in delivering multi-level content for the Makoanyane Project and our other work,” Weinberg said. “Morija is a crucial cog in the process of developing a museum sector in Lesotho.”

“I managed to locate all the instruments,” Nyabela said. “The most famous instruments in the exhibition are the Lesiba and the Lekope. Older instruments have been around since time immemorial; they were inherited from the San. Others are fairly new instruments that were co-opted, perhaps in the 1930s, ”Nyabela said.

Lekope has traditionally been played for personal growth. “Transport services arrived quite late in Lesotho and the women were playing instruments as they walked,” Nyabela said.

Lesiba is also played for personal consolation, according to Leabua Mokhele, who is interviewed in the film. “After playing I feel sane and alive,” he said.

“We were able to produce an exhibition that is not only about sculpture, but also about performative cultures and music,” said Sack. “There is often an uncertainty on the part of the public towards the sculpture, so having that musical aspect with the exhibition makes it more accessible to a wider audience. “

The Ke liha pene, I put my pen down The virtual exhibition is on the Iziko site.

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