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Nkumanda's Small Slice of Africa : Art: Because of the cloud of apartheid, she never thought her work would gain exposure so far away, but now it is being shown in L.A.

October 22, 1994|LUCILLE RENWICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Monani Jackson Nkumanda's miniature setting rises from the rough canvas with all the grit, vibrancy and reality of the lives and landscape he is trying to re-create.

On a 2-by-3-foot masonite board, a dozen wooden and corrugated metal shacks, each about 6 inches high, lean at 45-degree angles in the ocher soil.

In the foreground, a 4-inch hand-carved wooden figurine of a boy juggles a soccer ball, while a goat meanders along a road, and a man kneels on the top of a shanty frame in mid-swing of driving a nail into a wooden beam.

It is life in a South African township--art that until recently has been largely cut off from the rest of the world. Even within South Africa, Nkumanda's work and those of many other black artists ware known mainly only to other black people.

Now, with the birth of democracy propelling broad interest in South Africa, the work of both blacks and whites there is finding new audiences in the United States. At Leslie Sacks Fine Arts Gallery in Brentwood, works by Nkumanda and 11 other South African artists are being presented in what is being touted as the first major exhibit of South African art in Los Angeles.

Owner Leslie Sacks, a South African, collected most of the work in "In Full Color--Facets of Contemporary South African Art," over the past decade. A portion of the proceeds from works sold from this show--which range in price from $1,200 to $17,000--will go to Amnesty International-USA.

"It's amazing to think of my work being seen overseas," Nkumanda, 46, said in a telephone interview from the Cape Town office of a friend. "This is something that I never thought would happen, for people so far away, in the United States, to see my work."

Nkumanda, a black South African, came to public attention as apartheid was being dismantled and as the white South African art world began to take a closer look at work they once regarded as primitive and unsophisticated.

"There were no black formal artists, nothing for us to look to," said Willie Bester, one of South Africa's premier black artists who is also included here. "If you like these kinds of things you were looked at as abnormal. Art was not supposed to be serious for us."

Nkumanda considered himself a carpenter, but never an artist. The 1979 death of a cousin who had encouraged Nkumanda prompted the now 46-year-old to devote himself to his art. At that time, he concentrated on working with leather and tin. In 1991, after moving near the Guguletu township outside Cape Town, Nkumanda focused on capturing his surroundings.

"I wanted to make the real thing so people could see what really exists here," he said. "I'm not a man who can talk and explain, but I can explain with my fingertips."

Built from scraps, his three-dimensional renderings of black South African life show the people, shacks, animals, cars and tractors of the townships and rural areas.

*

Bester, 38, also uses found objects, which he combines with newspaper clippings, photographs and painted images in powerful collage/assemblage pieces that carry strong political messages on apartheid and its effects in the townships.

In a piece, titled "Forced Removal" (1991), Bester included newspaper headlines about imprisonment, hostels and erupting violence as the backdrop behind a haze of blue paint. A bright-yellow bulldozer and a police Jeep sit square in the middle of the scene as life continues around them.

As the bulldozer scoops up a mound of trash on one side, a black police officer sitting on the Jeep surveys a woman washing clothes off to the other side. Just below the Jeep is a picture of a police officer raising his billy club at a black man who is stumbling backward to escape the oncoming blow.

The scene harkens back to a 1989 removal of people in George, an area in the western Cape, when the former Botha regime often bulldozed townships and squatter camps without notice or concern.

"I was angry looking at these kinds of things and I saw pictures. So I used my work as a tool against apartheid. I didn't care if it matched your curtains or not," said Bester, who was the first black to win in South Africa's Cape Town Triennale in 1991. His work also won an award at the 1993 Venice Biennale.

"My art was a chance to be heard."

* Leslie Sacks Fine Art, 11640 San Vicente Blvd., (310) 820-9448. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and by appointment. Through Oct. 29.

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