'Fecundity of Fields and Women' Inspires Sotho Mural Arts

Photograph: A photograph from 'The Art of Sotho Habitation.'

Among the Sotho of southern Africa, mural arts are women's work. Traditionally, women plowed the fields, built the homes and painted their walls with vivid, vibrant art of many-layered meaning, evoking images of the landscape, invoking spiritual beliefs and injecting subtle signs of resistance to apartheid.

These bold murals in brilliant primary and earth colors in striking curvilinear and geometrical designs have been largely unknown outside of South Africa.

Now, for the first time, American audiences can appreciate this contemporary tradition and learn about its ancient roots and meaning in "The Art of Sotho Habitation: Photographs of Mural Painting in Southern Africa," an exhibition on view at Columbia Oct. 19 - Dec. 17.

Displayed in the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, it comprises 100 color Cibachrome photographs of murals on the exterior walls of mud houses in rural southern Africa and other scenes taken by the Africanist art historian Gary van Wyk from 1988 to 1994.

Gallery hours are Wednesday through Saturday from 1:00 to 5:00 P.M. Admission is free and open to the public. (Information: 854-7288.)

Van Wyk, the leading scholar on Sotho mural painting, is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of art history and archaeology at Columbia and organizer of the exhibition. He has arranged the material to provide an appreciation of the aesthetics of the mural paintings, and, through explanatory wall texts and photographs, a historical and cultural perspective of the Sotho (pronounced SU-too) people and a socio-political focus on everyday life under apartheid.

A Reception Room

"In 'The Art of Sotho Habitation,' art is not merely aesthetics--it refers also to the artful, resourceful strategy of a nation's survival under difficult circumstances," said van Wyk in describing the exhibition plan.

To help the viewer envision the environment in which the mural arts tradition of the Sotho flourishes, the gallery vestibule will be transformed into a typical Sotho reception room.

The Sotho inhabit Lesotho, an independent state completely surrounded by South Africa. They also live as farm workers on white-owned farms in the Orange Free State and Transvaal provinces of South Africa.

In building and decorating their homes, they create an extension of the land, underlining the sacredness of the earth, where their ancestors, who ensure all natural cycles, are buried. Homes are built of earth, situated in the rural landscape, and painted with earth pigments in abstract representations of plowed fields, flowers and vegetation.

"The fecundity of fields and of women is celebrated in the creation of radiant blooms, unfurling fronds, spiralling tendrils and sprouts," van Wyk said.

"Because agricultural labor was traditionally women's work, women who decorate houses can be viewed as picturing this work in the fields upon their walls. The murals are thus African landscapes, composed of the very landscape they represent," he said.

The murals, themselves subject to the cycle of nature and life, are an impermanent art, requiring annual renewal because they are washed off by the rain.

Some mural designs depict objects such as women's coiffure, initiation masks or the board for marabaraba, a popular game like checkers, van Wyk said.

"Some curvilinear designs have a distinctly Victorian or Edwardian flavor that was probably influenced by turn-of-the-century European products, such as linoleum patterns, cast-iron moldings and lace," he noted.

Today, the natural earth tones are extended by the use of commercial colors.

Exhibited Internationally

The works also "suggest formal concerns shared by painters in the Western tradition," he noted. "They may be fruitfully compared with color field painting, post painterly abstraction and artists such as Josef Albers and Mondrian who explored patterned color in their compositions."

Van Wyk, a long-time resident of South Africa, in 1989 organized the "The Living Art of Colour," a photographic exhibition in South Africa of more than 300 examples of mural art from the region. He holds degrees in psychology, law and fine arts. His art and photography have been exhibited internationally.

Columbia University Record -- October 14, 1994 -- Vol. 20, No. 6