Artist yearns to teach his skills to others

Published Feb 17, 2011

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AS a herd boy living in rural KwaZulu-Natal he would decorate his staff with beautiful carvings, humbly unaware of his artistic talent.

It was only when renowned linocut artist William Zulu reached Standard 2 (Grade 4) that he befriended a boy who loved to draw and so began his first formal encounter with art.

“As a herd boy I decorated my staff and I used to make clay bulls just to keep myself busy. I didn’t know that it was called art.

“From Standard 2 I started drawing like my friend and I remember in Standard 3 that I illustrated a poem we learned in school, but I still didn’t know that art could be a career,” he explained.

In 1973 Zulu contracted tuberculosis and spent two years at the Charles Johnson Memorial Hospital in Nqutu.

It was there that he learnt his destiny was to be an artist.

Zulu used to sketch portraits of the African leaders whose photographs he’d come across in books and magazines.

After reading about Mangosuthu Buthelezi in a newspaper one day, Zulu sketched the IFP leader and it was this picture that caught the eye of his physiotherapist.

“The book was lying on the bed and my physio saw it and said I was talented. That was the first time I heard about this thing called art,” he said.

Zulu had much to think about and made the tough decision to study art.

“It was a challenge to me. I was 20 years old and because of the TB I was paralysed from the waist down and in a wheelchair.

“Being disabled in that era was already a difficult thing in the community and I had to decide whether I should go back to school to complete my formal schooling or go to art school.

“But I trusted (the physiotherapist) Cindy Hamilton, so I decided to go to art school.”

And that choice marked the beginning of Zulu’s long and successful career.

He enrolled at the ELC Art and Craft Centre at Rorke’s Drift. After finishing his studies he completed his formal schooling.

But it was only in 1986 that Zulu’s works started selling. In 1991, an invitation to participate in his first international exhibition (celebrating the unification of East and West Germany) was a significant turning point for the artist.

“Artists are commentators of the situations of the time. So my earlier works were of the revolutionary era, there was that consciousness to it, narrative works. So in a way I ended up being a social and political commentator through my art.

“Today I still observe what is happening around me, which influences my work.”

Zulu believes art is relevant to the expression of people and is concerned that it is dwindling, particularly in rural areas.

“It is unfortunate that art is not encouraged among the youth in rural areas, like here in Vryheid (where he lives). There is a lack of cultural centres where people can develop artistically.

“Arts development initiatives seem to be more focused on cultural dancing. Little effort is put into developing visual art and theatre.

“I look around and for many years I have had the same concern – that I will die here at my home with my skill and not pass it on to anyone.”

lZulu’s work is on show and for sale at the African Art Centre. For info call Sharon Crampton at 031 312 3805.

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