044 20.078.2014 Mpho Gwenya an Artist from Soweto Orlando West, making final touch on his sculpture of Nelson Mandela. Picture: Bhekikhaya Mabaso

Johannesburg - Visual artist Mpho Ngwenya was pensive as he dabbed each layer of clay with a blunt bread knife.

It was as though each layer had a meaning that went beyond the face that has become immortalised as a symbol of peace, freedom and hope, not only for South Africa but for the world.

It is this meaning that the Soweto artist hopes people will be able to see themselves when they view his sculpture of Nelson Mandela.

“It’s not a portrait of Mandela. It’s a portrait of personalities, and of what’s happening nationally,” he said on Sunday, speaking from his home in Mzimhlophe, Orlando West.

Friday was Nelson Mandela International Day, marking the icon’s birthday, but it was not intended that Ngwenya’s sculpture would be finished for the day.

“It’s been a journey, a long one. One that doesn’t reach a point of finality…

“People don’t consider the spiritual dimension of art. Sometimes it doesn’t solely depend on the artist to determine when a work is done; it also depends on the subject of your artistic expression. I am just a messenger.”

Ngwenya was not commissioned to make the sculpture; nor did he receive any funding towards it. In fact, to get the raw material to make it he had to collect the clay from a stream near his home.

“It’s not easy to get funding to make the artworks, but funding is not the main source of inspiration. That (funding) can come later. Funding shouldn’t galvanise you to action, inspiration should,” he said, adding some finishing touches to his piece.

Yet he was clear about the importance of funding for young disadvantaged artists - not as a handout but as a boost for the visual arts.

Ngwenya said that should he get funding, he would probably get better clay as the stream clay he used dried quickly and he had to resort to resourceful measures such as adding sorghum beer and pap to keep it moist.

He had a message for the new arts and culture minister, Nathi Mthethwa: “Some people who are tasked to deal with public art don’t understand their duties. The minister must get rid of them. Artists are suffering.

“If I were to get funding, I would make it a full body sculpture in a seated position. Standing signifies absence of rest,” the artist said.

Alongside the Mandela piece, inside his workshop - a backyard room - he has clay sculptures of other prominent political leaders, such as Chris Hani, Robert Sobukwe and Lillian Ngoyi.

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The Star