This virtual exhibition forms part of an important collaboration between the Iziko Museums of South Africa and the Lesotho National Museum and Art Gallery. Showcasing Samuele Makoanyane’s work today is especially revealing thanks to the new technologies available to enhance our knowledge of the history of the artist.
This exhibition is rendered using photogrammetry, which involves the careful recording, measuring and mapping of the actual sculptures, which are between eight and 18 cm in height, into digital 3D models. Through this digitisation process, Makoanyane’s sculptures can be explored in detail and in an interactive way, which would not have been possible in a physical exhibition because of the fragility of the sculptures.
The curatorial team has identified figurines from the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Kirby Collection and the Social History collections of the Iziko Museums of South Africa for display.
The portraits of traditional musicians from Lesotho, which are part of the UCT Kirby Collection of musical instruments, are accompanied by film and recordings of contemporary musicians, made on a field trip to Morija in Lesotho in early 2020.
This collaborative endeavour constitutes an important resource of clay-fired sculpture in the region and contributes to the existing body of knowledge of one of southern Africa’s greatest sculptors and storytellers
Samuele Makoanyane grew up in the village of Koalabata in the Teyateyaneng district not far from Maseru, Lesotho. It was here he began his artistic career by sculpting various animals from clay, using illustrations from schoolbooks and other books as his models.
His remarkable ability to capture likenesses enabled him to travel about the country and find success wherever he went.
Following the considerable economic distress and droughts of the early 1930s in Lesotho, men were recruited to work on the Rand around Johannesburg, South Africa. Many Basotho resorted to manufacturing local crafts and traded their wares in various places within the country and across the border.
Men produced baskets, hats and other grass crafts, while women explored clay work such as pottery. Among the few exceptions, Samuele Makoanyane used clay to produce small animal models.
In addition to sculpting animals from his environment, such as snakes, owls, dogs and Indian circus elephants, Makoanyane’s choice of subject matter extended to people living in the local villages as well as historical figures.
Of note is Makoanyane’s focus on warrior figures, which are realistic portrayals of his great-grandfather, a commanding general in King Moshoeshoe’s army. Makoanyane produced some 150 models of King Moshoeshoe and 250 models of his great-grandfather. In capturing the distinct facial features of the late warrior Makoanyane, it is notable that Makoanyane sculpted the facial features of his models to appear almost identical to his father, whom he presumably used as a model.
Makoanyane successfully navigated the up-and-coming capitalist market forces, the expatriate community, and his relationship with his advisor, agent and the author of a short monograph of his life, Mr CG Damant, whose account served as one of the primary sources for the research into the intimacies of Makoanyane’s life.
This partnership would prove incredibly fruitful, enabling Makoanyane’s work to grow exponentially in monetary value. Early on, Damant advised Makoanyane to focus on capturing the daily intricacies of people from his community rather than European figures.
The delicate size of Makoanyane’s sculptures is also due in part to Damant’s advice, after Makoanyane’s bigger sculptures gave difficulties in transportation.
Another instance of advice from Damant regarded technical complications Makoanyane was having with firing his sculptures during the winter. Damant advised the artist to wait for longer periods of time between sculpting and firing to allow for the moisture in the sculptures to dry out. However, Makoanyane was convinced that his kiln had been bewitched by someone jealous of his success. This led him to seek a new firing pit altogether.
Damant also notes Makoanyane’s impeccably neat handwriting, citing various exchanges in Sesotho between them. Makoanyane was known for his creative use of capital letters and punctuation, as well his habit of always signing his letters off with ‘Ke liha pene’, which translated into English means ‘I lay down my pen’.
Of note is how Makoanyane would always spell his name with the extra vowel at the end, which is contrary to the anglicised way in which his name has been spelt by Western scholars. It is also through these written exchanges that Makoanyane alluded to his worsening health close to his premature death at the age of 35, in 1944. It is presumed he passed away from tuberculosis or another lung-related condition. Makoanyane was buried in his home village of Koalabata.
Among his own people, Makoanyane’s sculptures were received with wonder. Although models were seldom showcased due to the high demand, whenever the Basotho saw them they were in awe of his skill and intelligence. Damant notes, however, that some regarded the works with superstition, ‘as if they thought that Samuel’s powers were not altogether human’.
In response to his immaculate artistic abilities, Makoanyane has been quoted as saying ‘it was God who taught me’. He evolved a personal style that contemporaries described as ‘novel and out of the ordinary’. As part of Makoanyane’s quest to create delicate sculptures he aimed for perfection, and as a true artist he was never satisfied with his creations, always striving after something better.
Among Makoanyane’s keen collectors was Professor Percival Kirby of the University of the Witwatersrand. In 1935, Kirby commissioned Makoanyane to sculpt eight musical instruments and their players.
Of these, seven were completed. Makoanyane thought it beyond him to attempt the eighth, the player of the lekhitlane, which was traditionally used in the lebollo ceremony. The reason for his not completing this figurine is left unanswered.
Since his death in 1944, Makoanyane’s fine sculptures have been hidden away in private collections and in the storerooms of museums.
Those that have been exhibited, in Morija, Cape Town and East London, among other places, were for the most part treated as objects of ‘cultural curiosity’ rather than those that reveal the nature of a unique artistic talent that emerged out of a small village in Lesotho.
In extending this intimate engagement with these sculptures, the figures will also be showcased and given prominence in the new Lesotho National Museum and Art Gallery, to open in Maseru in 2022. Meanwhile, two of Makoanyane’s sculptures are available for viewing at the Castle of Good Hope as part of the Iziko William Fehr Collection.
There is much to be discovered about Samuele Makoanyane: his knowledge of ceramics, his use of visual and historic sources, and his ability to capture the likenesses of his immediate community.
The process behind how these sculptures were made, stored, dried and fired remains largely unknown, however it is presumed they were either placed on the surface of the ground or placed in a shallow pit, covered with sticks and fired.
With further research into the depths of Makoanyane’s life and practice, and through this ongoing exhibition project, some of these questions may yet be answered.
It is noticeable that some of the sculptures have been damaged, broken or repaired. This is a common issue in conservation and restoration, which we wish to address further in the coming iterations of the project.
All the 3D models exhibited in this virtual exhibition are hosted by Sketchfab. Click here to view the collection.
A field trip to the Morija Museum and Archives was undertaken in 2020. A series of recordings and a film were made of five out of the seven instruments Makoanyane sculpted.