This past July, Botswana’s Ministry of Basic Education ask me to train ten San wood carvers from Kacgae village, in the western Kalahari, and five beginners from Charles Hill and Ghanzi town. The participants arrived as a group at the Botswana’s Out of School Education Training (OSET) campus in Maun, site of a gleaming glass and metal building surrounded by, as luck would have it, mopane woodland.
Not sure about what working materials we would have, I had brought some wood from my own collection. But checking the surroundings of our new workspace, we found some old stumps that we dug up to add to these. Nature had, again, provided.
At first, some of the carvers were shy and uncertain, looking wistfully at the taxis stopping outside that could carry them into Maun centre, with its almost-urban call of traffic, takeaways and shops. But as the artists began to choose their pieces by looking at the wood, from every angle until a certain form and shape inspired their imagination, their interest was piqued.
We built on this process to see if the theme that came to mind could connect to the potential of the complete three dimensional piece of wood. Could the natural shapes really suggest a living creature? Could another bird, or animal feature be seen by connecting two already existing lines, or cracks in the wood, to become one new identity? Were the holes in the old wood suggesting eyes? Was there promise of a satisfying outcome when opening up hollow spaces to expand the already existing shape?
Each old piece of wood has a character and history to explore. The excitement, when a carver discovered these embedded linkages, spread quickly through the group. Suddenly the participants were sharing ideas, and commenting on one anothers’ work.
Three weeks passed swiftly, with new friendships taking shape alongside the sculptures. The final day’s critique session included a visit from two of my previous workshop participants, Malaki Sembumburu and Emafa William, now producing work under their own Njima brand. The workshop participants listened, wide-eyed, as these now-experienced sculptors reviewed the freshly created pieces, and talked about the market for art in northern Botswana.
A month after I waved goodbye to the artists as they boarded their bus to head back home, the Ministry of Basic Education organised an exhibition of their work, as well as sculptures, bead and leather work created at previous workshops, at Maun’s Nhabe Museum. The workshops and exhibition were supported by the Korean National Commission for UNESCO through the Bridge Africa programme.
Sales from the exhibition found proud new owners for ten of the wood sculptures produced by the carvers.
What a privilege to accompany this group of artists on their creative journey. As well as seeing their confidence and skill grow, watching the bonding that takes place among members of the group is a real joy.