Michael Zondi is one of South Africa’s best known sculptors. He was born on March 10, 1926 in Ngome, in the Greytown district of Natal. The eldest of six children, Zondi was influenced by his father with regard to craft and craving. Zondi Snr was a skilful carver and crafter and son Michael often watched him as he carved.
Though Zondi’s father was a poor farm worker, he wished to improve the lives of his children by ensuring their received a formal education by attending school. Zondi started primary school in 1932 at Mtulwa Mission near Dalton in Natal, proceeding to Ntunjambili High School at Kranskop where he completed Standard 7 in 1941.
After completing standard seven at the Ntunjambili High school in Kranskop, Zondi was sponsored by Gunnar Helander, a Lutheran priest, to study carpentry at the Dundee Industrial Bantu School. The founder of the school and architect Einar Andreas Magni from Sweden, was keen to produce carpenters of value and the young Zondi proved to be exceptional in carpentry. After a brief spell of entrepreneurship as a cabinet-maker of furniture for the Edendale community, Magni, called Zondi back to complete his teacher training.
Zondi was technical manager of the Swedish Mission’s Hospital in the mid 1960s, forging a friendship with Dr. Wolfgang Bodenstein, the hospital’s superintendent. Bodenstein encouraged Zondi to design and construct a new Chapel fort the Mission, something he did with passion and conviction. For the newly designed chapel, Zondi produced a magnificent life-size crucifix in blackwood.
In 1966 he resigned from his formal job as technical and from 1967 to 1972 he was employed by the Department of Information as a programme promoter focusing on African agriculture, arts and home-craft. From 1972, he became self-employed as a full-time artist.
Zondi often used Mthombothi, Mnaka (Red Ivory) and Wild Olive woods and his distinctive style using bold chisel strokes attracted buyers. Zondi’s first solo exhibition came in 1965 when he exhibited more than 40 pieces of artwork in the Durban Art Gallery.
Zondi’s mission upbringing and a commitment to peace and race relations can be seen throughout his work. For example, “The Reunion” depicts the carving of a white person greeting an African and was given by Zondi to Bodenstein with whom he had a strong relationship.
Zondi writes in a letter to a friend, “Although my work has taken me from place to place there has always been a motive. I am a pilgrim, a seeker looking for a place of peace; a place where I can sow the seeds of love and watch them grow till the time of harvest comes. The peace I seek, however, is not that of finding a cool shade and dozing off to sleep - but that [type] of peace found after hard work and having done something for others. Unless things go wrong it does look like I am approaching the end of my journey‚ a place where I may find my dream realized and where I can find the local talent who will work together with me.”
In the same letter, he went on to explain why it remained important for him to be based in the heart of Natal. He had thought about opening an art workshop in Mahlabathini: “Though many people may think this is the wrong place for such a project, on the contrary I find this place and its surroundings to be most ideal. The landscape, the people, the animals and its historical background, they are all most inspiring to the painter, the sculptor, the poet and the musician.”
Zondi was an industrious and zealous artist who worked around the clock, sometimes working on several different pieces at the same time. He had an absolute understanding of the wood used for his work, often storing blocks of wood for longer periods, ranging from weeks to months, even years, as though waiting for them to ferment into his ideas. He was always in search of perfection.
Zondi’s work is a reflection of the people around him and their emotions. His work includes, The Fountain, The Prophet - both in the Durban Art Gallery; Meditate (1986), Head (990), Mother and Child (1926), Khwela/Flute Player (1989), Mqaphale (1987). Girl with a pitcher, carved from Imbua, was exhibited at the Venice Bienale; Woman in Ectstacy won the Philip Frame Award and is in the National Gallery in Cape Town. Zondi remains one of the greatest sculptors South Africa has ever produced.
Click here to view other artworks