Monday, September 28, 2020

The world at his feet

Even without any formal training in art, a local painter is gaining international recognition, writes MODIRWA KEKWALETSWE

The statement ÔÇô made off-the-cuff in a feat of exasperation ÔÇô shocked the audience into a moment of reflective silence. Whether the remark was meant to underpin government’s standpoint on the relocation of Basarwa from Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve, or was just a broadside at the assembled press corps, President Festus Mogae’s expression of desire to one day field questions from a Mosarwa journalist remains one of the major defining moments in the long running battle between Botswana government and Survival International.

One of his aides later explained that the statement was meant to communicate Mogae’s commitment to empowerment of the marginalised community, and to see them move into the professions.

Well, no-one from the Basarwa community has moved into the mass media just yet, but the president might take comfort in the knowledge that in one medium ÔÇô art ÔÇô the original inhabitants of the land play in the top league. Take Moses ÔÇô for instance.

At first glance, he comes across as somewhat shy, but proud. He insists in writing down his name in my notepad, explaining that all journalists who have interviewed him before have mispelt his name.

Effortlessly, he writes down his names ÔÇô all in uppercase: Olemogeng Maaramele Qaeqhao Moses.

“Qaeqhao means the same as Olemogeng,” he explains without prodding, perhaps taking the cue from a previous interview Maaramele Moses is a man whose work has caught the attention of art collectors from outside Botswana.

Moses is a painter so different as the palette of his recent wok. He attended school only up to standard 3. Then he got in the labour market, enlisting his services for a series of odd jobs. The work was hard, and the pay a pittance.

A friend of his ÔÇô already an established artist at the time, Thamae Setshogo ÔÇô encouraged Moses to come over to the Kuru Art Project in D’Kar, just outside Ghanzi.

To Moses, Thamae was more than a friend. He was a brother with whom he grew up. He took quite a while to get over Thamae’s death in 2002.

Moses is a stickler for detail. He still remembers the exact date he joined Kuru: July 3, 1994.

A word about Kuru. It is run as a trust, and is a haven for many Basarwa painters and print makers. All have little or no formal education ÔÇô excelling at the ethnic art school. The Kuru artists continue to amaze, shock and thrill all art lovers they come into contact with.

The trust provides artists with the materials to produce artworks, which are either sold or exhibited. The trust gets commission from each purchase of an artwork.

In 2002, he left the comfort of Kuru and came to Gaborone, where he hooked up with Thapong Trust.

Thapong is a world apart from Kuru, where there is clear division of labour: the artist paints, and someone else takes care of marketing the product. At Thapong, the artist has to wear many hats: painter, agent, publicist and manager. It can be rough at times, but Moses loves it all the same.

“I came here because I wanted freedom and independence,” he explains. “I wanted to learn how to host an exhibition without anyone hovering over my head. I learnt many things from scratch since I came to Thapong: to buy materials, to frame my work, to book venues, and invite the media. Where I was unsure, I asked more established artists such as Velias [Ndaba] and Reggie [Bakwena].”

A year after moving to Gaborone, Moses held a joint show with Rantefe Mothebe at the National Museum and Art Gallery. It was an eye opener, which he describes as “an invaluable lesson”.

Moses says life as an artist is hard, but the strides he has made over the past eight years are massive.

“I rent out a house in Gabane, for which I have to pay every month,” he says. “I struggle like everyone else, but I’m content.” Well, under current circumstances, “content” is an understatement. The man should say he is elated. His big payday is around the corner. The W. K. Kellogg Foundation is in the process of buying more than 20 of his paintings. To cap it all, he is set to attend the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe, New Mexico in the United States.

He is not going to worry about a middleman getting a cut in his pay cheque.

“As an independent artist, I expect to get all the money due to me. I have determined the price for each of my pieces,” Moses declares, before he politely excuses himself to answer his cell phone. It has been buzzing throughout the interview.

He complains to the caller of fatigue. He spent the previous night finishing off his work, putting the final strokes to some of the paintings.

Outside the Thapong office, Moses inspects the paintings leaning along the fence. Then he lets out something that has certainly been bothering him for a while.

“You see, the problem with us black artists is jealousy,” he says. “We are jealous of each other.” (FPN)

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Sunday Standard September 27 – 3 October

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 27 - 3 October, 2020.