Travellers along the road between Barberton and Kaapmuiden in the late-1960s and 1970s, on their way to or from the Kruger National Park and other tourist hotspots in the former Eastern Transvaal, were confronted with an amazing sight…
Two houses covered in yellow, black, white and red geometric patterns of spots and stripes, surrounded by a neatly swept garden of patterned stones and paint-tin lids, and a conglomeration of painted rocks that swarmed up the koppie behind.
The artist responsible was farm worker Nukain Mabuza, who created the amazing inhabited artwork because “his head told him to do it”. He cleared veld grass and other vegetation from around the buildings and on the koppie, and outlined the site with arranged rocks to delineate paths and demarcate areas.
At first he refused to deviate from his strict yellow, black, white and red colour palette, and if well-wishers donated pots of paint in other colours, he used them only in the area between the road and the fence but not in the main garden area. He painted stripes, spots, and a few stylised animals such as an elephant, a dog, rabbits and birds, and kept to the same instantly recognisable style for years.
In 1976, a representative of a fertilizer company, René Lion-Cachet, who regularly stopped to look at the garden and admire the humble artist’s work, decided he had to do something to help. Not only did he arrange a donation of paint from a large paint manufacturer, he also alerted the SABC to the amazing garden.
It was the early days of TV production in South Africa and the national broadcaster used the opportunity to make a short documentary for a weekly arts programme as a training exercise. The programme was aired much to the delight of Nukain and the local community.
The donation of paint ushered in a new era for the garden as Nukain expanded his colour palette to include green, blue, gold and orangey red. When he wasn’t at work on the vegetable farm where he was employed, Nukain compulsively painted and re-painted the rocks, and would often sit out in front of the houses waiting for visitors.
He welcomed them as they climbed the brightly coloured stile over the fence between the road and the garden, and showed them around. He spoke xiTsonga and siSwati, with only a smattering of English and Afrikaans, but still managed to communicate his dedication and enthusiasm to local and overseas visitors.
Eventually he was able to give up his job and make a living from visitors’ donations. Nukain worked tirelessly on his garden for about fifteen years, from the mid-sixties until he left the site after a fall out with the local community in 1980. He died in 1981, at about 65 years of age.
Who was Nkukain Mabuza?
Nkukain Mabuza’s origins are shrouded in mystery. People who knew him described him as ‘Shangaan’ or ‘Swazi’, but whether he was South African or came from Mozambique or Swaziland cannot be established with certainty.
A few articles about the garden appeared in newspapers and magazines during his lifetime but they were heavy on entertainment value and light on the facts.
Fortunately, the Pretoria-based artist JFC Clarke took a series of photographs of the site as it was in the 1980s after Mabuza’s death, and succeeded in rustling up a few older photographs of previous incarnations of the garden after an appeal in the local press.
He also interviewed the farmer, who owned the farm where the rock garden was situated, as well as Nukain’s co-workers and friends. These interviews form the basis of what is known about the man.
JFC Clarke also created a website www.nukainmabuza.co.za and published two books, the first one of which, The Home of Nukain Mabuza (Leopardstone Press, 2001, available here, began life as a catalogue to an exhibition of Clarke’s own art and photography. The second book, The Painted Stone Garden of Nukain Mabuza (Leopardstone Press, 2013), updates the story with research done since 2001.
Reviving the Memory of Mabuza’s Rock Garden
Internationally, the term ‘outsider’ art was used in the past to describe the creative production of people who are ‘outside’ the mainstream art school, museum, gallery, or commercial art dealer structures, effectively at a distance from the Western ‘high culture’ art establishment. But the term is no longer used in art history scholarship because this Western pigeon hole adds little understanding and is elitist, reductive and exclusionary.
The actual site of the garden is now faded, peeling, and overgrown with veld grass despite the few attempts to repaint and repair it, and nothing remains of the houses and stile. The photographic record is too sparse for any sort of meaningful reconstruction of the garden to be undertaken, but although neglected and largely forgotten for thirty years by almost everyone except JFC Clarke, Barberton Tourism Association revived the memory of Nukain Mabuza a few years ago by adapting his distinctive style for the design of its logo, and the municipal authorities constructed two decorative ‘gateways’ on the main roads leading into the town.
And now the painted rock garden is at the dawn of another new era. The celebrated South African playwright Athol Fugard evidently has an interest in artists who completely transform their living spaces.
The Painted Rocks of Revolver Creek, was staged in New York and Los Angeles in 2015, to widespread acclaim. A South African production by Eric Abraham opened at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town in August 2016. Fugard had used the bones of Nukain Mabuza’s story, but freely acknowledges that the play is a work of fiction rather than a biography.
You can assist with information too
If you have any relevant material, or know of anyone who does, please contact the Nukain Mabuza Archive by sending an email to [email protected] or posting a message on the Nukain Mabuza Archive Facebook page.
Words: Hazel Cuthbertson
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