I am a post-graduate student at the University of the Witwatersrand, doing a Masters degree in History of Art. The subject of my research project is Nukain Mabuza and his painted rock garden, which existed in all its glory from the late 1960s until the early 1980s. Little remains of it now. I have been granted access to the only existing archive of the man and his work, which has been gathered by the Pretoria-based artist John Clarke, but I am hoping that by publishing a number of new articles about Nukain Mabuza I will be able to add to that archive by unearthing any further photographs, articles or records of personal encounters that may still exist, even though Nukain Mabuza died in 1981.
In the 1960s and 1970s, artist and farm worker Nukain Mabuza created an amazing hillside painted rock garden on the farm Esperado at Revolver Creek, in Mpumalanga, South Africa, near the border with Swaziland.
The other farm workers lived in a village of fairly uniform, unremarkable, undecorated self-built huts on either side of the main road, conveniently near to the water pump and railway siding, but Nukain Mabuza chose to construct his home at the base of the granite koppie a short distance away from the other houses. The farmer who owned the land had no objection, as the site had no agricultural value. Nukain Mabuza built two single-roomed dwellings facing the main road, as well as an elaborate entrance stile over the roads-department fence.
Nukain Mabuza seems to have begun by painting the two huts and their furnishings, and embellishing the interior walls of the larger hut with a profusion of pictures, newspaper clippings and other publications. These were described by an unnamed journalist writing in the Nelspruit-based newspaper Vulamehlo, in 1973: “Step inside Mr Mabuza’s shack, an array of colour strikes one. Cherubs and the Premier Mr John Vorster stand shoulder to shoulder with King George VI and his royal family, General Smuts and Captain Devil, while several brightly coloured wall-hangings pose grave questions such as what a house without a mother would be worth” (Staff Reporter, 1973:3-4).
Nukain Mabuza also cleared veld grass and other vegetation from around the constructions and from a roughly triangular area on the slope of the koppie behind and to the side of them. He outlined the site and delineated paths and places within it with small rocks. Over the course of approximately fifteen years, until he left the site in about 1980, he painted and re-painted the structures, the rock arrangements, and all the large boulders within the zone using a consistent visual language of geometric forms (stripes, dots, squares, and squares within squares) in an, at first, limited colour palette of black, yellow and white. Individual distinctive boulders lower down were singled out as the ‘throne’ and the ‘altar’. After 1976, following a donation of Paint from Plascon in Nelspruit, arranged by the salesman for Atlas Kunsmis, René Lion-Cachet, Mabuza expanded his colour palette to include green, blue and gold (images below).
Nukain Mabuza sitting on ‘The Throne’, 1975. The indented ‘seat’ faced the koppie and from there, he could gaze up at his garden (Photograph: René Lion-Cachet, courtesy of the Clarke Mabuza Archive).
‘The Altar’, 1982, painted in the expanded colour palette Nukain Mabuza used after the donation of paint from Plascon in 1975 (Photograph: John Clarke, courtesy of the Clarke Mabuza Archive).
Nukain Mabuza also painted a number of animals on the rocks including an elephant, a lion, giraffe, sable antelope, rabbits and birds, as well as a dog. These were all done in the same stylised manner with a single thick white outline on a black background.
Most of the animals were painted on a group of flattish, fairly horizontal rocks. Rabbits, birds and a dog can be seen in this photograph, 2011 (Photograph: Chris Smit).
‘The Elephant’, 1982 (Photograph: John Clarke, courtesy of the Clarke Mabuza Archive)
Although all the wild animals depicted were indigenous to the area in the past and the birds (possibly quails or francolins), can still be found at the site in the present day, the reduced, iconic treatment of the forms suggests that the animals may have held some sort of symbolic association for Mabuza. He eventually also painted his clothes and wore button badges bearing the same geometric decorative scheme as the rocks, and fashioned a pair of large spectacle frames for himself out of tomato-box wood (Clarke 2001:14).
A garden commonly consists of plants, paths, walls, fences and other structures but although Mabuza referred to his creation as his ‘garden’, the only plants he had on the site were an indigenous marula tree (Sclerocarya birrea) and a mango tree (Mangifera indica) near the huts. Outside the area demarcated by painted rocks, the koppie is full of naturally-occurring flowering indigenous plants such as bobbejaansterte (Xerophyta retinervis), wild dagga (Leonotis leonurus), and cross-berries (Grewia occidentalis), with mountain aloes (Aloe marlothii) on top of the ridge, but Mabuza neither cultivated shrubs and flowers nor depicted them graphically on the rocks.
Nukain Mabuza left the site after a disagreement with the local community about his wish to be buried on the koppie, and he died elsewhere in 1981. Little now remains of his wondrous ‘inhabited artwork’ – the dwellings and stile are long gone and the paintings on the rocks are faded, peeling and all but shrouded by veld grass. Fortunately, the artist John Clarke has spent more than thirty years gathering information about Nukain Mabuza. Unfortunately, the two men never met, but in 1982, John interviewed people who lived and worked with Nukain Mabuza in the community at Revolver Creek, and he made an extensive photographic survey of the site as it was at that time. He also holds René Lion-Cachet’s collection of photographs, taken in 1975, and managed to gather a few older photographs after an appeal in the local press. John self-published two books on Nukain Mabuza. The first one, The Home of Nukain Mabuza published in 2001, began life as a catalogue to an exhibition of Clarke’s art and photography, and the second, The Painted Stone Garden of Nukain Mabuza, published in 2013, includes research done since 2001. John’s methods are rigorous and he refuses to indulge in the sort of spurious mythmaking that all too frequently follows exceptional people, especially with the abundant opportunities offered by the internet and social media. My research project is intended to complement and extend John’s work.
Mabuza’s garden was an intensely personal expression but it was also intended as a display. Where possible, elements were oriented to face towards the community and the public road and he sometimes swivelled rocks or propped them up so they could be seen to best advantage from the road. The painted garden is on one of the main routes to the Kruger Park and other tourist attractions in the former Transvaal, and Nukain Mabuza welcomed visitors and guided them around the site when they stopped to visit. Eventually he was able to give up his job as a farm worker and made a living from visitors’ donations.
The surname Mabuza is of Swazi origin, being the name of one of the fifteen founding clans of the Swazi kingdom, but John Clarke believes, based on the testimony of the people he interviewed at Revolver Creek, that Nukain Mabuza may have been born in Moamba, southern Mozambique. His exact date of birth is unknown, but despite his claim of being a hundred years old in 1975, René Lion-Cachet estimated Nukain Mabuza to be approximately sixty at that time, which would suggest a birth date around 1915 (Lion-Cachet, 1976:63). Mabuza is believed to have moved to South Africa sometime in the 1950s and came to live and work on the farm Esperado at Revolver Creek in 1965, possibly following a sister who had married and moved to the area. Local people interviewed by John Clarke did not think that Mabuza ever worked on the mines in South Africa although many immigrants from Mozambique at that time did do a stint underground.
In his book Tribes of Barberton District (1949), AC Myburgh states that the ancestors of the indigenous people then living in the Revolver Creek area came from Swaziland in about 1866. At the time Myburgh was writing, the local Chieftainess, Monile Nkosi, still paid tribute to King Sobhuza II of Swazliand. Monile had succeeded her brother Fana in 1944 as regent for her nephew Dinzulu. Amongst Fana’s wives were three daughters of a man named Hangane Mabuza, who came from the eHoho district in Swaziland (Myburgh, 1949:45-48). There is also anecdotal evidence that a woman named Mdiyane Mabuza, daughter of Mtilize Mabuza of the Mahamba district in Swaziland, married Percy Litchfield who prospected for gold in the Barberton area and later started a transport company (Litchfield Clan website, 2015). So, at least four women with the surname Mabuza moved from Swaziland to the Barberton area in the late 1800s or early 1900s. It is unknown if any of these women were related to Nukain Mabuza, or if it is possible that one of them could have been the sister (or more probably an aunt) that he followed to the area. If so, did he perhaps hail from Swaziland rather than Mozambique? The names Moamba and Mahamba are so similar that they could possibly have been confused by John Clarke’s informants.
Humans have an innate desire to sort and then label things that surround them to make some sort of sense of it all, and so Nukain Mabuza has been labelled an Outsider artist, but in this post-apartheid and post-modern world, the label is reductive, limiting, and in a democratic South Africa, elitist. Does anyone have the right to determine who is ‘in’ and who is ’outside’? But nevertheless, the term Outsider art has incredible staying power and is widely used internationally as a tag, especially in the popular press, and it is of some value when considering the work of Nukain Mabuza. The term was first used in the 1970s by British writer Roger Cardinal as an equivalent for the French term l’art brut (literally ‘raw art’) which was used by the painter Jean Dubuffet to describe the creative production of people who did not function within the conventions of a ‘high art’ establishment, were untrained in art practice, and were often socially marginalised or even mentally ill. Artworks labelled as Outsider art are characteristically highly personal, frequently made with discarded and recycled materials, and are typically done without thought of financial reward or public recognition, or even the awareness that they could be considered art (Cardinal, 1972). Outsider artists are described as being loners, or somewhat ‘strange’, and their lack of social status is deemed to contribute to their particular creative expression and the compulsive obsession by which it is manifest.
The related term ‘visionary environments’ has been applied to the artistic production of people who obsessively transform their living space and outdoor surroundings, frequently with fervent spiritual or religious inspiration. Outsider artists who create visionary environments are said to display a strongly developed identification with a specific place, sometimes even in the absence of legal title to the land.
The scholar John Beardsley believes that “[v]isionary environments express a physical and cultural isolation ... [t]hey are often a manifestation of unequal economic and educational opportunity and of unequal access to social approval ... but they suggest ... a way to transcend the limitations of circumstance, to create a better life, and to rediscover faith in whatever religious, moral or philosophical values might sustain us” (Beardsley 1995:189). Whether Nukain Mabuza had a Christian or other religious motivation is uncertain, but he did paint a crucifix on the rocks and made a sculptural cross out of scrap metal as well, although he was not known in the local community as a churchgoer.
The celebrated South African playwright Athol Fugard evidently has an interest in so-called Outsider artists. His play The Road to Mecca, based on Helen Martins and her Owl House in Nieu-Bethesda, was first performed in 1984. A play based on Nukain Mabuza’s life and work, called The Painted Rocks of Revolver Creek, followed in 2015. This play was staged at the Signature Theatre, Pershing Square, New York, and the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles, to widespread acclaim.
The life and work of an extraordinary artist like Nukain Mabuza should not be forgotten, and although it is probably no longer possible, or even desirable, to restore the site of the painted rock garden to anything like it was when Mabuza lived there, we should at least make every effort to preserve what remains of his story. There must be many photographs of Nukain Mabuza and his garden lying forgotten in personal albums and boxes of holiday snaps in South Africa and around the world. Even if they are somewhat out of focus or faded and of no ‘photographic’ value, they may still be of enormous research value. If you have any relevant photographs, or know of anyone who does, or had a personal encounter with Nukain Mabuza that you are prepared to document, or have anything to contribute about his likely origin in Mozambique or Swaziland, please contact me by posting a message on the Nukain Mabuza Facebook page or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Anything unearthed in this quest will be combined with John Clarke’s archive and preserved at a suitable institution as a permanent record of a distinctive artist whose legacy should endure and take its place in the history of South African art.
- Beardsley, J. 1995. Gardens of revelation: Environments by visionary artists. New York: Abbeville Press.
- Cardinal, R. 1972. Outsider art. New York: Praeger Publishers.
- Clarke, JFC. 2001. The home of Nukain Mabusa. Pretoria: Leopardstone Press.
- Clarke, JFC. 2013. The painted stone garden of Nukain Mabuza. Pretoria:
- Leopardstone Press.
- Lion-Cachet, R. 1976. Rock artist and his subjects are not psychedelic either – but traditional. Farmer’s Weekly, December 29: 63-64.
- Myburgh, AC. 1949. The tribes of Barberton district. Pretoria: Government Printer.
- Staff Reporter. 1973. The rock artist of Revolver Creek. Vulamehlo 1(25):3-4.
- www.litchfieldclan.org. Accessed 17 July 2015.
Main Pic - Nukain Mabuza’s dwellings and the ‘garden’ of painted rocks, Revolver Creek, 1973. (Photograph: Peter Cooper, courtesy of the Clarke Mabuza Archive)