Whittling a creative new life in SA

Colonial gentleman by Roger Bongolomba. (Photograph: Penny Haw.)ROGER Bongolomba was very young when he learned to how to craft simple toys, figurines and other objects from wood. Growing up in Kinshasa on the southern bank of the Congo in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he watched his father whittle away at bits of wood. Whenever he had the opportunity, the youngster would snatch up the knife and test his sculpting skills.

“Even though I’ve only been working seriously as a woodcarver for 15 years, I have been doing it for most of my life,” he says.

Woodcarving has a long history as a craft and art among the Congolese, says Bongolomba. For centuries, his countrymen manufactured tools and utensils from wood. Many of these featured in rituals, while others served as ornaments, particularly in the homes of wealthier people.

“And, as people started to buy tools and furniture from shops instead from craftsmen, woodcarvers began to make more and more ornaments,” says Bongolomba. “Slowly but surely more and more woodcarvers made and sold curios and decorations. Too few customers wanted wooden tools and practical things . And, when tourists started shopping, the curio market grew.”

The result is a glut of statuettes of wild animals, masks and wooden fruit bowls filled with bananas, apples, mangoes and other woody produce. But it was only when he arrived in SA four years ago that Bongolomba realised just how over traded the wooden curio market was.

“I came here with my wife and we hoped to make a living from my woodcarving and her hairdressing . When we arrived in Durban, I was surprised. I knew my work was good but I did not realise there would be so many other people selling the same kind of stuff. It was tough. Even though lots of tourists come to SA , there are too many woodcarvings for everyone to make a living from it.”

Bongolomba did not, however, throw in the chisel. The couple headed to Cape Town where, once he’d confirmed there were as many wooden giraffes and bowls of fruit on offer as Durban, he set about coming up with something novel. One of the few possessions he’d brought with him from Kinshasa was a treasured old French Tintin comic book he’s owned for years: “I thought about how popular Tintin is. I found out South Africans know and like Tintin and all the characters from the stories as much as I do. Tourists who come to Cape Town also know and love him. ”

So Bongolomba studied his Tintin book closer than ever and began whittling Tintin, Snowy, the Thomsons, Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus out of blue gum and jacaranda wood.

It required experimentation and persistence. But he learned from his father that, particularly when you’re creating something unique , woodcarving requires patience and imagination. So he applied his skill with determination. The whittling, he says, is just the start. Without shadows, the figurines are characterless. Depth is created by adding detail and shadows with some minute relief carving.

“But the most difficult part was painting the statues . I had to experiment with different paints. Even now, when I have got the paints right (water-based primer followed by oil-based finish), painting each one takes a very long time. It has to be very detailed to make sure the expressions are right and the quality is perfect.”

While painting was not something he’d done much of before beginning work on his new creations, Bongolomba’s hometown is widely celebrated for the vibrancy of its painters. Cheri Samba, Bodo, Moke, Cheri Chérin and Cheik Ledy, all of whom come from Kinshasa, are regarded as being among the leading contemporary painters from sub-Saharan Africa. Has this influenced his work?

“When I matriculated in Kinshasa, I was aware of the paintings of my countrymen. There is a great love of colour in the city. But I was not formally taught art so did not think at that stage about using colour as a big part of my carvings.”

Even so, Bongolomba’s colourful and meticulously painted Tintin Series was successful. And, after having tested it at an outdoor market near his home in Parklands , he successfully applied for a stall in the Blue Shed, which is one of two large indoor craft centres at the V&A Waterfront.

“I was very pleased to get the stall. When I applied, the managers saw that my work is very different from anything else around and so allowed me to have a stall in the craft centre.”

In fact, it’s not only the management at the V&A Waterfront who recognises the novelty of Bongolomba’s work: art lovers and collectors appreciate his creativity too.

“There’s a rich authenticity about Roger’s sculptures that sets them apart from many other similar figurines,” says Cape Town artist and art teacher Lauren Schofield.

“It’s clear that each is the result of painstaking and time- consuming effort. The detail is superb and each character unique. There’s no mistaking Captain Haddock’s testiness but you can also sense his tenderness. And you can’t miss Professor Calculus’s absent- mindedness or Tintin’s sombre level-headedness. They might be characters from a comic book but they’re brought to life in a new way because of the manner in which he handles them.”

Bongolomba’s work, she says, is the kind of creativity that provides fodder for the continuing debate about what separates artwork from curio: “A curio, from the word ‘curiosity’, is something fascinating and unusual that people collect. People visiting other countries often collect curios. So perhaps Roger’s work can be categorised as ‘curio’. But because each statuette is unique and special in terms of technique, style and expression, I’d classify it as a great deal more than simply a curio. It’s collectible. It’s delicately handled art.”

It was Bongolomba’s careful handling of the characters of Tintin that led to the creation of his next series: “One of my customers, a businessman, asked me if I could create a carving of a rugby player — Victor Matfield — he liked. I asked him to bring me a picture of the man and I made it for him. Now I am happy to do the same for other people. I have created other sports people and some other characters that my customers ask for. It’s a new kind of carving and painting but I like to try new things.”

Bongolomba’s Colonial Series is also popular. It includes elegant African women carrying pots on their heads, men in pith helmets, doctors and hunters. It’s his way of offering tourists something inspired by Africa that does not involve animals and fruit. “Some customers, especially tourists, want something different but that also reminds them of their trip to Africa. The colonial characters remind people of some of the romantic old stories they know about the continent.”

He is looking forward to getting more commissions — “especially from people who want me to create their favourite characters. It’s a challenge and I like to see their faces when they see how I have seen the person they want to honour.”

(This article was first published on the Business Life page of Business Day in 2011.)

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Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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