Adam Madebe

Adam Madebe. Photo by Mai Palmberg

"I called it Victory"

Adam Madebe was born in 1954 and is Zimbabwe 's most famous metal sculptor. He has won numerous awards for his often life-size or larger than life sculptures.

How did you become an artist?
When I was young I used to like art. I used to paint a bit but as time went on I really fell in love with metal sculpture. When I was doing my art course in Mzilikazi Art Centre, that was around 1970 I was being taught how to model things, sculpture figurines and animals and all that. Eventually I had this idea of wanting to make large sculptures, but the clay wasn't so strong that I could make the large items of sculptures. So I had to find something that would help me make large sculptures, even taller than me, even larger sculptures to put in areas.

It took me about five years to think about something, then I had this idea from a workshop I attended when I was training in welding. I saw these small pieces lying around, off-cuts in fact. I thought: "What if I shape these small pieces together and do a figure or anything? Would I come out with something like an art object?" I wanted myself to bend the metal, even shaping it with my hammer and making whatever I wanted to make. That's how everything started in 1970. As time went by I wanted to master this trade of mine.

I do my sculptures first with clay modelling first. And after that I use metal sheets, say around 1,6 to 2-mm thickness. I'm bending the metal I use so that it could fit wherever I want and then melt and weld it together until the whole piece is finished. And after that I take out the clay. So all my sculptures are hollow inside because of that clay which has been taken out.

Usually the titles of my sculptures are African, like Bushmen people or Zulus. I'm a Zulu by descendants, so I like their lifestyle.

You said most of your customers are abroad. Where have your sculptures gone?
There is one gallery in Britain or Germany, which bought plenty of my sculptures, many of the figurines, human figures.

There are also quite a few of my sculptures in South Africa where they have bought many animals. There was a hotel there, which wanted some animals to be made, then I did some few animals for them and they came out right and eventually I did different animals in the airports, to decorate their airports with.

Do you document your sculptures before they loose touch with you?
Yes, I've got my cameras, I always photograph my work because they help me see where I can improve or where I can at least shift maybe from the other section to the other section of a sculpture. Say like hair, should I change the hair now or should I do something different? That helps me go forward, not to repeat myself.

Do you see those pieces, which are attached together there? I just took a picture from one of the books on the Zulus in South Africa when I was in London and there was this kind of a picture. The title of that figure was called "Defeat". But now I don't call it "Defeat" myself, it's called "Victory".

Now to one of your most famous sculptures, "Look Into the Future”, which caused a scandal here in Bulawayo. What do you think now of the moral indignation and the fate of the stature?
When I started my art work I didn't know that people would give me such an audience, a section of my audience some would say "Yes, it's okay" and some would say "No, it's un-cultural" and many ideas were coming all over. It had started when the gallery announced a competition for sculptures for the tower block buildings, which are the offices of the City Council.

I thought of this new man in a society, looking to the future. He has got nothing, even nothing to wear. I didn't know that people would reject that idea.

They even said "Our African people they used to cover themselves up with loincloths". I think since he's a young man with nothing, even putting a loincloth would not mean anything to him. That' was my idea, trying to put this young man into a new society and he's looking to a future or becoming a very successful person in life, in his life and even having cattle, a farm and all that. It is a multi-title because it can mean to anybody looking for his own way in his life, anywhere, look into your future.

The controversy it took about 3-4 months, when this sculpture was there. And eventually the government wanted to pull it down. The then Minister of Local Government pulled it down. So that's why it's now standing inside the art gallery, in the yard.

Is it all right as it is?
To myself it is okay even if they decide to put it outside again. I don't see anything wrong with it. I'm not worried about it. It was my donation to the society; I wanted to give only. But if the society rejects my offer, it's okay, no problem. I'm happy about that. It's no problem. The gallery, they have got the answer. If they ask the gallery to put it outside again it's all up to the gallery now because it's the property of the gallery now.

At least you became known.
Yes, you are right, it advertised my work because after that controversy people wanted to know more about me.

You never paint your metal.
I don't like to paint my sculptures, no. It doesn't give that sculpture artistic feeling about your sculpture when you paint it. Even if it rusts I love it, how it rusts. It has got that feeling again it is art; it's not a human thing. I want it to look like a sculpture, which we can appreciate. You can see even how the person worked on it. That's what I like, that's why I leave them unpainted.

Let us turn to the present situation in the country and how it affects your work and your ability to sell. Does it also affect your themes?
Yes, it does. I remember around 1992 there was this drought, a big drought, and there was one sculpture, which I did which was very, very - it has got an impact on hunger. It's called "Hunger". There was the mother holding the baby on top with a girl child on the other side, maybe you have seen that one here at the gallery?

The environment around me it affects my work, because what I see and what I feel about what's happening around me can be translated into art.

Like nowadays I've got some themes which I can do also about this land system which is happening now, land programme. I've got some themes which I can translate that into a sculptures. I am still going to think about the ideas first because I want to make sure that when I do my sculptures they are happy people because they are getting their land back, and maybe they are ploughing now and everybody's happy. And they are cutting trees down to have land for their fields and some other themes go along that area, those areas, about this land programme. When I start going back to my sculpture I'm quite sure I'm going to do those.

So you are not sculpting now?
I gave myself some leave. My kind of sculpture is not giving money now because I'm selling to foreigners mainly. For instance, foreigners haven't come to check how much I have gone with my sculptures and that affects my art. So I thought if I could give myself some leave and do something different, when the situation changes again to better then I will start again.

What did you start doing instead?
I bought myself a truck just to keep myself going until the things are okay. I don't think it will take a long time. I'm looking forward really for it to be so quick so that I could start again. I ferry goods for other people, like people who do building, like bricks, anything for building. I always ferry things for people around that sort of area.

It is hard work but I work hard to make these sculptures. You have got to work very hard so that your sculpture will come out nice. But in art you've got to create, you've got to use your head. But for this, no, I don't have to think very hard.

Some of the metal work artists here in Bulawayo have learnt the technique from you, or the art from you, are you still teaching also?
Not really. I left teaching because of stress, I could say. It was really stressful to teach art because at the end of the day you find yourself like an empty tin or empty space. You don't have anything with you. In the morning you will be having something to go and give the students, but at the end of the day you'll find you have got nothing. Teaching's all right for a short time because you'll be having plenty at a certain time and giving that to other people, you'll be enjoying it. But as the time goes by what you have got will be depleted. So that's why I left teaching.

If you had a wish list, if your wishes could be fulfilled that is, what would you wish for art in Zimbabwe?
I would wish really that there should be a school of art. Some exist but they are quite small. It should be a college, not a school, but a real college. Maybe in a central part of Zimbabwe because I think there is talent out there but people don't know that they can do something with that talent they've got.

[Interview in Ilona, Bulawayo on 4 December 2002]

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