Spring 2003

The man who made aeroplanes out of scrap metal

Sibusiso Mbhele and his Fish Helicopter

Powerhouse, $60

Scout, the latest venue in the heaving gallery-land that is London’s Hoxton Square, hopes to live up to its name by uncovering new talent from the world of fashion and art. The inaugural exhibition was by photographer Koto Bolofo, whose work is little known outside the fashion community, where he has an almost cult-like following.

Bolofo is probably best known for his contributions to journals such as The New York Times Magazine, Interview, GQ and Vogue. While working in the commercial arena Bolofo has remained true to himself, developing a distinctive style that is instantly recognisable. His fashion work has rewarded him with the freedom to explore his personal film and photographic projects, and it is one of these – an engaging body of work about the South African artist Sibusiso Mbhele – that the gallery chose to show.

In 1991 Bolofo documented his father’s return to his native Basutoland, South Africa. The family had escaped the apartheid regime in the early 1960s settling as political refugees in England. The resulting film, The Land is White, The Seed is Black, was released in 1995 to rave reviews.

During this trip, while out driving with his wife, Claudia Van Ryssen-Bolofo, the photographer came across the most extraordinary sight: aircraft constructed from brightly painted scrap metal, sat atop wooden poles in the African landscape. The local community pointed the couple in the direction of their creator, the artist Sibusiso Mbhele. Bolofo decided to document the young man, whom many would consider a genius, using film and photography.

The show at Scout consisted of eleven photographs – in colour, black and white and platinum – and Bolofo’s documentary film Sibusiso Mbhele and his Fish Helicopter, which was first shown at the Museum of Modern Art in 2000. Alongside these were sculptures and drawings by Mbhele. The Scout show was the first time either man’s work has been seen in the UK. This

is the epic story of a man with great artistic talent, so enthralled at the sight of an aeroplane circling over the mountains of Kwazulu, Natal, that he began building his own aircraft out of oil drums, wire and scrap. These range from small craft to his beloved life-sized ‘fish helicopter’ which he called home – a home that is in stark contrast to the more familiar thatched huts on the local horizon.

Mbhele was forced to flee his village after his success hit the newspaper headlines and jealous neighbours destroyed his work and his home. They had him thrown into prison, and although he was later released, he took sanctuary in the big city before eventually returning home. All he wanted was to be accepted by his community, and to be allowed to continue quietly, creating his art.

Bolofo’s rich colour prints ooze with the warmth of the South African landscape. His exquisite platinum prints are in fabulous contrast to Mbhele’s sculptures – the valuable metal of the black and white images meets the scrap metal used by the artist. The documentary film adds another dimension to this story: one artist’s struggle for recognition, documented and supported by another.

Few photographers could have shown us this epic journey with the passion and humanity that Bolofo brings to his subject. Yet this seems to be just the beginning: it is a story that has many more chapters to come and may culminate in Sibusiso Mbhele receiving the recognition that he deserves.

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