Prize winner: Simon Moshapo with one of his intricate wood sculptures at his home in Indermark, Limpopo. Picture: SUPPLIED
Prize winner: Simon Moshapo with one of his intricate wood sculptures at his home in Indermark, Limpopo. Picture: SUPPLIED

Simon Moshapo is used to being discovered — it first happened when he was a boy and a king chanced upon his sculptures. His latest breakthrough, at the age of 63, was winning one of five merit awards in Sasol’s New Signatures art competition.

He has had a stunted career with a few spikes of 15 minutes of local fame. But the Sasol award is the big one, he says at his home in Indermark in Limpopo, with just a hint of a wavering voice. It has finally put him where he belongs, finally made him an artist.

Indermark is the quintessential town you have never heard of, part of the Blouberg district municipality, also fairly unknown. Municipal employees and councillors spend 40% of the budget on salaries, but they have dealt with invasions of a new housing scheme and assisted one worker being evicted from a farm this financial year.

Sketch work: Spot the animals in The Return of the Prodigal Son. Picture: SUPPLIED
Sketch work: Spot the animals in The Return of the Prodigal Son. Picture: SUPPLIED

Created in the 1960s when people forcibly removed from Venda had to be housed somewhere, Indermark is at the foot of the mountains where King Malaboch had his redoubt, holding out for several months against the forces of Gen Piet Joubert of the Transvaal republic in 1896. When he succumbed, the land was dealt out to volunteering burghers in the force. Large commercial farms abound around Indermark, many surrounded by kudu-high electric fences.

Today the mountains are part of a reserve filled with game, and sacred caves and pools. The town has its share of typical SA complexities: the Boer forces consisted mostly of soldiers from rival tribes, and there are now several black farmers in the area.

Zimbabweans fleeing their country’s economic collapse pass through the town regularly via the nearby trilateral border with Botswana. For most locals, their life story is just about the daily struggle to survive.

Despite calling himself a political artist, Moshapo does not deal with the pregnant history of the town. He takes the long view, the "merry-go-round" that allows him to see all sides. Though his piece for New Signatures is titled The Leader Shall Govern, the charge is ironical and against political struggles that "plagued Africa for centuries".

In his lounge, behind the TV screen broadcasting a soccer match, is a painting with a compendium of political clashes seen in a regal-looking African head: necklacings, funerals, arson, riots…

He does not have much to show at his imposing home, just a tree-of-life-type sculpture he is working on, and another under a stand in the sandy garden that is wrapped in the coils of hosepipe — "ah, it’s just the children".

But the same theme is repeated as in his Sasol piece: multiheaded rulers assuming monstrous forms covered in scales, with their victims, silently howling and holding begging bowls, intertwined with the reptilian spirals of power.

There are only a few sketches and prints — none very good — on the lounge’s wall and in his bedroom. "I finish a work today, tomorrow it is gone," he says, with a throwaway gesture, as if he has been cheated.

One surviving sketch, titled The Return of the Prodigal Son, has a striking concept. It shows a child hovering over a closed municipal rubbish bin outside a front door. Moshapo has to point out to me the deftly done trompe l’oeil faces of animals hidden in the undergrowth — a rat, a sheep, a hog. They are, he explains, competing with the child for the scraps.

Moshapo grew up dirt-poor on a farm near Indermark. As a child he whittled away at pieces of wood and made clay sculptures. One day a chief, Shivashe, had a car breakdown and spent the night at Moshapo’s family home. He undertook to introduce the young artist to sculptors in Thohoyandu, Venda, who became his mentors.

On the farm Mashapo was forbidden to use any of the hardwoods on the land. So he made dummy sculptures to show the farmer if he came looking, and hid the real ones.

He tried formal art studies, but it was not for him. Instead he had a successful career as an Afrikaans teacher.

He became a full-time artist in 1992 and won local competitions, but the fame of sculptors such as Jackson Hlungwani — also from Limpopo — eluded him.

Sasol New Signatures national chair Pieter Binsbergen in his commendation praised Moshapo’s innovative approach.

He may yet put Indermark on the map.