Following months of hard work, planning and preparations, a towering 2.2m likeness of Hailie Selassie now stands proud on the mount at Judah Square, Knysna – home to the biggest community of Rastafari in Southern Africa. Looking out over the township of Khayalethu, powerful hands posed in a diamond-like gesture, the traditional Rastafari symbol of the Seal of Solomon, the statue will welcome back visitors from far and wide.
A year in the making, the sculpture is one of a series of new interactive public artworks being installed in iconic locations around greater Knysna as part of the #knysnaartproject – a collaborative initiative by Visit Knysna (Destination Marketing), Knysna Municipality (Destination Management and Economic Development) and The Knysna Art Society. Aside from the obvious benefit of beautifying Knysna further with public art, the project aims to inspire locals, visitors and foreign tourists to venture away from the expected Knysna Estuary experience and discover Knysna’s lesser-known gems. Most importantly, to take pictures when they get there, post them online, share their experiences with their followers, and promote Knysna as an aspirational destination to the rest of the world.
The #knysnaartproject kicked off in 2020 when Visit Knysna invited artists, crafters and creatives in the area to come up with ideas for an interactive art route that would capture the hearts of visitors while showcasing the area on social platforms. The Rastafari sculpture is the fourth in a series of interactive art installations. In Sedgefield, a stunning full-size, fully-mosaiced VW beetle for people to clamber into, stand on and pose in for “selfies” is now parked on the edge of the estuary. Buffelsbaai (Buffalo Bay), has been transformed into one endless celebration of surfing – from the themed murals that front the train bridge visitors pass under on entering the bay, the bus shelters and ablution blocks, to the mosaics that cover the public braais and the Buffelsbaai ‘boardwalk’ – a series of colourful surfboards mounted on benches, each one painted by a different local artist. And in Brenton on Sea, the only home of the endangered Brenton Blue Butterfly, a giant “Wall of Wings”.
Executive Mayor of Knysna Lavael Davis unveiled the Judah Square statue at the official launch of the #knysnaartproject on Wednesday 23rd February 2022. He described the project as being one of the most exciting initiatives the town has ever seen. “This sculpture stands as an example to the citizens and communities of greater Knysna of what can be achieved when we come together in our efforts to reach a shared goal. The past two years have wreaked havoc on the tourism sector and initiatives such as this will play a crucial role in helping Knysna to stand apart and alone as a destination amidst the online clutter of post-Covid travel and tourism communications.”
Rastafari elder Brother Maxi described the project as a “great gift.” “We are hopeful for what this project will do for our community as a whole. We want visitors to know about Judah Square, to want to come here, stay here, eat here, spend time with us, and learn about our lifestyle and beliefs.”
GM of Visit Knysna Colleen Durant explained that the #knysnaartproject was conceived as a way to showcase Knysna as a destination that warrants further exploration, inspiring travellers to spend more time here. “Beautiful interactive works by local artists placed at some of Knysna’s most beautiful locations will ensure that we, as a destination, continue to reverberate around the world,” she said.
“With events of the past couple of years having tempered visitor numbers, now more than ever we need to give more people more reasons to visit Knysna more often, for more nights. Local travellers as much as international ones. Historically Knysna was heralded as a centre of art and culture in South Africa, and we want to reclaim our place as such. The interactive installations at our iconic locations will encourage visitors to branch out and explore the greater Knysna area, beyond the estuary.
The Knysna Art Society is the creative force that’s making it all happen. Chairperson, Helena Gerber, re-established the Society in 2020 to reconnect the large community of artists living and working in Knysna area. “The #knysanaartproject is just the sort of initiative we needed to put Knysna back on the art and culture map. In the past Knysna was known as being a hub for creativity and culture in South Africa. The community of artists is still huge, but the world doesn’t seem to know we’re all here anymore.” The Knysna Art Society is also busy working with Visit Knysna to formalise an “art route” that will link installations, galleries, studios, artists and crafters from Knysna to art enthusiasts and genuine buyers.
Eugene Lewis, himself a Rasta, and the artist behind the sculpture, described his participation in #knysnaartproject as “an experience beyond my imaginings; a glorious journey that has challenged me as an artist and changed me as a person. Through the #knysnaartproject I have been living my higher heights,” a Rastafarian expression for complete happiness.
Clay has always been Eugene’s medium of choice, ever since he established ‘Tribal Africa’, his range of handcrafted ceramic figurines adorned in the traditional dress of South Africa’s various tribes. Making the statue at Judah Square was not only his first experience of sculpting cement, but it was also the first time that Eugene has created anything close to this size – his largest ceramic figurines stand just 40cm tall. Eugene described the opportunity to make the Rastafari statue for Judah Square as an honour, a blessing, as amazing – that he has gone from making small figurines to this.
The challenge to upscale his Tribal Africa miniatures into a 2.2 metre statue would have been impossible to achieve without the help of established South African artist and sculptor, Suzanne du Toit, who the Knysna Art Society approached to mentor Eugene through the four-month process. Constructing the giant Rastafarian statue was no mean feat, requiring for Eugene, the use of unfamiliar and challenging materials and techniques. “Suzanne helped me throughout the process. First, she introduced me to David Steel who helped with welding an inner structure (armature) out of steel which was then galvanised and covered in chicken wire. This was then filled with lightweight polyurethane to cut down on the amount of cement used for the body and ultimately on the total weight of the sculpture. Tivan van Dyk was then called on to help with the moulding and shaping.” Tivan has worked with Suzanne every day for more than 20 years, helping to bring her 3D creations to life.
“Lifelike sculptures are seldom painted but colour is an important characteristic of the Rastafari culture and people – red, green and gold are synonymous with the Rastafari and white robes are symbolic in religious ceremonies. In this context, Eugene’s concept of a full-colour sculpture just seemed right.” Suzanne was delighted to be part of the #knysanartproject. “It’s an exciting move to put the magic of Knysna and its artists back on the map. The energy and enthusiasm with which Eugene approaches his work has made the whole experience an absolute pleasure.”
So, what next for Eugene? “Make, make, make…” he says, “I have scaled the sculpture down and started moulding miniatures to sell as mementos. I want the sculpture to stand as a symbol of Knysna, a must-see for everyone.”
Enquiries to Info@VisitKnysna.co.za (2022-02-28)
About Eugene Lewis, maker / artist
Born in Paarl in 1977, Eugene moved to Knysna with his mother and siblings at age seven to settle in Hornlee where he has lived with his family, which now includes his two teenage children, ever since.Having just completed matric, it was while out looking for a job one day in 1997 that Eugene found himself standing in the workshop of Tribal Africa – a small ceramics studio in Knysna’s industrial area that was producing handmade figurines wearing traditional Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele and Swati dress to sell to local and international tourists. Crossing the threshold, he knew in an instant that a chance decision had led him to his destiny. Eugene’s passion for ceramics was immediate and all-encompassing. This was the future that had been waiting for him. “I needed a job and knew nothing about pottery, but when I saw the clay that first day, I fell in love with it all…the fact that you can take it in your hands and create something beautiful,” Eugene says.
Under the mentorship of owners Chantal and Michael Guassardo, Eugene’s role in Tribal Africa grew with the business. Employed to fill the available position of workshop assistant, it wasn’t long before Eugene had his hands in the clay himself, helping to mould each piece into one of the many African forms being manufactured for curio shops around the country. His role evolved into that of apprentice crafter, and he spent the next 5 years learning everything he could about the art of ceramics. Eugene then began working on his own designs, fine-tuning his skills and further perfecting his craft with each new creation. During this period the business changed ownership several times and then, in 2010, Eugene himself was presented with the opportunity to claim Tribal Africa as his own when he was selected for Knysna Municipality’s small business incubator programme.
With ownership of the business came the freedom to focus on developing his own unique style – a signature look that characterises and unifies the Tribal Africa range of figurines. Each one is now moulded by his own hand, kiln-fired under his watchful eye, painted and glazed to be individual in its own right. Today, the Tribal Africa range of handmade ceramic figurines includes hundreds of designs celebrating the unique tribal costumes of all nine South African tribes and more – most recently Eugene has been making Rastafari figurines and these have proved to be as popular amongst buyers as his more conventional Xhosa and Zulu statuettes.
Although Eugene usually works on 20 figurines at a time, each and every one is unique. The process of rolling, cutting, shaping and moulding the bodies, limbs, faces, headdresses, traditional clothing and accessories takes several weeks as the clay must be allowed to dry naturally before he can even begin the glazing and finishing detail and colours.
The design of the statue at Judah Square is his, an amplified version of his Rastafarian figurines. “This statue is a tribute to our god Haile Selassie, but it is not intended to be an exact likeness. Haile Selassie never wore dreadlocks but they are hugely symbolic in our faith (hair which is uncut symbolises a covenant with God) so I asked Brother Maxi (the community elder) for permission to include them on the likeness.”
About Suzanne du Toit, mentor
Born in Pretoria, Suzanne knew already at the age of five that she wanted to be an artist. A student of art at the City of London Polytechnic and the University of Pretoria, where she specialised in sculpture, Suzanne is the first to say that she loves drawing, painting and sculpting equally.
During her career, Suzanne has created largescale artworks for upmarket hotels and casinos including the Carousel, Swakopmund Casino, the Windhoek Hotel, Sandton Towers, Michelangelo Hotel, Caesar’s Casino and Montecasino. Suzanne cites her contribution to the National Heritage Project as one of her proudest projects to date. Conceived and created by Dali Tambo, the installation titled the ‘Long March to Freedom’ comprises one hundred and sixty life-size bronze sculptures by contributing South African artists portraying the struggle heroes of South African history, many of whom had not been given the recognition they were due. The parade is led by Nelson Mandela. Suzanne created the bronze statues of Chief Hintsa and Chief Maqoma, both on horseback.
In 2003 Suzanne moved to a farm in Harkerville near Knysna with her partner Anna-Marié de Vos and their children where she continues working on commissions while enjoying farm life.
About Judah Square
From its humble beginnings as an informal settlement, Judah Square developed into the iconic spot it is today when the Knysna Municipality allocated a specific portion of land to the local Rastafari in 1993. At first there were only some shacks here, but with Knysna Municipality giving title deeds and subsidised dwelling to the community, residents were inspired to create something truly special. They formed an organisation called the House of Judah (HOJ) which is registered as a co-operative under the name ‘One Love Rastafari Tourism & Projects’ and is involved in various cultural and developmental projects with the Knysna Municipality, SANParks, Cape Nature and others.
By self-fundraising, the Judah Square community have built a tabernacle, a crèche, bed and breakfast facilities, a holistic healing centre, an office, a food stall, and are now busy with plans for a community hall. The band The Reggae Ambassadors was established specifically to raise funds to plough back into development here.
Prior to Covid-19 Judah Square was a firm favourite on international visitors’ must-do list. Before 2020, individual tourists and groups visited Judah Square most days. Trained community guides introduced people to the Rastafarian culture and way of life – their motivations for following a vegetarian diet, not smoking cigarettes and using marijuana (ganga in Rasta language) for health and healing, as well as their commitment to their religion of love.