Lord Isaiah Shembe

Lord Isaiah Shembe


Date: 2003
Dimensions: 15% larger than life
Media: Bronze



New public sculpture for Durban beachfront

The Shembe was commissioned as part of a national competition. The competition was instituted by the eThekwini municipality (Durban) to celebrate the life of Lord Isaiah Shembe, the founder of the Shembe church.

I made the maquette, submitted it to the panel of judges and was duly awarded the commission on the strength of the maquette and my motivation. My proposal was that Lord Shembe in the 50’s was purported to have commanded the sea to retreat. It was a type of old testament heroic idea that still captures so many people’s imagination. It is, however, a compelling African narrative where selective humans have inordinate powers invested in them through the ancestral universe.

I made the work which met the approval of the client and their representatives. As part of my own personal act of inclusion, not that which was insisted upon by the client, I invited selected members of the Shembe leadership to come and view the work. I remember on one occasion in Palmer Street, where my studio was, that four bearded, biblical-like representatives arrived suitably attired to pay solemn respect to the work in my studio. I was shocked at the power that the image had in South Africa to invoke such authority on people. They entered my studio, put down their brief cases and supplicated themselves in front of the sculpture and duly left.

I had chosen reference material from available photographs of the founder of the church. I made him at the height of his mature authority.

Some time later another member of the church approached me to say that the leader of the church had appointed him to negotiate with me over the sculpture and to represent the interests of the church. The first thing he told me was that the leader wanted the face of the sculpture to be changed. Upon further enquiry, I discovered they wanted a more youthful Shembe. In order not to appear to be disrespectful, I duly changed the work to reflect a younger Shembe. In my defense, he was not too young since I thought that that would compromise the authority of the body I had already made.

I was then summonsed to meet the leader which I , of course, duly did. Through a secondary person I was told that what the church actually wanted was for the Shembe to look like the marble sculpture of the Shembe at the bottom of the sacred hill.

To me, the Shembe at the bottom of the hill looked liked an intrepid turn-of-the-century arctic explorer and did in no way resemble the Shembe as per photographic evidence. The argument of the church was that they wanted to keep a uniform image for the worshipers.

It seemed pointless to me to enter into this debate as one can imagine that to make a work of art as per the multiple instructions of the various interested parties, would render the work completely without character.

I then withdrew from the negotiations and merely referred these to the client (city) and told them to deal with it.

Another saga now unfolds.

There are two principle factions of the Shembe church (current legal events, post the departure of the incumbent leader, has faced the two factions off in a bitter court battle for authority and leadership).

The complexity of this particular work also became at a much earlier stage, the victim of these two warring church factions.

The minority faction threatened to take City Council to court over the sculpture because they had not been consulted at all on the manufacture of the work and they claimed that the leader should not, in fact, be represented in an image at all. This despite the fact that the leader is replicated time and time again in multiple images on badges, pendants etc.etc.

Closer to the truth was perhaps the fact that the city had granted the majority faction a substantial amount of money to develop and append the infrastructure at the holy site. My unsolicited opinion was that the minority side was upset about the money.

A sculpture commissioned by one of the leading municipalities in South Africa as a result of a national process, duly appointed and contracted, now still remains hidden, wrapped up and shrouded in a warehouse in downtown Durban.

The less I say about this the better but I will address it at some stage in the future.

Andries Botha, February 2012