Gerard Bhengu: stepping back in time

By Thembelani Mkhize

When asking an artist how much their work costs, most professionals will tell you it’s “priceless”. Some may mistake this for arrogance but if you look it from the artist’s perspective, it’s not really about money. Which was the idea I got when I started reading up on the great artist, Gerard Bhengu (whose life story, ironically, still remains unknown to many South Africans). Bhengu could tell you that his work was worth his life.

Bhengu was born near Centocow Mission in the Creighton District on September 6, 1910. Commonly known to the locals as emakholweni (which translates to “the congregation” in English), the mission was founded in 1888 by European missionaries. Bhengu grew up around the missionary church, which was less than a mile from his homestead. There he attended school, where he was given a hard time for drawing all over his schoolbooks instead of doing the given curriculum.

Charcoal

If that wasn’t enough, he would paint some of the walls at home with charcoal, which his mother didn’t seem to mind. The neighbours, on the other hand, wondered why she would let him ruin all her hard work, but little did they know he would grow up to be a master of art.

The building housing the museum and gallery dedicated to artist Gerard Bhengu.

His journey began after a lengthy battle with TB led him to Dr Max Kohler, who was one of the first doctors at the mission. The young Bhengu could not afford the treatment the doctor used to heal him, so he decided to paint him a portrait to compensate for saving his life.

This sparked an enduring relationship between the two, which led to Bhengu realising how broad the spectrum of art was. While the European artists he was learning from were known for using oil paint, Bhengu did perfect renditions of their art using only watercolour.

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The doctor realised that his talent needed space to grow and, when asked, Bhengu said that he preferred to draw the landscapes of his home and depict the culture and rituals of his people – the Bhaca and Khuze. His love for his culture is evident with every pencil or brush stroke of his artwork. The colours are vibrant, the mood is always portrayed not only by facial expression but the contrast in and depth of the work he did. He could make the simplest of situations look like a vibrant event.

Bhengu later moved to Durban when in his 30s and started painting at the department store, Payne Brothers, on West street. Most people who visited the store, some of them off ships visiting Durban port, couldn’t believe that the work was done by someone of colour.

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Of course, Bhengu continued to amaze tourists with his craft, exhibiting his fine charcoal and sepia drawing skills. Unfortunately, the era he lived in did not allow him to shine as an African artist and he never reaped the benefits of his handiwork. Since his death in 1990, however, some of his works have sold for R50 000 and above at auction.

Thembeka Ngcamu, the friendly and knowledgeable curator at the Gerard Bhengu Gallery and Museum at Centocow missionary Church, prides herself on being the keeper of this very sacred tribute to the artist. She feels that the spirit of Bhengu resides within this establishment all the way down to the handprints on the handmade bricks on the wall.

A young Gerard Bhengu with mentor, Max Kohler.

Thorny olive branch

Her favourite Bhengu painting is one of a boy carrying a thorny olive branch in traditional Zulu attire while running across a valley. To the Africans, the thorny olive branch is symbolic, as it is used when guiding the spirit of the deceased to their final resting place.

Ngcamu believes there are more paintings by the master artist out there in Europe waiting to make their way back home, and she is on a mission to make sure we all remember the great Gerard Bhengu.

*Restoration of the building housing the museum was made possible by the help and co-operation of:
The Roman Catholic Church;
National Lottery Fund;
Joan St Ledger Lindbergh Charitable Trust;
Sisonke District Municipality;
UKZN;
Ingwe Municipality

If You Go:
From Howick, drive through Boston and Bulwer and, about 10km out of Bulwer, take the left turn to Centocow (signed). This sign is situated 27km before you reach Underberg. From here there is less than 20km to the mission. The road dips down into a stunningly beautiful valley, and it’s well worth the drive just to witness its serene beauty.
**Contact Thembeka Ngcamu before you go to confirm the opening times: 073 469 6407.

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