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Zizwezenyanga Qwabe


Zizwezenyanga Qwabe at the Bantu Agricultural Show, Nongoma, 1959. Photograph by Katesa Schlosser. Killie Campbell African Library Collections.

Also known as
Ntizenyanga Qwabe, Tivenganga Qwabe, Ntizenganfa Qwabe, Mzinyanzinya Qwabe

Born and raised in present-day KwaZulu-Natal province in South Africa, Zizwezenyanga Qwabe (active from the 1920s to at least 1959) established himself as a full-time wood carver in the town of Nongoma in the mid-1920s to meet the ever-growing demands of Indigenous patrons, including Zulu royalty, and a burgeoning tourist market. Qwabe is known for his wood relief panels with figurative pokerwork or pyrography—a technique that uses a heated metal object to decorate wood with burn marks—and narrative scenes. The panels’ form derives from geometrically decorated storage racks for rolled-up sleeping mats, which remain popular in rural Zulu communities.

Qwabe drew inspiration for his often complex and densely populated panels from traditional oral Zulu praise poetry and photography. Before the external market became his primary focus, he used his art to commemorate the heroic history of the Zulu kingdom, and to denounce racial discrimination in the newly formed colonial state. Qwabe’s late-career works show a degree of naturalism, a sense of movement, and a three-dimensional effect resulting from his hallmark shading technique. The Art Institute’s vertical panels are characteristic of Qwabe’s practice from the late 1930s featuring animal and wedding-related imagery while in later work, such as this storage-rack panel, he combines multiple scenes into a larger horizontal relief. This format and design was likely made in response to increasing market demands that defined his career during the 1940s.

An inventive and highly creative individual whose works demonstrate a careful observation of traditional Zulu life and customs, and a sharp critique of the oppression under the colonial regime, Qwabe is a pioneer of modern Zulu arts.

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