The making of “Wabele – Our Gods Go With Us”

Imagined, Making of, Media, sculpture, Uncategorized
Everything led up to this

Our Gods Go With Us is named “Wabele” because this is the name given to the wooden sculptures that are made in central Africa with an amalgam of features from different animals. These are protector spirits, frequently horned but always unpredictable, powerful and wild.

The horned god travelled with humanity in legends as we spread around the world but he began with the very first of us, here in Africa.

I have made him in 2 separate media for now: polyurethane resin which is light, incredibly portable and starts out a pristine, almost unnatural white and then ages to a perfect ivory, and cement-resin which is ebony black, far heavier, far tougher and can easily withstand the abuse of humans and the elements for hundreds of years.

Original sulphur clay

This is my initial clay sculpture, sans ears. I had foolishly been getting oil-based clay that contains sulphur until very recently,

The thing is that both natural rubber latex and silicone rubber moulding materials absolutely hate this stuff. Natural rubber because the oils in the clay leech into the mould once the water has evaporated and this disintegrates the rubber, turning it into a soft, crumbly mess. Silicone, by contrast simply refuses to cure in the presence of sulphur so it stays sticky and runny and messy indefinitely. Worse, it’s impossible to wash off with either water or solvents because it’s oil-based, meaning water runs off it and turpentine or other solvents dissolve the clay of the sculpture along with the silicone. This means I had to spend ages priming every crease of the original sculpture before making the mould.

Natural rubber latex drying on the horns
Priming the sulphur clay

Here are pictures of the priming process for the head and the first layer of latex going onto the horns. I love using latex, especially for small sculptures because it is non toxic and also incredibly flexible and strong. stick a little cotton-wool or gauze in strategic places and you have a freestanding mould that captures exquisite detail and pulls neatly off even the most improbable shapes. This piece is the largest I’ve made to date so I definitely needed the support of a mother mould though, otherwise I would have still been painting latex layers well into my 90s.

You’ll notice here that I removed the horns and ears to make moulds for them separately. I left hollow sockets on the head thinking this would make reinsertion easy and allow me to add plenty of resin to the gap, thus ensuring a good bond. This would have been perfectly intelligent if I had managed to make sensible, flat cuts – and if I’d not horribly damaged the insertion points while making the first (failed) mother mould out of polyester. Looking back, it would have possibly been less painful to simply carve some holes in my own skull. As it was, I patched up the original and muddled along with my first casting. I haven’t been able to find any pictures of the disaster but they might have upset sensitive readers so it’s probably just as well.

Mother mould for the latex
original natural rubber mould and shell
The seam line fits neatly into the shell, separated using foil

Here are pictures of the second mother-mould I made out of plaster-of-Paris. The simple problem throughout the whole first and second attempt is that latex gets annoyingly thin when it dries, even with 20 coats I hadn’t compensated for the detailed undercuts on the chin and inside the stupid horn holes. After the debacle with the polyester I made some improvements using latex-soaked cotton-wool but latex also doesn’t stick well to itself after a few days of curing so not much could be amended.

This meant I had to make the mother mould in 6 pieces. Unbelievably,  everything fitted beautifully, but: The next disaster came when I had to remove the mould after the first casting in hard resin and pulling it off became took hours because the rigid mother-mould was almost completely wedged undercuts without judicious use of the chisel. Also, in the process of slush-casting the thin wall of the latex pulled away from the mother mould and warped the neck a little. I was very proud of myself for not smashing everything up to use as calcium for the vegetable garden.


By the time I had the good sense to just use silicone I had already damaged the original sculpture trying to remove the first polyester support, so I lazily decided to “fix it in post”

Surrendering to silicone sanity

(Note: Never fix it in post. Most people have fun answers to the question of what to do with a time machine. I should never be entrusted with this as I’d casually rip holes in quantum probability to fix every “fix it in post” decision I make in my studio. It would break from overuse in a week and I’d never have travelled further back in time than 48 hours)

This is one of the horns bundled safely in silicone. I realised after the fact that I’d left myself a hole at the base of the horn for pouring in the resin or cement but the curve of the horn meant that I’d be fighting bubbles and gravity with every pour. Sensibly, I sealed up the bottom (thankfully silicone sticks fanatically to silicone and not much else), and I cut a new pouring hole at the mid-point.

Happy face for when something actually works
It’s a learning curve

This is a smiley face I made with the beautifully cast resin-cement horns and ears. I was delighted with the casting, not so much with the whole mould making process.

Still, I continue to learn and it’s not like I can stop now. There’s no 12 step program for curiosity.

Portrait of beautiful Malawian woman with bright crimson flower and raindrops

Thelma with Unfallen Rain

Imagined, Portraits

Acrylic on canvas 120cm x 180cm

This is about waiting. We wait for the rain the way we wait for the government (or big business) to rescue us. There has been a “green drought” in the Western Cape for the past three years. In combination with ongoing urban growth and government mismanagement it has turned into a full blown water crisis. Living our daily lives has become synonymous with water saving. We count our showers and never bath, we have bowls in sinks and showers to catch water, we keep precious washing water to flush etc. Every action, everything we buy and eat, is measured by how much water has been used for its cause. The heavy wait for water and the evasive hysteria from the media and government inevitably slipped through my fingers and onto the canvas.

Early stages of underpainting for an acrylic portrait about drought

Work in Progress 1  – The huge canvas waiting in a corner of my Cape Town studio

It happened almost by accident, in between other paintings. I’d begun an enormous painting of Thelma in an ornate black necklace but I just couldn’t bring myself to finish it as it stood. I’d smoothed the canvas with texture paste, applied pretty washes and laid out a structure that really compelled me but I couldn’t work out what happened next. I spent time with my family, waited for insight and we all waited for rain.

Four months passed with little inspiration and even less rain; and ever more hysterical media messages about saving water, not using taps, penalties, bylaws and threats of  punitive taxes for living in a city with big, new buildings and small, old dams. There was deathly silence from the politicians whenever it rained though. Perhaps they were hoping we wouldn’t notice it running off the Civic Center, or into the hovels of the people who live under the broken Metrorail station roof next door.

The big painting stumped me. I tried all my favourite things: pure colour, transparent glazes, messy splashes of wet paint over areas that annoyed me. Nada. Only small parts worked. The whole felt thin and unresolvable.

Progressing underpainting for an acrylic portrait about drought
Work in Progress 2 – Massive and unsolved… .

Painting is problem solving. You may have a plan when you start out, but as you go the painting flows or argues with you in no predictable way. Colours fight for dominance, parts of the background refuse to recede, and details in the source image bicker with emerging character of the painting. When I’m really stuck, I find it helps to develop a bit of a martial attitude to the work. I decide to start putting paint on canvas and not stop until the solution appears. I drank a lot of coffee and dug in for about a week.

After a few days I’d given up on the background, the hibiscus and the necklace several times with no end in sight. The painting was never going to work as it was, so I reexamined Thelma’s face. She is tiny and sweet but her character and will are indomitable, and I needed the viewer to see this in her eyes. During the photo shoot we’d played with jewelry, dresses and fabric but the thing we’d all loved most was the face paint; which I’d left out of the paintings entirely… .

Progressing underpainting for an acrylic portrait about drought
Work in progress 3 – With some parts working and others fighting me tooth and nail

The thing with acrylic is that it’s painfully difficult to experiment with it in hot weather. No matter how much glycerin I add, some edge always dries where I least want it to and I have to spend an eternity with ethanol, tiny brushes and earbuds to get it back off if I change my mind.

At moments like this, artists learn to “lean in” or face never finishing anything at all. With the first white streaks on her cheekbones everything started to cohere. I drank more coffee and  reveled in the dopamine rush of “things coming together”. Who needs sleep?

It stopped raining.

Beginning to add detail on an acrylic portrait about drought
Work in Progress 4 (With my foot)

Playing with colour and getting to “fiddle with reality” brings me intense joy so I reveled in colour and texture for a while. It’s so good to forget life and chores and politics and fear for a while. I’m deeply grateful for my work.

Eventually I had to do some basic housekeeping or run out of dishes, clothes and patience with the sticky summer heat. I did my weekly load of laundry, filling buckets with water from the washing machine to reuse flushing, mopping and cleaning and keeping my tomato plants alive. I hauled buckets around the awkward old apartment and watched fat drops of water fall from the sky and into the gutters and storm drains outside.

Adding detail to an acrylic portrait about drought
Work in Progress 5- Water for diamonds, water for gold.

The necklace was black and pointless, I’d already tried white but it was equally pointless. Water poured from the sky outside and my frustration and boredom with lugging buckets of precious liquid around my elderly flat, fighting with 1950s plumbing and shitty water storage found it’s outlet at last, hovering untethered above Thelma’s skin.

How many schools, hospitals, and blue-light brigades was this rain splashing off while I took time away from earning a living to make up for ancient plumbing? How many kids were getting yelled at for splashing in puddles and for leaving taps on? How many porta-pools were folded uselessly away, legally forbidden in every garden, while rain ran riot through gutters and downpipes, and out to sea?

And to pump sea water back onto land: How much money will the failing bureaucracy “reallocate” toward desalinization tenders, and away from hospitals, public works, universities and the very people who could fix the problem?

Portrait of beautiful Malawian woman with bright crimson flower and raindrops

Will you be ready when the rain does fall? Because it still falls.

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