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Umcebo’s Bulwer Park Community Public Sculpture Project takes flight

Bulwer Park in Durban is adjacent to the KwaZulu-Natal Society of the Arts (KZNSA) Gallery, one of the province’s most important arts venues. The park recently became an art destination in own right and is now home to a large mixed media sculpture of a vulturine fish eagle (also referred to as a palm nut vulture) that soars above the park’s treetops.

The sculpture was assembled by Robin Opperman and Ujala Sewpersad from Umcebo Design along with sculptor George Halloway and a group of local crafters. The seven metre wide by five metre high artwork is constructed around a galvanised steel frame using upcycled materials such as electric plugs, cables, scissors and plastic combs. The materials used in the sculpture are mostly non-compliant consumer items that may otherwise have entered the local market.

Upcycling has become more than just a buzzword over the past few years. Also known as creative reuse, it is the process of transforming waste materials or repurposing unwanted products into new artefacts, thus cutting down on waste. In the arts, upcycling has become a sustainable alternative to using traditional sculpture materials, converting old or discarded objects into beautiful expressions of creativity, instead of it ending up in city landfills or illegal dumping sites.

Umcebo Design, one of the NAC’s beneficiaries, is leading the charge locally. Based in Durban, Umcebo (isiZulu for “treasure”) makes hand-made to-order decor items inspired by South Africa’s natural animal and plant wonders. They also conduct workshops with school children and local communities, in which they advocate the advantages and importance of recycling and the repurposing of discarded materials.

Opperman believes recyclable material is a viable art medium: “People think making art and items from recycled materials is a lazy option but it is actually harder to do. Very often clients buy recycled goods from non-profit organisations not because they love what they see, but from pity. We need to change this perception.”

Sparked by his work as an art teacher at the Ningizimu School for the Severely Mentally Handicapped during the 1990s, Umcebo is testament to Opperman’s long-standing history of working with marginalised communities and people of varying abilities. Umcebo provides an inclusive studio workspace where the community and people with special needs are assisted in developing their artistic talents. Stemming from Opperman’s vision to transform community-based arts and crafts initiatives into viable income-generating business models, the studio also helps artists and crafters to generate income from their creative handiwork.

The Umcebo Bulwer Park Community Public Sculpture Project focused on depicting a vulturine fish eagle as this rare bird is synonymous with the birding ecotourism that KwaZulu-Natal is known for and to steer away from the clichéd depiction of the big five. Apart from the bird’s significance to the province’s ecology, its natural habitat – the Ilala palms’ leaves – have a cultural significance as they are used by the isiZulu in basket weaving.

The Bulwer Park sculpture project is the result of mutually beneficial partnerships producing engaging and informative public art by means of creative collaboration. Through the communal exchange of skills and ideas, Umcebo provides the platform for participants to develop mutual understanding and awareness of other collaborators. With its commitment to skills development and broader education, Umcebo believes that “personal empowerment and improved self-awareness is brought about through art, craft, creativity, learning and teaching. It is this collaboration that works towards inclusion of participants in the fullest sense”.

This approach has proved a winning formula. Apart from being a finalist in the inaugural eThekwini Art Prize competition and having undertaken various public art commissions, including those now found in Durban’s City Hall and King Shaka International Airport, Umcebo Design’s work also takes pride of place in the personal collections of notable celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Rita Marley as well as the royal collection of King Goodwill Zwelithini.

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