Mopho Gonde, once a diamond in the rough, today ranks among the finest wildlife art carvers in world.
Rising next to Mopho Gonde is another beauty born by months of intricate reduction: An elegant portrayal of two bull elephants. Positioned back to back, the massive tuskers seem to be charging off the base beneath them. Ears fanned wide and supplely waving, trunks curled and emitting trumpets, there is both action and an exquisite sense of design.
Everything about the composition flows forward in motion, pleasing to the eye and magnetic in its attraction. From across the room, this artwork titled “A Shot in the Air” glistens as if it were a polished classical bronze carrying a patina from centuries’ past. But it isn’t bronze, nor was it created by an Old World master.
The truth is Gonde has never ruminated much on how his astounding wildlife figures might stack up against sculptors of the Italian Renaissance or 19th century European animaliers. When it is mentioned to him that a well-regarded painter from South Africa considers Gonde “the Michelangelo of African big game carving,” he merely shrugs, his ego inflated not an iota.
“You know, I am honored that people like my work, but I am not in a position to judge if I have a place in art history,” he laughs in his deep baritone voice. “I don’t need to tell you that Michelangelo lived a long time ago and he wasn’t Ndebele!”
“Mopho Gonde is a creative genius,” says Tulsa, Oklahoma entrepreneur Burt Holmes, an avid art collector who owns four major Gondes. “His art is world class, and it’s the backstory of his life that makes him all the more extraordinary.”
Gonde is Ndebele, a legendary warrior tribe. He also is an enigma and unlike any other artist who comes to SCI working professionally in three dimensions. His preferred medium isn’t metal or stone. Largely self-taught and incredibly insightful in his understanding of animal form and anatomy, he’s never attended studio classes at a prestigious fine art college in New York, London or Paris. Nor has he been a taxidermist as so many other great animal sculptors are.
Emanating from Gonde’s sculptures is also a value-added secret unknown to the casual observer and tied to the natural history of his native bushveld.
Technically speaking, Gonde is a wood carver but the rare material he uses—leadwood—is hard and heavy, more akin to rock. Leadwood can grow to be a millennium old, its tree rings tight and dense due to the harsh climate that steels it against the elements. Across the lowveld, elephant, giraffe and a range of other animals, including kudu, impala, grey duiker and red lechwe, eat leadwood leaves.
Pachyderms bend the trees and sometimes topple them to the ground, killing them. When that happens, the trunks don’t rot and decay. Often, they absorb minerals leaching out of the soil, leaving the wood in a petrified state.
Gonde began working in leadwood decades ago and prefers to incorporate the beautiful patterns and nuances of the preserved trees into his designs. Adhering to the direct-carving method, he doesn’t compose by crudely plying chisel and mallet. Instead, he employs tungsten carbide burrs to penetrate the hard surfaces inch by inch. He works slow and methodically to avoid making mistakes because, like marble, leadwood is an unforgiving medium.
“Mopho is highly selective about the quality of leadwood he chooses for his sculptures and distinctive bases. He’ll spend days in the bush searching for material that meets his standards,” says Ross Parker, founder of Native Visions Call of Africa Galleries that has been at SCI for three decades and has gallery spaces in both Naples and Jupiter, Florida. Parker is Gonde’s sole representative.
“For Mopho’s larger pieces, he’s had to find leadwood that has been sitting out there for a couple hundred years,” Parker says. “When you think about it, this was leadwood that grew and had been foraged by elephant, giraffe and other wildlife well before the first Europeans arrived in southern Africa.”
I had heard about the phenomenon named Gonde when he was a young emerging talent in the late 1990s. A few years ago, I visited Gonde in the town where he lived outside of Bulawayo in southern Zimbabwe. He has since relocated to Botswana because of ongoing social tensions in his homeland.
I watched him gently separate a massive leadwood trunk weighing more than a ton into two pieces. Eventually, they were transformed into a Cape buffalo (he is especially revered for his depictions of buffalo) and a rhino.
For nearly a week, Gonde, Parker, his father, Dick and I explored nearby Matobo National Park. We hiked on foot through tall savanna grass taking photographs of a white rhino. We visited a cave filled with ancient animal petroglyphs. And we conversed with game guards armed with AK-47s. They were under strict orders of shoot to kill any suspected poachers.
Along the way, I grew to admire Gonde’s knowledge of the behavior of wild bush animals and his remarkable prowess with making his subjects appear to come to life. For Gonde it’s about a connection to nature that he’s always had since he was a boy. He gets stir crazy, he says, basing himself in the city.
Born in 1968, Gonde grew up in the rural village of Macingwanga near Plumtree not far from the Botswana border. His given name emanates a powerful inference: “Mopho” is a word meaning “blood” in Zulu and “Gonde” refers to a tall tree species with golden leaves that grows prominently along the Zambezi River below Victoria Falls.–Todd Wilkinson