Boniface Chikwenhere kept everyone fascinated as he explained and demonstrated his unique process for creating his wonderful sculptures. His gentle but assured manner of speaking lent great sincerity to his words as he told his audience how he takes a pride in using only very old indigenous woods for his work. This also helps him when he exports his sculptures, as he seldom has problems with the regulations governing the treating of insects in wood, as the wood is so old and dry. Because collecting the wood is time consuming, he has assembled a team of gatherers in various parts of South Africa and Namibia. They search and dig for old roots and pieces of trees and for driftwood. Many of the pieces are very old, hard and dry. He had some examples with him, including Mopani, Sneezewood and a small root of unidentified wood that looked almost fossilized.
Sneezewood is called that as the shavings and dust cause you to sneeze. It was used by early settlers for fence posts – one could still see the holes in the piece he had, and as a result, became extremely rare. Boniface explained that the most time consuming and important part of his process was deciding what animal or bird was to be created from a particular piece of wood, as he works in a semi abstract way, leaving large parts of the wood completely unsculpted, allowing the grain, colours, and textures of the wood to suggest the particular creature that he sees in it. This part of the process could take days, months or even years.
Once he has decided on a particular species – birds make up a large part of his sculptures – he then carves appropriate portions of the wood, using an instrument called an Adze. This is made especially for him, to suit his stroke and the way he carves. It has a very sharp flat metal blade on a heavy wooden handle. He held his audience spellbound as he used this almost clumsy looking implement to fashion the head of a water bird from the piece of Mopani wood, leaving the rough bark to suggest parts of feathered wings. The audience gasped in horror as a large piece of wood was chopped off the beak, but he laughed as he explained that he had intended to do it, as the beak was too long.
He wears safety goggles and a mask while he works, as the wood is extremely hard and pieces fly off in all directions. At times he also uses electrical grinders and cutters.
Once he is satisfied with a piece, it goes to his team of polishers, who use grinders and fine sandpaper to bring out the natural grain and beauty of the wood, he never paints or stains the wood, only using oils to enhance the shine and colour of the grain. He does use metalwork to mount the pieces, and sometimes to create legs for various bird sculptures.
Boniface spoke of putting his soul in his work, and balancing that with the need to be businesslike assessing what will sell, and the marketing of his work.
He learned his craft from his grandfather as a very young boy in the rural areas of Zimbabwe, where he worked in soapstone. He now passes his knowledge on to others, including his brother and his children, but said that his wife has been his best pupil, her speciality is making small bird sculptures.
Judging by the many questions and the participation from the audience, it was a very successful and enjoyable evening.