The Basotho people were always known for their innovative and creative range of indigenous crafts. Traditionally the women produced various forms of clay pottery, while the men cleverly plaited grass baskets and hats. These objects were marketed to foreign visitors in Maseru and elsewhere across the border in South Africa.
A severe drought during the 1930s and 1940s, resulting in poor crops, combined with various other intricate economic factors in Africa, created serious want and distress in Lesotho. An increasing number of people were forced to resort to other means of generating additional income. Samuel Makoanyane, a young man from Koalabata, exploited his skills in the modelling of clay figurines. Makoanyane started by producing a variety of clay models of animals copied from books. These included baboons, buck, tigers, lions, birds, and frogs. The frog turned out to be very popular and sold well during his trading travels to other villages and across the border in the Free State. Gradually other figures were added to Samuel’s inventory. A visit by Pagel’s Circus to Maseru inspired the production of a series on elephants.
Samuel increasingly turned his attention to human figures. He succeeded in depicting Chief Moshoeshoe and his commanding warrior, Makoanyane, in fine detail, incorporating a considerable amount of historical and cultural authenticity. These models became extremely popular, eventually numbering several hundred in total. Samuel produced only a few figures of Europeans, mostly of his acquaintances in the service of the Roman Catholic Church of which he was a member. People who recognised Samuel’s ability to model from life encouraged him to establish himself in portraying his own people going about their daily chores. He went on to make the various types of Basotho figures for which he eventually gained acclaim. He made a great effort to manufacture the Basotho weapons of his figures as close to the originals as possible. The knobkierie for instance, was carved from wood, the tuft of feathers on the forehead (sekola) and war stick (mokhele) came from small birds and the skin for the shield (thebe) from a rat or mouse.
Prices were limited during the initial stages, with figures selling at 3 to 4 shillings each. Later, single objects earned up to 8 shillings and eventually the price was increased to 21 shillings. Figurines made on special commission were not always to Samuel’s own benefit because of the time it took to perfect a new figure. Nevertheless, in 1936 he took on his first commission from the renowned Prof. Percival Kirby of the University of the Witwatersrand, to produce a sequence on traditional Basotho musical instruments. This resulted in a series of seven figures, each playing a different musical instrument. A specific figure of interest was a woman playing the initiation drum (Moropa).
In the same year a request came from Dr W.T. Beukes, ethnologist at the Transvaal Museum, to provide models for display during the British Empire Exhibition. Samuel put his best into this, trying to take full advantage of the opportunity to advertise his potential. Although not completely satisfied with the results, he managed to supply several figures of warriors and women carrying babies. This could also be the origin of the warrior figurine in the anthropology collection of the National Museum, Bloemfontein.
The year 1938 saw one of his crocodile models being sent to an arts and crafts exhibition at Grahamstown, together with examples of the work of a basket maker and a woman who specialised in making clay heads. Interestingly enough, the other objects were highly rated, but the crocodile was not sold and had to be returned to Lesotho. Despite such periodic setbacks, Samuel’s work seemed to become known in South Africa and regularly emerged in places such as Johannesburg, Pretoria, East London, Bloemfontein, Kimberley, and Fort Hare. A curio dealer from Victoria Falls in Rhodesia (Zimbabawe) also showed interest.
Outside the continent Samual’s work formed part of exhibitions in New York and Paris in 1935, exposures which assisted to distribute his work and establish Makoanyane’s name in America, England, Ireland, Scotland, and France. From his own people Samuel experienced a constant demand for certain figures. They often reacted in wonder to the skill of their countryman. The popular demand for models of crocodiles, the totem of the greater part of the inhabitants of Lesotho, could hardly be satisfied.
It is possible that because certain local people could be recognized in his models, some observed him with suspicion. Nevertheless, it is known that he had two great admirers among his own people. Chief Theko Makhaola of Qacha’s Nek and Chief Jeremiah Moshoeshoe of Mpharane in East Griqualand were keen collectors of Samuel’s work, the latter even presenting General Smuts with a number of these models. In retrospect Samuel Makoanyane was successful from the beginning. He was undoubtedly talented and developed his own individual style. His models were carefully made and particularly true to life. His work proved to be innovative and remarkable, and his creations did not fall into the ordinary range of curio manufacturing. True to the nature of artists, Samuel was never satisfied with his creations, always aspiring to improve on technique and innovation while aiming for the perfection which he did not recognise in himself.
Despite all the acclaim for his work, Makoanyane remained a very humble person. He did not like people watching while he was at work and constantly discouraged visits to his workplace by claiming that his “office” was very untidy. Samuel also remained a very reserved person, preferring to work or to play with a football all by himself. He never married but cared for his brothers and other next of kin. It is said that he did not own livestock, but granted himself little luxuries in food and clothing, expressing his artistic nature in colour and individuality.
Samuel Makoanyane was born in about 1909 near Parys in the Free State where his father worked at the time. In 1913 the family returned to Lesotho, to settle in Chief Majara’s village at Koalabata, near Berea in the district of Teyateyaneng. In later years Samuel developed a chest illness which became serious over time. During 1942, he had to attend a TB hospital in Johannesburg for treatment. He returned to Lesotho where he passed away on 24 October 1944 and was buried at Koalabata where his grave is still to be seen.
Casalis, E. 1861. The Basutos. London: James Nisbet.
Damant, C.G. 1951. Samuel Makoanyane. Morija: Sesotho Book Depot.
Ellenberger, D.F. 1912. History of the Basuto. London: Caxton Publishing Co.
Tylden, G. 1950. The rise of the Basuto. Cape Town: Juta& Co.
This article is a reprint from the 1999 edition of CULNA. The images are published with the kind permission of Iziko Museum’s South Africa.
Ke Liha Pene – a tribute to Samuele Makoanyane
Text: Gosiame ‘Amy’ Goitsemodimo
Oliewenhuis Art Museum held a temporary exhibition entitled Ke Liha Pene – a tribute to Samuele Makoanyane. The exhibition focused on the small clay warrior figurines made by Samuele Makoanyane (1909-1944) between the late 1930s and early 1940s. Samuele was born in Parys, Free State province, but he lived and worked at the village of Koalabata, in the Teyateyaneng district of Lesotho. He is renowned for making about 250 warrior figurines that resemble his great grandfather, Joshua Nao Makoanyane, a commanding general in King Moshoeshoe’s army. He also made 150 in the image of King Moshoeshoe.
Samuele was a self-taught artist who began his career at an early age making clay models of animals and then ventured into making human figurines. His friend, agent and biographer, C G Damant, encouraged him to focus on depicting his own people. He created various figurines that included men and women going on with their daily activities (e.g., women carrying pots or breastfeeding babies), musicians playing traditional instruments etc. The figurines of musicians, which are now part of the Kirby Collection at the College of Music in Cape Town, were made for Professor Percival Kirby in the 1930s. Prof Kirby had commissioned Makoanyane to create eight figurines of Basotho musicians playing traditional musical instruments, but Samuele only managed to make seven.
Each figurine is finely made and most feature important Basotho national symbols such as the blankets and hats. The warriors are depicted in their regalia (headdresses, copper gorget and etc) carrying weapons (shield, spear, battle axe), while the musicians are playing various instruments. The sizes of the figurines range from about 8 to 18 cm in height, a recommendation made by Damant after Makoanyane’s bigger sculptures became difficult to transport and handle. Most of his work was sold through trading stores in Lesotho and South Africa. It is also found in the collections at the Iziko Museums of South Africa, Museum Africa in Johannesburg, the Duggan-Cronin Gallery in Kimberley, the East London Museum, Killie Campbell Museum in Durban, and the National Museum in Bloemfontein.
The exhibition comprised of warrior sculptures on loan from various institutions as well as the regalia and weapons commonly associated with Basotho warriors, particularly his great grandfather. This includes the headdress (sekola), a copper gorget (khau), stabbing assegai/ spear (lerumo), great plume (mokhele), shield (thebe), battle axe (koakoa) etc. It was curated by Steven Sack, who first came across Makoanyane’s work in 1988 when he curated the exhibition “The Neglected Tradition: Towards a New History of South African Art 1930-1988” at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. Steven has been fascinated by the artist ever since. Steven mentions that the “exhibition involves the rethinking of the Makoanyane collections in public institutions, as they migrate from social history collections and museums into the discursive space of the art museum – and thus the recognition of Samuele Makoanyane as an artist”.
https://www.sahistory.org.za/people/samuel-makoanyane (Access 19/09/2022)
https://www.newframe.com/makoanyanes-historic-figurines-made-digital/ (Accessed 21/09/22)