The story of Nontetha Nkwenkwe, the prophetess persecuted by white authorities in the 1920s, never made it into our official history books. Lynnley Watson’s statue will ensure that those passing the magistrate’s court in King William’s Town will never forget it
LYNNLEY Watson feels a personal connection to the story of Nkwenkwe. "I had an emotional, gut reaction to the story as soon as it was relayed to me,’" she says. "It felt as if the commission had been tailor-made for me as it fitted in so well with my current work.
"I immediately got hold of the book on her and read any information I could find on her. I chose to reflect it in a literal rather than a symbolic or abstract way as I felt that this was the best way to convey the story to others."
Nkwenkwe’s story fits in with the general theme of Watson’s work, "which centres on women’s issues, particularly women from disadvantaged backgrounds who have contributed to society, often under very challenging circumstances". She has also completed a large sculpture of the Xhosa prophetess Nongqawuse and a work about Aids called Altered States. Two of her sculptures, Emerging Icon — the Embroiderer and Disappearing Icon — the Nanny, relate to labour issues.
Watson sculpted Nkwenkwe holding her staff and praising God. She opted to work in clay, her favourite medium and the one in which she has the most experience. A rubber mould was made for the bronze cast.
The work sits on a cast-concrete base that also bears the Sunday Times Heritage Project plaque.
Says Watson: "Nontetha is walking in a trance, eyes closed; her head facing upwards, waiting on the word of God. Her expression is one of suspended anticipation tinged with anxiety.
"At the same time, I hope to convey a sense of the peace that Nontetha could access her God, and find comfort and strength in this.
I hope to convey a sense of the peace that Nontetha could access from her God, and find comfort and strength in this
"One of her hands is outstretched in supplication, and her other holds a staff. At her feet is a scarf, on which her followers would kneel."
Watson hopes the sculpture "will convey the emotion I felt when I heard the story... I cannot imagine the sheer torment she must have gone through, removed from her children, her home, and her life’s work. It makes me despair just to think of it."
She battles to describe the impact of the work on her as an artist. "Certainly the whole process has been a steep but most enjoyable learning curve for me, and I have gained more experience in the process of commissions.
"The commission came at just the right time and has been an inspiration and joy to work on. The site is wonderful. The King William’s Town magistrate’s court building is beautiful, and the designated site for the sculpture perfect."