An Intimate Encounter with Virtual Sculptures

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KE LIHA PENE – I lay down my pen is available on the Iziko website.

When the pandemic wrecked plans to exhibit Basotho artist Samuele Makoanyane’s sculptures, the curators made an exhibition of the future from these 20th-century figurines.

KE LIHA PENE – I lay down my pen is the latest virtual exhibition hosted on the Iziko Museums websites. The exhibition, a collaboration between Iziko Museums of South Africa and the Lesotho National Museum and Art Gallery, was guest-curated by Steven Sack of DIJONDESIGN, the museum design firm behind the new Basotho museum. The exhibition also features contributions from the South African College of Music which is based at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

The exhibition centres on a collection of ceramic figurines created by Samuele Makoanyane in the 1930s and early 1940s. The physical statues, which are part of the Iziko Museum Social History Collection and the Kirby Collection at UCT, underwent photogrammetry — the process of measuring, modelling and digitally mapping an object — in order to reach their virtual 3D forms.

The virtual exhibition has a user-friendly interface.

Samuele Makoanyane was a Basotho artist who died in 1944. During his lifetime, most of his works were kept in private collections but when displayed to his community, they were largely received positively (with the exception of the superstitious who found his likenesses too wonderful to be made by humans).

With this exhibition, Iziko Museums aims to “enhanc[e] the profile of the artist and contribut[e] to the focus by contemporary scholars on this genre of ceramic sculpture.” KE LIHA PENE- I lay down my pen, which draws its title from the signature greeting used by the artist in his letters, is also a high-level collaboration between heritage institutions in South Africa and Lesotho.

The experience feels a lot like you are handling the figures themselves.

KE LIHA PENE – I lay down my pen was originally conceived of as a traditional, in-museum exhibition that would take place in 2020. The closure of museums at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, however, scrapped this plan and gave birth to the virtual exhibition.

The digital format is one of KE LIHA PENE – I lay down my pen’s greatest assets. The medium allows visitors to zoom in on and tilt the statues from all angles, and to even ‘see through’ the exterior to look at the materials on the inside. The experience feels a lot like you are handling the figures themselves, an autonomous sensation which, of course, is prohibited in physical exhibitions due to the fragility of the objects.

The use of photogrammetry allows the audience remarkable close-ups with the statues. Pictured here is Warrior Makoanyane, a portrait of the artist’s great-grandfather. Image: screenshot by author

The digital medium in fact enhances the intimacy of the subject matter. The artworks bring to life daily life and milestones in a Basotho village. Initiation, battle and motherhood are depicted in the faces of young girls, warriors and a mother and her newborn. They record not just culture, though, but also history. One of the over 150 sculptures Makoanyane made of King Moeshoeshoe, the celebrated founder of the Basotho nation, is included in the exhibition. You can also come up close to Makoanyane’s great-grandfather, who was a general in King Moeshoeshoe’s army and inspired 250 likenesses by his artistic descendent.

The circle of seven musicians is probably the highlight of the exhibition. The musicians are brought further to life by the inclusion of a video, Music in the Mountain Kingdom. The short clip documents a field trip by the curators to the Morija Museum and Archives in Lesotho. There, musicians from Lesotho gathered to play five of the seven instruments featured in the exhibition. The audio-visual material heightens the sensory atmosphere of the display.

The value of KE LIHA PENE – I lay down my pen is in the close encounter with the art history and cultural traditions of Lesotho.

The exhibition notes that Makoanyane’s works have traditionally been received as cultural curiosities but it seemed to do little to overturn this long-held view since most of the expository text focused on Makoanyane’s life and the subject matter of the statues, and less so on interpreting the technical and design aspects. While scholars and art critiques undoubtedly need little help deciphering the aesthetic value, members of the general public like me would appreciate more guidance. Everyone can appreciate aesthetic beauty for the emotions it evokes in us but considering how to express those sentiments in terms of movements and styles and techniques is something that I expect art museums to facilitate, and which did not happen this time around.

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Most of the statuettes depict people going about their daily lives.

The value of KE LIHA PENE – I lay down my pen is in the close encounter with the art history and cultural traditions of Lesotho. Indeed, one unstated goal of the virtual exhibition seems to be to tease and promote the opening of the Lesotho National Museum and Art Gallery next year, something it does quite successfully.

There are many debated functions of the museum as an institution: to educate, to preserve, to facilitate debate, to inspire…If museums are there to educate, then this exhibit did — to an extent. If they’re there to preserve — sure, good job. If they’re there to facilitate debate — not so much.  But if museums are there to stimulate curiosity, KE LIHA PENE – I lay down my pen, with its sleek interface and industrious figurines, certainly did.

KE LIHA PENE – I lay down my pen runs on the Iziko Museums website from 27 August 2021 until an unspecified date. Two of the statues can be seen in person in the Iziko William Fehr Collection at the Castle of Good Hope.

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