In recognition of Heritage Month, we focus on the Phansi Museum. This little-known and hidden gem is really worth a visit to discover the treasures that are on display in a magnificent, Victorian-era mansion. This museum is dedicated to the indigenous cultural art of Southern Africa, and in isiZulu, phansi means below or beneath which is a reference to the basement where the Phansi Museum began. Fittingly, phansi is also traditionally known as the place beneath us where the ancestral spirits dwell and when entering the one display area you have to bow your head, not just because the doorway is lower than normal, but as a gesture of respect to the abaphansi.
I sat down with Paul Mikula, to find out more about Phansi - his life’s passion. Two entertaining and informative hours later, I left with far more information that I could do justice to in this limited space but inspired by Paul’s enthusiasm for the art on display. The collection has items dating back to the mid-1800s and was built up over decades by Paul and his late wife, Maggie. From exquisite beadwork; to life-size puppets in traditional ceremonial attire; to hand-thrown and beautifully decorated clay pots; to grass baskets and wooden utensils; to telephone wire plates and baskets, this collection is a celebration of traditional culture and art. And unlike most other museums, most of the artefacts on display are used household items that were part of family life, and visitors are allowed to touch them, as long as it is done with RESPECT - respect for the love with which the item was made; respect for its beauty; and respect for its tradition and symbolism.
Paul says the intent of the exhibition is to make people feel good about themselves, and each other. The committed staff want people to fall in love with the museum and what it stands for. A guided tour with a gifted storyteller will make you proud to be a South African and will give you insight into, and admiration for the skills and creativity of our indigenous people. Paul especially wants black people to be proud of their identity and their culture. With this in mind, the Phansi Outreach Programme organises visits for learners from rural and urban schools, so that children can learn more about, and honour their own artistic heritage, whilst those from the urban schools can see and appreciate just how beautiful all these forms of indigenous art are. And to appreciate it, one doesn’t have to analyse it like Western art – one can just look at it and see the intrinsic beauty, and the respect and love that went into creating each item.
Something that I did not know about is the importance of grass to traditional communities. Grass is regarded as “life” because without it, there would be no home, no livestock, no food and nothing to sleep on. When you look at the intricate and perfectly spaced patterns on the grass baskets and containers, you will be in awe of the precision and perfection of the patterns, and maybe you will understand the reverence that the artist has for the material he or she is using. In recognition of the importance of grass, all the true fertility dolls are stuffed with grass to give them power. (Another interesting point is, that a true fertility doll will have no facial features, so the decorative ones that have eyes, noses and mouths have no potency as far as fertility goes.) Paul has a wonderful idea which I hope will reach the ears of government, at all levels. Instead of copying Colonial traditions by using a red carpet for grand occasions, have a pathway of beautifully woven grass mats, maybe one mat by an artist from each province so that the diversity of our country can be appreciated and on show for the world to see. As Paul points out, it would literally be sacrilege to walk on them in high heels and Gucci leather shoes, so everyone would be barefoot. What a marvellous way to get all our politicians to the same level of humility…hopefully!
The African Art Centre has re-located to the Phansi, so this, and the museum collection make it a “must see” for residents of Durban, visitors and tourists. All visitors to the museum are accompanied by one of the storyteller guides who will explain the significance and origins of the pieces on display, so it is preferable to make a booking.
The Phansi is in desperate need of funding and as part of this drive, also hosts film nights; exhibitions; lectures on all forms of art; night at the museum parties; and school tours. There are also venues for hire for lectures, association/club meetings and band practice. See their advert on Page 13 for their address and contact details.
So, do yourself a favour. Set aside a couple of hours and get to the Phansi. There is so much to be seen and appreciated and kids who are old enough, will relish the exploring and the visual feast on display.