Herding cattle is traditionally a boy’s job. Sons are sent by their fathers to the fields to watch the cattle graze, in the empty moments they build oxen and other animals from clay. Mabasa’s parents were blessed with far too many girls, who, as a result, took on the chores conventionally reserved for boy’s including herding the animals. This shift and challenging of gender roles came to define her life, as one of the most famous female wood carvers in Southern Africa.

Noria Mabasa metano figurines (1984), smoke-fired clay.

Noria Mabasa metano figurines (1984), smoke-fired clay.

Mabasa’s carvings depict Venda mythology and spirituality, as well as portraying traditional ceremonies and the daily lives of those in her community: women, children and babies. She explores the hardships women suffered under apartheid: violence, loss and displacement, while dealing with themes of race and gender. Her art depicts the realities of life in the rural area and works towards social transformation.

Her woodcarvings are heavily influenced by dreams and visions, which she first began to experience at the age of 14. The first dream she had was of an old woman who showed her how to mould and sculpt clay. Soon after, the artist began making small clay sculptures, which she would give to children in her village. From here Mabasa’s dreams and talents grew and in the early 80s she decided to experiment with woodcarving with the help of a Venda sculptor, Nelson Makhuba. Mabasa became a full time artist in 1976.

Born in Xigalo, Limpopo in May, 1938, Mabasa received very little formal education, as a child her closest school was three hours away. When she was 14 years old, she moved to Soweto to live with her brother and a mere three years later she married Jim Mabasa, her husband, who she met in Johannesburg. The marriage did not last long and after a few years they got divorced and the artist moved back to Venda.

In 2002 she received a Presidential Award for her artistic achievements and in 2003 she was awarded the ‘Silver level of the order of the Baobab’. Her work is represented in numerous corporate and private collections and she has exhibited widely, including art houses such as the South African National Art Gallery, Johannesburg Art Gallery, Standard Bank Gallery and the Sandton Convention Center.

She currently resides in Vuwani, Venda, where she teaches the art of sculpture and clay pots. She is known as one of the only Venda women in South Africa to become a famous wood carver.