In African culture, rainmakers – much like shamans or seers – are called to their positions from a young age to give predictions about the weather or interpret prophecies. They are important members of the community who provide possible solutions to the challenges facing society, and are seen as intermediaries between the divine and humankind. They are beacons of both light and hope, leading healing rituals and celebrating the godliness in all who walk the earth.
In much the same way as the traditional rainmakers of Africa, art can also be a beacon of light and hope that has been used over the centuries as a universal language, speaking to the hearts of all. It is unspoken, yet understood, and has an enormous propensity to heal societal wounds. It bridges the gap of vernacular and allows those without a voice to be heard. Artists who use the form as an element of alchemy to evoke and heal emotions are the rainmakers amongst us.
One such artist is Samson Mnisi – whose last name, rather prophetically, translates to Rainmaker.
Mnisi, born in Lesotho in 1971, is a Soweto-based South African visual artist who, like many youths growing up in the township at the time, walked a fine tightrope between activism and what could be described as crime. At a very early age, his interest in the rights of all people,
and empathy towards those who were suffering at the hands of a dark colonial history led him to become a member of the African National Congress, and an active Umkhonto we Sizwe cadre within the country. Being a part of the struggle evoked in Mnisi a deep desire to heal others and create peace in a wounded society. It inspired the passionate young man to enrol as a student at the FUBA (Federated Union of Black Artists) Academy in the early 1990s, where he went on to study a degree in Fine Art and Photography. He emerged in a post-apartheid South Africa as an artist, cultural organiser, and activist who has gone on to do extensive work as both a producer and director in theatre, music, film and, of course, art.
Early on in his career, inspired by his grandmothers – who were traditional healers or sangomas – Mnisi studied the intricate art and history of rituals, which soon became a central theme in his artwork. Throughout Mnisi’s work, lines, patterns, symbols, and colour are used as a means of finding new interpretation of an old language that has been blurred and misinterpreted in post-colonial times. He consistently challenges conventional ideas of materiality, and works with different mediums in a range of unique and thought-provoking ways.
His paintings, which have been described as “monumental”, draw inspiration from a range of ancient cultures, such as architectural structures from his homeland of Lesotho, traditional sketches of the Aborigines, elements from Machu Picchu, Ndebele patterns, and ancient cave drawings from around the world. Combining these elements, as well as his inspiration from abstract masters such as Miró, Klee and Kandinsky, Mnisi has created his own unique language.
“Language is an old expression of abstract thoughts, through symbolism,” he explains. “My art is a language that seeks to express human emotion through colour, symbols and line. It is intrinsically linked and intertwined with historical reference points. I have fused what I have learnt over the years with what I invent. I have been influenced primarily by indigenous languages, and forms of expressions from everywhere, from the Khoisan to the Aborigines, to the Egyptian and Native Americans. I reconnect the old and the new to find a dialect that is uniquely Samson.
“It is thus not unusual to find mathematical references and symbolism in my language. My biggest influence remains my immediate culture and surroundings, which are seamlessly fluid and in a constant state of evolution and metamorphosis.”
The multi-layered magic and mystery in Mnisi’s work goes even deeper with his self-created alphabet – a truly fascinating part of his work that connects to symbolism from ancient times and contains many parallels similar to that of traditional sangoma symbolism. Peculiar markings on his paintings can be deciphered using his alphabet, allowing viewers a unique opportunity to “read” his work and make sense of the most minuscule details that might otherwise have gone unseen.
Samson Mnisi sees himself, much like the rainmakers, as part of a timeless tradition of celebrating human godliness. Constantly evolving, his work is his magic – pure symbolism, and an alchemy of sorts through which human emotions can not only be evoked, but healed too. “My art talks about love, determination, and exuberance.”
He has collaborated with many artists around the world, across various disciplines of art, and his works are in local and international collections. Some notable projects include those at the Museum Africa, the Lincoln Centre of Performing Arts in New York.