Small wonder: Artist carves out a future in miniature

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Small wonder: Artist carves out a future in miniature

Starting as an 11-year-old orphan trading his art on the street for food, Samuel Baloi has come a long way

Journalist

Samuel Baloi’s first attempt at wood carving was a painful one, and nearly cut short what has become a means of supporting his family.
After cutting off a little piece of his little finger his father forbid him from carrying on, but for the young Mozambican the love of art trumped obedience.
This week, Baloi, 38, had the opportunity to showcase his wooden sculptures at the Metropolis convention in Sandton, a gathering of close to 137 mayors from across the world who share best practice in tackling challenges in their cities.
It has been an uphill battle for him to reach his biggest audience to date.He’s a soft-spoken man and begins to cry when he describes how he first got into the art of wood carving known as psikhelekedana in Mozambique. This traditional art form from the south of the country dates to the previous century. These are miniature models consisting of small wood carvings painted in vibrant colours.
Baloi’s work depicts the everyday lives of refugees and their battles. There are scenes in hospitals, in a courtroom, at a parliamentary sitting, at a soccer match and even a nativity scene.At eight years old, he was captivated by wood carvings he saw at a local craft market, and three decades later the love for his craft has not dimmed.
Having grown up in poverty and orphaned at the age of 11, it was this skill that helped him put food on the table.
“I became an orphan when I was 11. I had to leave school and started selling paraffin and salt to support my sister and I. When I think back, I am filled with all these emotions,” Baloi said as tears streamed down his face.“As a teenager I had to rebuild our house with maize sacks. Then to support my sister and myself, I would make these small wooden pieces and trade them for bread and sardines at the market,” he said.
But there were many hungry nights when he couldn’t trade his art.
It was only when he started commuting to Johannesburg that things started slowly changing. In 2004, he gathered some of his pieces and arrived in Tembisa, where he stayed with his half-brother.
“No one was interested in my work so I went back home. But when I got there my brother told me someone wanted to buy my artwork. I sold it for R7.50 because I was desperate,” he explained.
In 2010, he met a curio shop owner who agreed to sell his work. But that ended soon after the Soccer World Cup, and Baloi was back to roaming the streets of northern Johannesburg, trying to sell his work from a blue plastic container.Then, one cold afternoon in June 2017, Baloi was walking the streets of Parkhurst when resident Jenni Newman spotted his baobab nativity scene while at lunch with friends.
This put a series of events into motion. Newman bought the piece and was flooded with messages after posting pictures on Facebook – people from as far as Australia wanted to know where she got it.
Newman has helped Baloi exhibit at the Metropolis convention where he has already sold two pieces worth R1,400 and R3,000 – a far cry from the R7.50 he was paid for a carving 10 years ago.
“I am happy to be selling some of my work again. My dream is to make enough money to finish school because I would like to provide a better life for my family. After that, my dream would be to have a permanent show where I can sell my work,” Baloi said.
• Baloi will exhibit and sell his work at Foxwood House in Houghton on September 30, from 10am to 4pm.

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