Of Colour, Carvings and Cows: Sam Balói’s sculptural tableaux

I get such Pleasure from my Psikhelekedana. Now that’s a show stopper if ever there was one.  Psikhelekedana is a carving tradition from southern Mozambique. Small multi-figured wood sculptures are carved and painted in bright colours.  My particular Psikhelekedana entitled Lobolo is by Sam Balói.

Sam Balói Lobolo

Sam Balói

Sam has had a very tough life. When he was 8 he was fascinated by the colourful carved tableaux which he saw in the local market. He wanted to try has hand. However when he cut his finger very badly, Dad stepped in and took away the sharp knife from his young son.  Orphaned 3 years later, Sam recounts tearfully, in an interview with Leone Wagner of Times Live (29/08/17), how he had to leave school and start selling paraffin and salt to support himself and his sister. But he remained fascinated with carving everyday scenes and began to produce works to trade in the local market in return for bread and sardines.

Of course like many entrepreneurs and creatives, Egoli or Johannesburg offered the allure of a wider market for Sam. But things don’t come easy to an unknown artist without an outlet to market his work. In 2004 he came to Joburg for the first time with some pieces – but to no avail. The 2010 Soccer World Cup brought new opportunities when a curio shop owner agreed to sell his work. But that wound down after the World Cup and although life was never easy for Sam, things were now dire yet again. He didn’t give up and in 2017 he was one of the street sellers who offer their wares to patrons at restaurants in 4th Ave Parkhust. 

Sam Balói Cricket

Some believe in luck, I believe in timing:  Balói’s  first big break 

Jenni Newman was having lunch in Parkhurst, saw Sam’s work and fell in love with it. So much so that she bought a Nativity scene.  The power of Facebook (a positive one in this case) struck again. Newman posted pictures of her Balói Nativity scene on Facebook and there was an immediate response from far and wide of people wanting to know more about it.  Resulting out of this interest Newman arranged for Balói to exhibit at the international Mayoral conference held at the Sandton Convention Centre in August 2018. Further pop-up exhibitions were held. And at last the prices he is commanding are more in line with the craftmanship, creativity and inventiveness of his work.   

More on Psikhelekedana

The roots of the Psikhelekedanalie can be traced to the Ronga, an ethnic group living in what today are the Maputo and Gaza Provinces of Mozambique. As with all agrarian-turned-urban cultures, the iconography of the sculptures has changed over time. Initially the tableaux included traditional household objects like masks, bowls and spoons or wild animals like crocodiles and snakes.  With gradual urbanization signs of city living were introduced: cars, radios, urban dwellers and everyday market scenes.

Sam Balói Market Scene
Sam Balói Market Scene I love the movable items on the clothes line

Gradually during the 1980s and increasingly after the end of the civil war in 1992, works reference Mozambican historical events (the 2000 floods and specifically the mother who gave birth in a tree) as well as the Southern African political context (meetings in Parliament: Debate and poverty and development in South Africa); issues of health care; the fight against AIDS ; the challenges of education (with outdoor classes under a tree); the refugee crisis. 

Sam Balói Debate on Poverty and Development in South Africa Image courtesy Thapelo Morebudi
Sam Balói Hospital scene 
Sam Balói HIV Aids
Sam Balói Mathematics class
Sam Balói Refugees


Jenni Newman arranged for a pop-up exhibition at Foxwood House in November 2018.  What a wonderful riot of colour and detail.  Choices! Choices! I eventually settled for a charming work entitled Lobolo.  Lobolo refers to the tradition found in most indigenous Southern African groups of paying bride wealth.  Historically the bride price is measured and paid for in cattle, but it can also be paid for in cash or household items like blankets, kitchenware and other utilitarian items.  

The process of Lobolo negotiations is complex and can often be quite drawn out.  It traditionally involves extended families on both sides. Standard practice is that it is the men in the extended family who negotiate. In some cases women family members are present too, but they usually take very much a back seat. The bridegroom is never allowed to be part of the meetings. Often in the meetings a bottle of alcohol is produced (such as brandy or sorghum beer). This acts as a symbolic gesture of welcome from the host family. This is maybe what the wine flagon represents in Balói’s work. 

Digital technology meets traditional practice 

As an aside, it seems that the minimum acceptable lobola price is 10 cows. The bride’s family then determines what the value of one cow is.  There is even an app called the “Lobola Calculator” which determines lobola worth plus gives averages of lobola in different South African provinces.  For example, in Gauteng (in 2015) the average lobola was 12 cows or R82,500 (around $7,150). Rumour has it that Nelson Mandela paid 60 cows for his wife Graça Machel.  A very special lobolo for a very special woman. 



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