UJ confers Honorary Doctorate on trailblazing 84-year-old Venda sculptor, Noria Mabasa

“I have done this work for years and it has put me in many different places. Today, it has led me to UJ-that has placed me among the stars. I am deeply humbled to have this honour bestowed upon me.”

These were the words of renowned sculptor, Noria Mabasa. Dr Mabasa accepted the Honorary Doctorate in Art and Design conferred upon her by the University of Johannesburg (UJ), on Wednesday 19 April 2023. Her conferral was part of the graduation ceremony of the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture (FADA).

Dr Noria Mabasa

Dr Mabasa was visibly emotional as she had the crimson hood draped over her shoulders amid cheers and ululations. Her family, that accompanied her from Vuwani in Limpopo, could not hold back their joy as they witnessed this poignant moment.

A Long and Distinguished Career

Dr Mabasa has been practicing and perfecting her artistic practice as a sculptor since 1974.  She is a custodian of indigenous knowledge and is a respected teacher who willingly shares her knowledge and skills. Known for her pottery and wood sculptures, she is a recipient of the 2002 Silver category of the Order of the Baobab, also receiving several other national and international accolades and awards for her outstanding artistry and creativity. Motivated by a series of dreams in which her ancestors spoke to her, she turned to wood as her chosen medium.

Breaking Stereotypes

As the first Venda woman to work in wood, she broke cultural and gender stereotypes as the material had always been the preserve of male sculptors. Mam Noria’s carvings depict Venda mythology and spirituality, as well as portray 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 artworks depict the harsh realities of life in rural areas and strives towards social transformation.

Recognition for a Valuable Contribution

UJ’s Registrar, Professor Bettine van Vuuren, introduced Dr. Mabasa to the packed audience, acknowledging her valuable contribution spanning decades.

“We applaud the way Noria Mabasa has courageously encouraged other women to explore artistic labour, outside of the conventional domains of male art. She has also shared her indigenous knowledge with her community, and the wider world. We believe that it is timeous that Noria Mabasa be recognised for her valuable contribution to cultural life, education, and contemporary art over the last 50 years.”

A Spiritual Connection at the Sculpture Park

During a successful residency at sculpture park on the West Rand , Dr Mabasa met Mr. Gordon Froud, a senior lecturer from FADA and they forged a bond resulting in university students being exposed to her culturally inspired work.

Her spirituality shone through as she regaled the audience with how connected with ‘angels’ at the sculpture park.

“I realised that even though this beautiful place wasn’t a church, it wouldn’t be surprising to meet an angel because of the energy it carries. Little did I know that the angel was already with me. Gordon is that angel. I’m deeply moved that he championed the cause to have me recognised in this manner,” Dr Mabasa said.

“My legs ache now from old age, but my hands are pretty strong. And I look forward to continuing my work for as long as I can. I am so happy to have this honour from UJ”, the 84-year-old said.

Joining an Esteemed Group of Honorees

Dr. Mabasa is the second individual to receive an honorary doctorate from UJ in 2023, following respected scholar and academic leader Professor Chris Brink. Other honorees include Nigerian scholar-diplomat Professor Ibrahim Gambari and Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the West Indies, Sir Hillary Beckles.

In conclusion, Professor van Vuuren emphasised that an honorary doctorate is the highest honour a university can bestow upon an individual. It acknowledges significant contributions to a specific field or outstanding service to society, which aligns with the University’s vision, mission, values, and strategic goals and objectives. UJ looks forward to welcoming the new cohort of honorary doctorates to the UJ community.

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