The Sunday News
Bruce Ndlovu, Sunday Life Reporter
ON the rare occasions that 91-year-old Gillian Kaufman gets into Bulawayo’s city centre, she steals a glimpse of the sculpture at the corner of Fife Street and 8th Avenue.
Dangling from the eastern side of Pioneer House, the two working men she depicted in her sculpture have never got their job done. From the early 70s when they were frozen in time in mid-air, the two men have been hard at work, one with his pickaxe in mid-air as if he is about to plunge into Pioneer House’s White Hall. The other is stooped, as if ready to scoop with his shovel whatever mess his colleague might make.
It is a pose that they are stuck to for all eternity. These two eternal workers working above passing pedestrians in Bulawayo will never finish their job. One person however, did finish hers and this is Gillian Kaufman. So proud is she of her defining work that Kaufman says she cannot help but look at it on her rare visits to the city centre.
“Well, I look up and say Pioneer House. If I’m driving slowly I look up and say Oh Gosh does it need cleaning? Are there any bits that have fallen off? Where is it marking the building? But I don’t fuss about it. It’s still looks clean and tidy,” she said.
The Pioneer House stature will always be looked at as Kaufman’s masterpiece. It is now an indispensable part of the cityscape, even though those that walk under it every day might not even know how it was made or even who made it.
The inspiration for the masterful artwork was simple according to Kaufman.
“Well, when you think of pioneers, how do you start? You begin with a pick and shovel. In the 1800s there were no machines so it was just men with picks and shovels,” she said.
While the idea of the birth of the two men was simple enough, their delivery was anything but that. Sculpting the two men after she was commissioned by the Pioneer House Board took a lot of time for a married mother of three who was also an arts teacher.
“It was jolly hard work when I did it. I had to make my own armature (inner working of a sculpture) and beat my own clay. But I had a faithful gardener who would take time away from the gardening and beat up the clay for me. For the Pioneer House job I had to work with two clay figures and they were 12 feet high. So a big armature had to be and I found a young man to help me with that and went to a steelworks and got them.
“Then I got the clay, which I got from Gwayi River. There is a big clay deposit there that I believe belongs to Anglo-American. They dug out five tonnes of clay and delivered that to a place that I was going to do the work. We then had to beat the clay up and make it into bricks and as I tried to work it this is where my nice gardener came in,” she said.
With her trusted gardener by her side, Kaufman remembers the early mornings that became a part and parcel of her life during the making of the giant-sized sculpture. While the process of its making was gruelling, she remembers the small yet unforgettable moments she shared with those she worked on the piece with.
“We had to set off at 4am in the morning with a bottle of tea each in our hands. We got to the yard where we were working at 4:30 or 5AM depending on the traffic because industrially back then Bulawayo was very busy.
“I used to start work at around half past four or five and one of the loveliest things about working in that yard with all the stone masons there was that as they as came in, someone would get started on a hymn and it was just a hum and then a beautiful morning song and then we would start to work,” she said.
While most people might not know how the trademark sculpture was made, the woman who made it might also not be able to describe how she did it herself. The retired sculptor who spent seven years at the Royal Academy Schools in London after earning her National Diploma gets frustrated when trying to explain to the layman what her chisel fashioned out of clay almost five decades ago.
“I made a plaster mould for the whole group of figures and then it was then taken to a factory where the mould was lined with resin and then I chirped the plaster caster and then the resin was all put together, and . . . you know it’s all too complicated to explain unless someone has a book and a pencil and you can show people,” she said.
While the Pioneer House sculpture might be the most prominent of her work, it is not the only one. Her work adorns much of the capital Harare and even neighbouring South Africa. In Bulawayo, she also made the famous fish outside the Reserve Bank among seven other known sculptures.
“That had quite an adventurous journey to fulfilment,” she said of her famous fish outside the Reserve Bank. “I’m scared to have a look at it to see if it needs some touching up. I have said some things about polishing it. Someone shouldn’t polish it with a grinder. That’s all technical stuff I guess.”
Years before she worked on that however, Kaufman found herself undertaking her first job on behalf of the Catholic Cathedral after her return from the United Kingdom. It was a job that was to take three years of her life.
“My first job was in 1956 and that was the life sized Pieter for the Catholic Cathedral and it is still there in the memorial garden. It was originally meant to be in the crypt but the Bulawayo City Council said no we can’t have it in the crypt because we have no burials there. It was too big for the cathedral so they put it in the garden. I thoroughly enjoyed doing it. It was jolly hard work with three kids and a husband and a house with a garden to take care of. But you fit it all in somehow,” she said.
Like most female artistes, Kaufman has had to master the tricky balancing act of managing both work and family. Like other artistes before and after her, she has also faced the financial uncertainty of life as a budding artiste.
“I wasn’t very clever at school. I failed all my math exams. But I had what my father called a good eye. I could measure things by eye very, very accurately. I didn’t go to university, I went to art school. After seven years I left school so to speak and then the terrible shock of having to earn a living doing something that no one really wants. I mean how you leave college saying I’m a sculptor. I mean no one is really interested and so anyway on I went,” she said.
Having laid down her chisel and retired Kaufman, who taught art at Townsend High School and pottery at Mzilikazi Art and Craft Centre, said she had never had the urge to look back at her illustrious work.
“Every time I finish a job that is gone and another door has opened and hopefully next time it will be better. It’s an ongoing thing. You finish a job and the next door opens and so it goes. You never ever get to that point of looking back,” she said.