Of Amakhoe and Angels, Shepherds and Sheep…

Of Amakhoe and Angels, Shepherds and Sheep…

Published: Flamingo Magazine, September 2006

“As an artist I bear the responsibilities of the shepherd…  And at the same time I must be like the sheep. The sheep has the grace and humbleness that teaches you to not rebel when the slaughter is inevitable. It knows that life does not end where the flesh ends. It willingly becomes the sacrifice.” Shiya Karuseb reflects when asked about the symbolism in his art.

It is not often that one meets a person who has searched his soul so deeply and relentlessly, as Shiya did. This humble 34-year-old artist has faced many trials in life and has risen from them to become a stronger and wiser person. He has examined the darkest corners of his being; he has been the sheep, the shepherd, the sacrifice and has felt the fire. “Before you know what you stand for, you have to burn away the wickedness within you.” Shiya explains.

Even the wisest shepherd will fall, and needs his staff to raise himself up again. And when your own strength fails you, you must have faith in God and the angels to assist you.  Just like depicted in his painting, you often need an angel to bring you fire and light, to help you through the darkest of times and help you fight your own demons.

Angels, shepherds and sheep are recurring images in Shiya’s work. He often uses symbolic language to convey his philosophies in his artwork and has developed his own, unique imagery and style. Looking at the works, one can immediately sense the honesty and power of his vision. His is an authentic, personal experience of contemporary Africa. In the Namibian art market this is a refreshing occurrence, since here the galleries and streets are flooded with prints showing the same old traditional imagery, which, after being mindlessly copied for a million times, has lost it’s inherent power.  Shiya’s works are set apart by his genuine involvement with his subject matter and message.

Amakhoe & The Angels is the title of one of his prints… In his native Khoe-Khoe Gowab language, Amakhoe means true person. Shiya has produced several different versions of Amakhoe. They show an unborn baby, innocent and true to itself, unblemished by the world, by life and by society. The growing of his own child in its mother’s womb was the inspiration for the Amakhoe works, he tells me. Above the image of the unborn ‘true person’ there is a circle, the circle of love, containing angels, a flower and a dove. All the good wishes for Amakhoe: protection, guidance, happiness and peace. Yet Amakhoe’s big eyes seem sad. Is it the sadness of the artist? For he has the knowledge that the baby, once born, cannot stay the pure, incorrupt being, but will have to embark on the challenging journey of lost and regained innocence, just like his father, the artist, has done? And aren’t we all on this journey? Still, only a few will find their way back to being Amakhoe, true to oneself. This is the spiritual path that Shiya Karuseb is on. A path of regaining purity.

He is also a very competent sculptor and one of the few Namibian artists who make installations. The most recent one being an evocative sheep made of wire, encircled by small stones. The sheep faces a long, red carpet leading out of this circle. At the end of the plush carpet, there is an outline of a slaughtered sheep, made of red pebbles. The message ties in with Shiya’s philosophies about the sheep being the graceful sacrificial offering, but it also reminds us about the double standards that we humans so often live by. Aren’t we living in a world where one is first led over the red carpet, just to end up being mindlessly slaughtered? Or is it a parable about life in general? About how life and death, love and fear, are just part of the same cycle? It definitely has the ingredients of a great artwork: it suggests many levels of interpretation, but prescribes none.

Lately he has been taking a break from his expressive linocuts and etchings. He is now exploring the meditative process of painting. For a while he wants to exchange his duty as a shepherd, for that of the gardener. He has replaced lines and recognizable imagery with abstraction and colour. Yet still thinking is in parables he explains his move to painting as follows: “Now my duty as an artist is also that of a gardener: I have to take paint and make it grow, so that it can feed the hungry souls, and dry the tears of the sad.”

Beforehand the most important aspect of his art was to be the voice of the people, the shepherd. His duty was to lead the way and fight off the wolves for his fellow human beings. Now his concern has shifted to finding his spiritual roots, nurturing them and offering the fruits of his labour to heal the souls of the people, to nourish them with colour and happiness and to return to the state of Amakhoe: meditating, observing and becoming quite.

Shiya Karuseb’s life and art are intrinsically linked. He will never cease to make his prints, speaking his mind, but there are times when it is necessary to become silent and turn inwards. There is a time for cutting into an etching-plate, a time for dipping your brush into the richness of colour and a time for making a spontaneous installation in nature. He is very aware of the fact that life is a learning journey and goes through constant change. One cycle passes and the next one appears. There is no end and no arriving. And so his artistic and spiritual journey continuous and takes him back to the beginning:  “I want to learn from the stone, from the wind, from the flowing river…”

(c) Imke Rust

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