Artisan on wheels

In April 2002, George Mongwayi’s life changed forever. However, he refused to let his circumstances get the better of him. CLAIRE RENCKEN went to Soweto to meet this inspirational artist.

Thirteen years ago, after work one evening, George, only 25 at the time, was walking home from a train station in Pretoria. A gang of about five men shot him in the back, in a random act of violence. The perpetrators were never caught. The incident left him a paraplegic (T3/T4). After completing his rehabilitation at the Dr George Mukhari Hospital in the north of Pretoria, near the township of Ga-Rankuwa, George was left wondering how he was going to support his two small children and his mother, who cares for them. Naturally, he could no longer get work as a welder and grinder.

He remembered how, even in primary school, his teacher had told him he had “magic hands”, so he decided to pursue a career where he could put his artistic flair and creativity to good use. So it came about that in 2009, George began making wire art and is now a self-taught entrepreneur.

Today, you can find George at a Soweto art school, based in Orlando West in Vilakazi Street. He rents a room there, from which he runs his business. He uses platinum wire to create his masterpieces – anything ranging from wire wheelchairs and Harley-Davidson replicas to vintage car models, to name but a few.

George and Sipho Rawane, his right-hand man, friend and protégé, also provide free art classes to children at the art school in the afternoons.

When George brought his business to Soweto in January, he was optimistic about its potential. His sales picked up significantly, thanks to the number of tourists passing through Soweto. Alas, with the recent rise in the number of xenophobic attacks, many tourists are now too scared to visit Soweto, so George’s sales have declined.


 
Times are tough for George and his family. His children, now aged 12 and 14, still live with his mother in Pretoria. They were recently without electricity for two months, because George didn’t have the necessary funds to purchase more pre-paid electricity for them. Then their shack was flooded and the floor was underwater. These circumstances make it difficult for George to visit his family at weekends – he can’t navigate conditions such as these in his wheelchair.

George’s ongoing treatments, such as physiotherapy and occupational therapy, have also been impacted. He seldom gets back to the hospital in Pretoria for his check-ups, and struggles with cramping and spasms when he’s been sitting in his workshop for long periods.

While he is most grateful for the help he has received in the past – he was given his wheelchair by CE Mobility, and QASA has helped him where possible – George is appealing to anyone who can possibly assist him. “I would love to be able to get my merchandise to exhibitions and galleries, but I have no transport. Catching a taxi is not really an option for me, not only because I am a wheelchair user, but also because my artworks are very heavy.

“I believe if I could display my products somewhere like Nelson Mandela Square, for example, that would boost my sales tremendously,” he explains. George is also more than willing to custom-make items for corporates wanting specific products, just as he did with the wire wheelchairs for CE Mobility. Any financial aid would also go a long way. “I need to buy platinum wire and equipment, such as pliers.”

At the moment George is getting his wire any way he can. Sometimes that means retrieving it when it has been discarded by electricity cable thieves, who are only interested in the copper component of the cables they steal. “I then re-use and recycle the platinum wire wherever I can,” he adds.

With the necessary assistance, the possibilities for George to improve his life, and the lives of his loved ones, are endless.

* George has created a Facebook page, called “George Artman”, where examples of his work can be found. He is also contactable on 078 888 7962 or artmangeorge92@gmail.com

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