Unlike his fellow teenagers in rural KwaZulu Natal, when Sibusiso Mbhele hit adolescence he did not stop making the tin-and-wire toys that are a popular pastime for South African children. While his peers were engaged in such nefarious activities as “learning to smoke” and “roaming around”, Mbhele’s scrap-metal projects were becoming increasingly grandiose. He progressed from a toy car, which he used to drive around his village, via Castrol GTX airliners and sunflower-oil jump-jets, to his crowning achievement: the fish helicopter of the title. This vast piscine chopper, its walls pieced together from entire sides of VW camper vans, doubled as Sibusiso’s home. It was still a work in progress when the artist – then styling himself Punch Mbhele – first appeared in the pages of this magazine (World of Interiors March 1994).

Unfortunately, it seems that “punch Mbhele” was also something of a motto for certain elements in Sibusiso’s village. Not content with smoking and roaming around, they became jealous of him, supposing that a man who made giant aeronautical sculptures out of old oilcans and minivans must, logically, be wealthy. They attacked him, drove him out to sleep rough in the veldt on a number of occasions, and even conspired to have him jailed. “They sent me back home but my enemies came to fight with me,” Mbhele explained in an interview. “They destroyed my work and my house, my Fish Helicopter; after that I was forced to run away to go to town.” In Johannesburg, feted by white customers, he continued to make his Outsider Art aircraft for fun and profit.

This book collects together pictures of Mbhele and his work taken by the South African expat photographer Koto Bolofo for Italian fashion magazines. Interspersed among these are drawings and amateur portraits of the artist as a slightly younger man, proudly displaying his latest sheet-metal 747s. The only text is a seven-page handwritten apologia by Mbhele. And here we hit on a problem – since he is more concerned with morals (“Lazy people with idle hands always come together to destroy whatever an industrious person does”), it becomes difficult to piece together the narrative of his story, let alone work out who or what is pictured. Take, for example, the man in a Paul Smith suit who holds a tin biplane, with an outsize timepiece as its propellor. Is it Mbhele himself, a male model, or perhaps the giant-watch aficionado Flavor Flav of the popular rap combo Public Enemy? In the absence of any captions, we may never know.

First published in World of Interiors issue 248. Reproduced with permission.

Sibusiso Mbhele and his Fish Helicopter

by Koto Bolofo  (Powerhouse Books)

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