One of Lesotho’s finest artistes reveals how a chance meeting with former premier Ntsu Mokhehle led to a thriving career
IF YOU walk into a local hotel, lodge or restaurant and spot a colourful art-piece adorning the walls, you are likely looking at one of contemporary visual artiste, Meshu Mokitimi’s, creations.
Mokitimi’s art is famous for the bold features of its characters — a feature he says needs an appreciation of fine art to understand the message the artwork is conveying.
While most 88-year-olds have retired to their homes to be taken care of by their children, Mokitimi is out and about, socialising while at the same time drawing inspiration for his next painting.
“I draw things that I have seen and that I see. My drawings are about my dreams and things that are happening around me,” he says.
His love for art developed when he was a young boy in Qeme where he was born.
Back then, boys would take cattle out for grazing and as a pastime, he says they would mould animals and people out of clay.
“I knew I was good because I could create someone from our neighbourhood and proudly say the statue resembled ‘ntate so-and-so, which would be very true,” he said.
His other drawings, Mokitimi said, are inspired by his experiences in the South African mines where he headed to as a young man.
“Back then, it was almost a tradition for a man to work in the mines. There was no school for boy-children until they entered manhood, so going to the mines was the easiest thing to do.”
During those days, Mokitimi said he was not yet into fine art. It was only after he and other Basotho miners had accidentally met former Prime Minister, Ntsu Mokhehle, then a teacher at a Transvaal school, that he began to look at life differently, he says.
“We met him at a railway station. He introduced himself to us and told us about his educational background. I was immediately influenced by his charisma. He told us to leave the mines and come back home with him. He said he would take us to school.”
With Mokhehle their teacher, Mokitimi and others attended Basutoland High School, and when they were about to finish, a man was invited to encourage them to further their studies at the university.
“By then, the colonial rulers felt Mokhehle was being defiant by putting young men in school when they were supposed to be in the mines controlled by their companies. He was expelled from the school for this.”
Instead of proceeding to university, Mokitimi and others decided to go into exile in South Africa with Mokhehle. While away, Mokhehle and his “disciples” would be involved in politics. Mokitimi says he was there when the Basutoland African Congress (BAC) was formed in 1952.
When the group later came back and each decided to focus on his individual talent to earn a living, it was back to art for Mokitimi.
“I created cartoons for a newspaper called Mohlabani. It was one of the first newspapers in Lesotho. Many people liked my cartoons, which depicted the politics of the day,” he said.
Mokhehle “and others” liked his work and sent him to Ghana where he would hone his talent, Mokitimi said.
“Kwame Nkrumah, who was then the president of Ghana, would visit us for a pep talk. He loved our work. He was one of the people who inspired me.”
He later returned home and resumed drawing cartoons for the newspaper.
It was his creations that got him in trouble with the Basotho National Party (BNP) government, resulting in a two-year jail sentence.
“I had created something about the powers-that-be. They were offended by my cartoons and I was sent to jail for two years,” he said.
Jail time must have given him time to introspect because when he got out he left the cartoon business and focused on his fine art.
He has since created and sold countless works of art.
Mokitimi has also travelled and exhibited his work all over Africa, Europe and the United States.
Private collectors of his pieces are said to include former US President Bill Clinton, musician Hugh Masekela, and actor Denzel Washington, to name but a few.
His work currently hangs in the Smithsonian Institute, a group of museums and research centres administered by the United States government.
Spelman College, historically a women’s arts college in Atlanta, Georgia, and various embassies and government buildings also have his work on display.
Mokitimi said he also still enjoys support from local collectors.
But while he is flattered by the status of the collectors of his pieces for the love of his work, he was most humbled when in 2006, he was conferred with the Commander of the Most Loyal Order of Ramatseatsana by His Majesty, King Letsie III, for his contribution to the promotion of art and culture in Lesotho.
“That honour was the highlight of my career. This is why I attend to the King’s summons without complaint.”
Mokitimi said local artistes should bear the responsibility of teaching the people about their work so that their messages would be understood and appreciated.
“Not everyone will love your work. But artistes can make a living out of art here at home.”