Visitors to the little town of Barberton are greeted by two beautiful gateways, scattered with rocks painted in a rainbow of geometric patterns and animal motifs. While tourists often stop off to admire and photograph these special gardens, few could guess at the remarkable story behind them.
Nukain Mabuza was a humble farm labourer working at Revolver Creek just outside Barberton during the mid 20th century. It would seem that little beauty could come from a tough, monotonous farm life in the Apartheid era, but Mabuza’s creativity couldn’t be contained. The artistic Mabuza set about painting the rocks on the hillsides around his simple wooden house – and even the house itself – into what would become a world-renowned work of Outsider art. The Stone Garden was a one-of-a-kind masterpiece, transforming the scrubby hillside into a dazzling array of colours and patterns. In common with many of history’s great artists, Mabuza’s work was only fully appreciated after he died in 1981 (his grave in the Emjindini Cemetary was marked only with a reference number). The Stone Garden was recognised as a unique work of art, and Mabuza took a place alongside Helen Martins (creator of the Owl House in Nieu Bethesda) as one of the world’s great Outsider artists. Photos of the garden have been featured in exhibitions across the globe, and renowned playwright Athol Fugard based the highly-acclaimed The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek on Mabuza’s life. But more importantly, his work has inspired a whole new generation of artists in Mpumalanga.
In 2002, the Umjindi Jewellery Project was established in Barberton to provide skills development and income to youth in the community. Many of the pieces made by this successful enterprise are based on the patterns, shapes and colours used by Mabuza.
A decade later, the Barberton Gateways were created at the town’s two access intersections under the leadership of local artist Ronel Reynecke, who ensured that the stones and boulders mirrored the distinctive art of Mabuza. The stones were laid carefully in a double helix DNA pattern, in a nod towards Barberton’s famous geology and fossils. While Mabuza’s original Stone Garden has all but been worn away by the elements, the two gardens at the Barberton Gateways pay tribute to a modest man who became Barberton’s brightest star.