Jon Patja Kekana was born on 1 January 1916. He grew up on a rural homestead outside of Potgietersrus, now known as Mokopane, in Limpopo province. Kekana’s father was a carpenter and lay preacher who died when Patja was young.
Kekana made his first carvings when he was working as a herd boy. His pieces included walking sticks for the older men of his village. A priest who recognised his skill arranged a place for him at the Grace Dieu Mission Diocesan Training College near Pietersburg, now known as Polokwane. The mission’s carpentry workshop taught carving as well as woodworking. The sculptor, Ernest Mancoba, had taught at the workshop previously, and became a role model for Kekana. A missionary nun, Sister Pauline, instructed Kekana at the carving workshop until 1938.
In 1939, the carving centre was closed unexpectedly. Kekana moved to Johannesburg, where he struggled to sell his work. After five years in the city, he accepted an invitation from Sister Pauline to join her at St. Faith’s mission in Rusape, Zimbabwe. There, he created pieces for church commissions. His crucifixes, panels and other carvings decorated the pulpits of St Mary’s Anglican Cathedral in Johannesburg and other churches in South Africa.
Later, Kekana travelled to Europe in 1960. He visited art museums and witnessed the Passion play in the German city of Oberammergau. He also spent most of his time studying in London. The Beit Trust sponsored his three years of study at Sir John Cass College in London. At the college, he worked on his drawing and modelling skills, further developing his understanding of the human figure for future realist work. He also spent time at Camberwell School of Art, one of London’s leading art and design school, in 1961, learning to cast.
Cultivating his interest in Christian imagery, Kekana toured English cathedrals and continued creating art with religious themes throughout his stay in England. He ultimately held three successful solo exhibitions in the country. The income from his artwork and from lectures he delivered allowed him to travel throughout Europe during his holidays.
Kekana was offered a teaching job at Sir John Cass College, but he decided to return to St. Faith’s in 1964 to set up his own carving school. Sponsorship in the form of money and art supplies from Longmans and Imperial Tobacco supported his work there, with other patrons such as English publisher Ben Gingell sending him photographs to use as the basis for commissions. Kekana focused on tutoring his students in the bas-relief style, also training pupils in realism and how to work with wood grain. David Chituku and Barnabas Ndudzo were among his students who became successful wood sculptors in their own right.
Kekana attracted a number of secular clients and produced many busts on commission. His ecclesiastical commissions include crucifixes and pulpits at St. Paul’s Theological Seminary Chapel in Grahamstown, St. John’s Theological College in Umtata and St. Mary’s Cathedral in Harare. His government commissions included the federal mace and coat of arms for the Rhodesian houses of parliament (1954) and the crest for the British houses of parliament in London (1962). He also completed an orange wood crosier for Archbishop Desmond Tutu at special request.
The greater artistic freedom Kekana gained in his later years allowed him to explore more approaches and develop his distinctive style of freestanding realistic sculpture. Despite health issues – including a dislocated arm, the loss of sight in one eye and partial paralysis that left him confined to a wheelchair – Kekana continued carving until his death in 1995 at the age of 79.
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