Richard turns waste into art

Richard Mandonwe and his son, Patrick, work on an order.

Brooklyn artist Richard Mandongwe uses wire and things other people throw away to make art.

Richard grew up in Harare, Zimbabwe. His father is a guitarist and his mother crochets tablecloths and jerseys.

Richard has inherited his parents’ talented hands and makes pretty much anything he sets his mind to, whether it be a menagerie of animals, including rhinos, antelopes and chameleons; table settings; floral-looking ornaments and toys.

He is proud to be making art and recycling all at the same time. Wire seems to be his medium of choice – ever since he was a child he has been fascinated with its many uses.

Growing up, his family had very little and Richard and his friends would collect bits of wire to make their own toy cars.

“There used to be a company that put up fencing in our neighbourhood. We would follow the truck and collect all the offcuts from the wire fencing,” he recalls.

“We would then take these pieces of wire home and try to make anything we can. That’s where I saw that I had a real knack for this.”

Richard sold his first wire-made toy car to one of his neighbours when he was 12 – an experience that encouraged him to keep on making things with his hands.

But as he got older, his community warned him he wouldn’t be able to make a living with wire art. He should find “a real job”, they said. So Richard studied to become a plumber.

“I guess the universe wasn’t done with me with regards to working with my hands,” he says.

Then, in 2000, a friend he had grown up with and who had been living in South Africa for five years came to visit. He told Richard wire art was big back in South Africa.

At first, Richard didn’t take him seriously, but that changed when he saw how well his mate’s wire-art business was doing.

In 2004, Richard, who had now been living in Cape Town for the past two years, scored a major success when Heath Nash bought all his stock while he was selling his wares outside the Green Point Stadium.

“I had made floral pieces using wire and plastic bottles, and he took a liking to them. The following week, he bought again and offered to help me grow my business, and that is what he did. He is a graphic designer, and he helped me to do a lot more with my hands and gain exposure,” says Richard.

Heath says it was the beauty of Richard’s pieces and the unique way he crafts them that first caught his attention.

“Many people do what he does, but there is a sense of true beauty in his work, and I really love the fact that he uses recyclable materials.”

The following year, Richard exhibited his work at the Design Indaba, at the Cape Town International Convention Centre — it was a long way from those little wire cars he’d made as a boy back in Harare, and, to this day, Richard remembers his first major exhibition as one of the greatest moments in his life.

In 2009, he landed a job in Elkanah School’s drama department, making props for school productions. He left the school at the end of last year to focus on running his own business.

He recently made a puppet cow for The Drama Lab’s production of Into The Woods. And he was able to sell the Into The Woods related wire-work after the play.

Richard is now part of Our Workshop, a non-profit started by Heath to train and equip people to make and repair things. It is based at the Guga S’thebe Arts and Culture Centre in Langa.

“We want to give local designers exposure and create a space where people can enhance their talents,” says Heath.

Richard says it’s his dream to uplift and promote other artists who work with their hands, especially those using recycled materials.

These days, Richard’s 18-year-old son, Patrick, helps dad out in the workshop of his Brooklyn home. It’s a source of great pride for Richard that Patrick is part of what he does.

Richard has been married for 24 years and, apart from Patrick, has a 21-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son.

“One thing I admire,” says Patrick, “is that my father does all of this because he loves his work and he loves us. He makes a lot of sacrifices for us and works really hard just so that we can get through school and have the things we want and need. And for that, I respect him.”