12 Jul

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The Xhosa people of Southern Africa gave birth to one of our greatest human beings in Nelson Mandela. They speak the language called Nguni, which is also the common language of the Zulu and Ndbeli. Xhosa have no word for ‘Bridge’, except for…. ‘bridge’. This is surprising to me because the Mandela represents in himself a bridge sine qua non in South African and World Politics – his words and actions led to the reconciliation of white and black people following the dismantling of Apartheid and the building of a new nation state.

The word for river crossing in Nguni is Izibuko. Or a ford, where a body of water can be crossed safely on foot (far away from dangerous Hippos and Crocodiles). A Xhosa artist called Gogo, told me this and she also said that the word has a dual meaning – when spelled ‘Isibuko’ it means – ‘mirrors’.

At the crossing of a body of water do we not meet our reflection?

“Henkje,” my mother used to say ,”language is the key”. An air hostess had to learn quite a few in her day, so I always believed her.

It seems to me, however, that if words like bridge are not ubiquitous in human culture (because we don’t all build the same things, or solve logistical problems in the same way), then how is it possible to get all humans to understand each other before we accidentally recreate the Old Testament myth of the Tower of Babel?

After months of hard work creating commissioned pieces for my clients in my studio at, I recently awarded myself a few days of play time to pursue my practice.


Da Vinci Bridge

I was invited to build a much bigger Leonardo bridge at a public event organised by Ruth Nutter on Saturday 15th July, at Manor Fields Park, Sheffield – The Big Draw, Ruskin in Sheffield. This time I used Bamboo, grass stems instead of sticks from a hazel tree; oriental materials instead of occidental stuff. Lots of youngsters helped to build it and people climbed over it safely, including Ruth pictured here.

During the event a boy asked me, “Who designed it?”

‘Leonardo Da Vinci’, I said, ‘the famous 15th century Italian genius, do you know who I mean?’

“Yes,” he said, looking at me as if I had two heads, “but the bridge is so simple, surely somebody must have thought of this design before?”

“Simple things are hard to invent” I replied.

I suspected the lad had a point. It may be called a Leonardo Bridge, but one suspects that skilful builders like the Chinese and several other cultures may have been building free standing bridges from large interlocking poles for thousands of years.


It matters not, for the idea is so elegant and so practical, anyone can reproduce it, and simple ideas become the property of us all in short order.

It is this very simplicity that makes the Leonardo bridge so beautiful, the fact that anyone can make one and actually cross from one side of an obstacle to the other is enticing. Humans are all engineers and the act of making together makes powerful bonds between us.

To quote Willow Ferraby in the film above “As soon as there is a bridge between ‘us’ and ‘them’ there is ‘us’ and ‘the other us”. There is no longer a ‘them’.

As the architect Mies Van der Rohe puts it:

“Build, don’t talk”.

…it will help you to look in the mirror.

bridge in germany



2 Responses to “Simple”

  1. Jo July 16, 2017 at 9:13 pm #

    Henk, fabulous photo, but where is it please? I feel I’ve seen it before, or something similar but I can’t place it!

    Also, when you bridge between ‘them” & “us”, you truly make them “us” rather than the “other us”. “Them” disappears because we are no longer separate. We all have the same emotions, love, hate, fear, anger and the ability to see ourselves in others. It is only simple to accept that and work with it but accepting them as part of “us” may take longer than building the bridge!

    • woodenhenk July 16, 2017 at 9:22 pm #

      Hello Jo, thank you for reading my post and your response. In fact the bridges are modular – I built them as kits for people to make in about an hour, by showing them how to tie the lashings and interlace the poles – they hide, bundled up in my studio for now. I was quoting Willow Ferraby verbatim from the little film – in it you will see what he meant and the context. Maxwell Ayamba, my Ghanaian friend is also instructive and insightful in the film. My art is about dialogue, as is my woodwork. I agree with you, there is no them, only us, but to break this down takes action, not words – hence the allusion to Babel, and my mother’s insistence on language being the key. For me the human lingua franca comes from how we use our hands – touch, cooking, waving, making, sign language, hugging, love making. Words are too easy to misinterpret. Making stuff is the key x H

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