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At Play in the Fields of the Lord

By Steven C Dubin on 06 August

Installation view of A New Jerusalem


Installation view of A New Jerusalem, . Photograph

In an era when many artists project a posture of insouciance and self-absorption, and where monitoring market share trumps critical engagement with social issues, a creative soul who is tightly integrated into his community and actively wrestles with spiritual concerns stands as an anomalous figure – but one whose authenticity attracts an outsized amount of attention. That’s precisely what makes the late Jackson Xidonkani Hlungwane (1923-2010) a guileless luminary. His works can be both crudely fashioned and deeply sophisticated, reflecting the quotidian as well as the existential. Hlungwane was equally everyman and extraordinary, someone whose place in South Africa’s creative pantheon is assured.

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The recent exhibition 'Jackson Hlungwane – A New Jerusalem', conceived by Amos Letsoalo, director of the Polokwane Municipal Art Museum, and curated by Nessa Leibhammer, was a held-over success in Limpopo and subsequently appeared at the University of Johannesburg Art Gallery, from 18 June to 16 July, 2014. It provided a rare opportunity for the general public to become reacquainted with this master carver, whose fame ballooned from the mid-1980s to the present day.  

Hlungwane’s biography has been widely reported and rings familiar for African men of his generation. The son of a migrant mine worker (and later a railroad workshop labourer), he acquired the skills to carve utilitarian objects from his father. Jackson, too, journeyed to Johannesburg in search of a job. He lost a finger in an industrial accident, was retrenched, and returned to his rural home. This paralleled the experiences of tens of thousands of people throughout southern Africa who were recruited to work in the urban-based capitalist economy. The recent exhibition 'Ngezinyawo – Migrant Journeys' at the Wits Art Museum compellingly told their collective story through a dazzling array of art works, artifacts and ephemera.

Installation view of A New Jerusalem


Installation view of A New Jerusalem , Photograph,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

However his story is as atypical as it is familiar. Hlungwane had embraced a Shangaan heritage and was also ordained into the African Zionist Church. In about 1978 a medical crisis changed his life course: a grave ulcer developed on his leg which plagued him for the remainder of his years, and triggered a transformative vision. Hlungwane believed that Satan had shot arrows into his limb; while he claimed he was able to remove one of them, the other purportedly remained. On the brink of suicide from pain, he experienced a vision of Christ, who commanded that he continue to live. Over the ensuing years Hlungwane exposed his festering sore to his household’s fire; he never sought medical help, and Leibhammer believes that he picked at it, fashioning it into 'a stigmata'. 

Hlungwane also believed that he had seen the bottom half of God’s legs, during his momentous encounter with the spirit world, presumably making His way from Zimbabwe to KZN. Hlungwane’s art became the meeting ground for different traditions, an amalgamation of elements that swirled together into a distinctive style and congealed along some recurrent themes. He preached and sculpted – his dual passions intertwining – and during this time he felt called to erect a New Jerusalem built from stone and wood, sweat and devotion, at Mbhokota Village in Venda. It was a project that dominated his creative and spiritual life for decades.

Leibhammer organized this show as a pilgrimage, recapitulating a Biblical narrative. Visitors were beckoned to undertake their journey by the gargantuan Hand of God (1984), and were then shunted past a group of sculptures of Brobdingnagian proportions: Throne (1980), Bowl for Nations (1984), Throne (V) (1989), and Large Vessel (1987; its coiled walls and scale-like design evoke a monstrous serpent). Leibhammer describes these pieces as displaying a 'quirky impracticality'.  

Taken together these works – suggestive of the remnants of a land of primordial gods – demonstrated Leibhammer’s notion that Hlungwane’s sculptures comprised 'an acropolis' when they existed in situ. One’s progression through the gallery passed from inanimate objects to creatures of the sea and the land; on to a pair of fearsome and yet somewhat ponderous Giants; and concluded with the most sacred sculptures, embodying the human form as represented by Christ, along with God.

Genesis 1:20 states, 'And God said, "Let the water teem with living creatures"'. Fittingly, the 'New Jerusalem' exhibition featured over a dozen sculptures of fish, swimming in schools, pairs or singly, on the floor and along the walls. Some looked like coelacanths, the ‘living fossil’; others, whales. They glided in balletic formation or leapt joyfully, while the bulbous forms of Mongi Fish (II) (1987) and Fish (1979) resembled strange rocket ships about to be launched. Fish are a multivalent symbol, of course, resonating with the beliefs of both Christians and sangomas – for whom the underwater realm is critical to their communion with the ancestors. Leibhammer recalls that Hlungwane once explained to her why fish were his favourite subject to carve: 'Fish can’t conceal anything, they have no pockets. They are respectful; they don’t shout at you.'  

Installation view of A New Jerusalem


Installation view of A New Jerusalem , Photograph,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Creatures of the earth followed. The whimsical Baboon and Dog (both 1975) floated on rods; their elongated bodies and beseeching eyes would make them charming models for carousel rides. One of the virtuoso pieces was Goat Bowl (1985); the animal’s eyes and head gracefully wrap around the vessel’s opening, while its placid face adorns the front. Its essence surfaces from the flow of the design, a poetics of sculptural organicity. Hlungwane never chopped down wood, but rather scavenged dead pieces around his home. Like fellow Venda artist Noria Mabasa, he allowed the spirit of the wood to emerge through the creative act.   

Sentinels to the final section were the stuff of children’s nightmares: the colossal Dzimamakulu and Wife of Dzimamakulu (n.d.) derived from traditional Shangaan tales. Ostensibly cannibals and bogeymen [sic] – he with a flowing beard, she with bulging, slightly asymmetrical breasts – they also appeared a bit comical.  

Although only one work in the show was labeled 'Self Portrait', Leibhammer suggests that all of Hlungwane’s figurative pieces represented his own form. This was the domain in which the artist truly excelled. The magisterial Christ Playing Football (1983) shows a body torqued in finely-honed, skilled concentration; Christ with Right Foot Forward (1987) demonstrates a similarly precise apprehension of human anatomy. The quizzical God and Christ (1990) depicts the pair as conjoined twins, two heads sharing the same torso. God with Ball (1965) features a character heavily cloaked like a medieval mystery figure, intensely contemplating, or toying with, a sphere (The world, perhaps?  Many of Hlungwane’s sculptures defy easy interpretation and lend themselves to multiple possibilities).  Analogous to the quattrocento church embellishments described by art historian Michael Baxandall that transmitted the Church’s message to the masses, Hlungwane’s work both imparts a deeply spiritual message and encourages easy identification with divine figures.

The most enigmatic piece, hands down, was the haunting, semi-abstract God’s Leg with Eggs (1984). A swollen foot and ankle, festooned with globular pustules, reprises previous representations of the bottom of God’s leg; gestures to Hlungwane’s own physical condition; and triggers associations to the beginning of life as well as its fragility, as encapsulated within the egg. If there could be any doubts regarding the singularity of Hlungwane’s vision and the refinement of his skills, this nonpareil sculpture vanquished them all.  

The exhibition culminated in the commanding Cruxifix (early 1960s), an extremely complex work that was secured just days before the show opened at the UJ Gallery. Motifs already evident – Hlungwane’s admirable mastery of the rhythmic contours of the body, for example; the legs of God, which create a ladder-like border – are beautifully rendered here. Extended concentration would be required to grasp its nuances and absorb its manifold meanings.

The contextual backdrop to this final section was a wall-sized enlargement of a photograph of Altar to God (male) and Altar to Christ (female) (1987-1989) at Mbhokota Village. The first was acquired by Wits in 1989; the other went to JAG a year later. Because of this, according to Leibhammer: 'The heart went out of the site.' Some critics contend that Hlungwane’s 'New Jerusalem' never should have been dismantled. Moreover, the tales of visitors who exploited him are rife; uninterested in making money, Hlungwane would famously suggest to potential buyers: 'Pay what your heart feels it owes.'

Installation view of A New Jerusalem


Installation view of A New Jerusalem , Photograph,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The dismantling of Hlungwane’s master work raises the same thorny questions that have heated up over the removal of site-specific treasures from places as wide-ranging as Egypt and Iraq, Peru and Cambodia – in fact, throughout much of the globe, and most especially where ancient civilizations once thrived. A lot of sorting out remains to be done to satisfactorily address rights and responsibilities regarding the custodianship of cultural property that holds a different significance for local communities and a broader world. Leibhammer notes mournfully, 'I can’t bring back Jackson.' Nor can she undo decisions that were taken decades ago, destroying the integrity and dispersing the parts of Hlungwane’s hallowed place and spoiling its integrity.

What’s done is done. Since Hlungwane’s death, nothing remains at New Jerusalem; had its fragile sculptures not been removed, they would have inevitably disintegrated. But Leibhammer was able to simulate to a certain extent what visitors once experienced when treading their way up a rocky incline when the New Jerusalem was a living place, erected upon a prehistoric site rooted in the oxblood-hued soil of Venda. An expansive back-lit wall featuring three photographs taken by Peter Rich in the early 1980s, capturing the entry and egress to the place; a slide show of Rich’s images showing New Jerusalem peopled with reverential worshippers and jubilant children; and a schematic mapping 22 ‘stations’ of note on this now-defunct, Africanised version of a Camino de Santigo-type pilgrim’s walk, temporarily reanimate Hlungwane’s visionary creation.

Over the years, many of his fans trekked to meet with Jackson on his home turf; my one visit took place a decade or so ago. Hlungwane was a homegrown philosopher/raconteur with boundless energy and a seemingly endless storehouse of memories, experiences, and cautionary tales to share. And then there were the local kids, rambunctiously shadowing his every move. When I asked Jackson if I could snap a photo of him he immediately obliged: ripping off his Rastafarian-styled woven cap, he stretched some of his grey dreadlocks fully out to either side of his head and beamed broadly, delighted and demonic in equal measure.