I first met Jackson Hlungwani in 1986 at his home in Mbhokota village near Giyani in present-day Limpopo – at that time, in the apartheid homeland of Gazankulu. He was a slight, wizened man whose smile filled the majestic surrounds – an ancient and revitalised iron-age rock temple, similar in feel to the Zimbabwe ruins, then transformed by Hlungwani to become his “New Jerusalema”, a shrine and temple housing his sacred homages to his Christian God.
Humbly attired in working clothes – ageing khaki pants and frayed white shirt, complemented with a threadbare woollen pullover and jacket, and knitted cap reaching the sky and concealing a head of dreadlocks, he walked with a limp – the result of a deep and constantly seeping injury to his right shin in the 1960s – but his arms were always open wide to welcome his visitors and his God with a booming “Hallelujah!” to his stone eyrie from where he created a spiritual world of “Up and Down, Old and New, Alpha and Omega”.
Today Hlungwani’s vast oeuvre has been resurrected for 21st century audiences: brought together into a meticulously mounted exhibition, curated by Karel Nel, Nessa Leibhammer and Amos Letsoalo at the Norval Foundation in Cape Town. The exhibition brings together many of the original works curated for the first Hlungwani retrospective held in Newtown in 1989 and then curated by Ricky Burnett.
At the Norval, Hlungwani’s visionary message serves to open the post-Covid world to a genius from another era, limited by apartheid, but unbounded in time. And while the work so spectacularly talks of the aesthetic genius that was Hlungwani, it is perhaps of value to traverse the stones of history to get glimpses into the Hlungwani of his time – mediated here by my own memories and recordings of the mid and late 1980s.
Hlungwani was born during World War 1 between 1914 and 1918. Tsonga speaking, he apparently apprenticed to his father, a woodcarver. He had very little formal schooling, as it interfered with his visions, according to one commentator. He was known to have travelled from his home in the north to Johannesburg – Alexander township – to work. He returned to live out his life in what was then Gazankulu, serving his community as preacher and manifest channel of God/Christ’s presence on this Earth, following a troubling period where he sustained the injury to his leg and wanted to end his life – only to be saved by the vision of God.
In the 1980s, I was working in television and print focusing on art and culture, and learnt of Hlungwani and the prolific artists of the area through architect Peter Rich and artist David Rossouw. I visited Mbhokota where I filmed Hlungwani at work.
The Jackson Hlungwani exhibition followed on the epochal Tributaries exhibition of 1985, which had served to turn colonial art history on its head. Both exhibitions were spearheaded by Burnett as curator and art adviser to the organisation.
It is important to try and delve back to the zeitgeist. The 1980s created a massive shift in apartheid and colonial consciousness. At the time, art activists upended the white art history and began to integrate popular art forms into the elitist lexicon. The debate around art and craft ensued. But history has shown that such divisions were not only elitist, but plain wrong. Most important, though, was that a democratic, inclusive cultural language emerged – predating true democracy. Quaint comments by experts interviewed in the historical video tapes talk about “black” and “white” patrons responding to the work in equal measure, forcing one back to a time where black patrons were not allowed by law into dominant white art institutions… albeit that many in the art community actively defied such heinous laws.
In 1989, Hlungwani and his massive artworks left Mbhokota for Joburg where the retrospective exhibition of 200-plus works was curated in a massive warehouse/art gallery/theatre that had been constructed opposite the vibrant Market Theatre and next door to Fuba, the Federated Union of Black Artists gallery.
The video tapes show a pantheon of art greats – now no longer with us. We are guided through the life and mind of Hlungwani by David Rossouw, a Wits art graduate who devoted his work at that time to working in rural Gazankulu in art development. Rossouw spent months working alongside Hlungwani, seeking out fallen trees through which the spirit of God and creativity called to Hlungwani to manifest a theological sculpture. Footage shows Rossouw hard at work preparing sculptures for the exhibition alongside Hlungwani, in the massive gallery. The Rev Theo Schneider, a fluent Tsonga speaker and theologian, expands on the theological roots of Hlungwani’s work. A member of the century-old Swiss Mission that had worked in Tsonga territories, and translated the Bible into Tsonga, Schneider empathetically describes Hlungwani’s mission and accomplishments, and provides an enlightened endorsement of the work in a time of white fundamentalism within the framework of (at that time, radical) liberation theology, or what he calls “a truly Africanist theology”.
The footage of our visit to Mbhokota is sadly of its time: Filmed on 16mm in those days, it is grainy history enacted in sepia, brown and bushveld yellow. It traces our meeting with Hlungwani and his exclamations of “Hallelujah” as we walk through the magnificent stone edifice to the sacred altar which houses Hlungwani’s most significant monumental biblical figures, Hlungwani explaining all the while.
By contrast, the footage in Johannesburg was shot in 1989 on video and is true to the dynamic urban colour. We took Hlungwani to visit Edoardo Villa in his exotic highly-coloured sculpture garden at his home in Kew. A magnificent vignette of two of South Africa’s greatest sculptors, the language of humanity binds the two where the lingua franca of English fails both somewhat but where their monumental gestures speak beyond linguistic constraint. From the pantheon of our late culturati, even the legendary Braam Kruger makes a cameo appearance.
Taught by his father
Hlungwani, like so many artists and crafters of the region, apparently learnt to carve from his father, who was one in a line of practitioners of wood carving and ironwork. Although intricate work from the 1960s exists, it is only following his vision in the late 1970s that Hlungwani became a prolific wood sculptor. The vision incorporated the creation of a temple, a teaching and worshipping platform, created out of the rock structure – a New Jerusalem on Earth – filled with massive biblical icons: Christ, Cain, Abel, Angel Gabriel, Adam, Eve, all of whom manifested from fallen trees he would find in his wandering along the river where he would carve in situ. The gigantic works would be transported to the temple on foot, or later in Rossouw’s bakkie. Hlungwani also carved at “Canaana”, below the temple, at the river bank, with his wounded shin exposed and warming against an open fire.
And so, the visitor would be greeted at the entrance to the rock outcrop with a massive smile, open arms, and the name of the visitor. Our first visit was with acclaimed architect Peter Rich who befriended Hlungwani and served as patron before the patronage of gallerist Ricky Burnett. After proclaiming the visitors’ names out loud, Hlungwani would say, with a raised thumb, he was well: “Number one – like a fish in the water”. The fish is a powerful and repeated icon for Hlungwani. As Rossouw explained to me, for Hlungwani, the fish is frictionless and at one in its water habitat. And then Hlungwani would walk the visitors through the stone structure to the heart of the temple where an assembly of biblical personages rose up to greet the sky. Hlungwani would proclaim his scriptural teachings throughout the visit in a mix of English and Tsonga. As Rev Schneider explained: Hlungwani’s knowledge of scriptures was expansive and profound. In one afternoon with art historian Rayda Becker and Schneider, Hlungwani quoted precisely 37 verses verbatim.
This profound spirituality was irrevocably bound to the temple and Hlungwani the preacher – something impossible to replicate. But Hlungwani the pragmatist believed that his preaching had to be shared. And he generously insisted that visitors take token works with them to expose the world to his teachings. And later sold his works to significant collectors/collections.
It is therefore guided by that spirit – of continuing the teachings – that Nel, Leibhammer and Letsoalo at the Norval have curated a second retrospective exhibition, for a new century. An exhibition of utter beauty and purity, it carries the viewer through Hlungwani’s sublime grasp of art and religion in a silent homage to his mastery.
Thematically grouped, the exhibition begins with traditional Tsonga wood carvings – headrests and staffs, accompanied by Hlungwani’s intricate wooden panels for the Tsonga Bible commissioned by Schneider in the 1980s. Past the schools of fish, the exhibition opens on to the salon of four crucifixes – exquisitely mounted and lit, exposing the workmanship while simultaneously echoing spiritual messaging through repetitious shadows, light and dark. Intricate wooden works of the hand of God and the foot of God, at once serious and humorous, lead through to a salon of earlier pieces: the exquisitely detailed and polished Archangel Gabriel, through to growing forms.
In the vast, final glass-backed gallery the massive works and altarpiece has been mounted against a photographic panorama of the New Jerusalema. This salon spills out through the glass windows on to the vistas of the Cape (and a brilliantly positioned Villa sculpture outdoors). To skim through the work here is to do both the work and exhibition an injustice. An informative timeline and 3D rendering of the temple – courtesy of Peter Rich – provide context. A video by Rosenclaire will be complemented by the one described here, and a catalogue is in the making.
At the time of the 1989 retrospective, Hlungwani’s monumental sculptures – the full altarpiece, barring one sculpture – were sold off, with Hlungwani’s agreement, to the Standard Bank Collection for retention at the Wits Art Museum. Hlungwani retained one piece from the altar, which he was working on upstairs at Burnett’s gallery in 1989, a work much like a Rosetta Stone that linked his two worlds – the work Hlungwani described as the “map” for God. He was giving away/selling the “old” world to proselytize and now preparing for a “new” world. And his patrons were entrusted with spreading the word through the exhibition of the old world. Which is precisely what Nel and team achieve here.
Following the Newtown exhibition, Hlungwani’s exhibition travelled regionally. Hlungwani himself travelled with Becker to Japan to appear alongside his work. In January 2010, Hlungwani died in his humble home as humbly as he arrived there. Today, his temple has been overgrown with plants. Perhaps, had his works remained in situ, they would be crumbling memento mori of a preacher from another time.
One can’t help but show gratitude today to the art institutions that have seen fit to retain and restore our heritage. Preserved today in an exquisite spiritual resurrection of the spirit of Hlungwani, Hlungwani the artist lives.
Yet he remains eerily… absent. The works are present and are awe-inspiring in their vastness and genius. And yet, to the devotee of Hlungwani from another era, they lack something: The veld. The stones. The dust. The raspy voice. The sparkling eyes. The illuminating smile. The wide-open arms… Hlungwani the spiritual leader, the artist, absent from the most profound acknowledgement of his life on Earth, of a time past, present and omnipresent. DM/ML/ MC
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