Saturday, June 21, 2014

Christ playing football; Hlungwani Retrospective at UJ Art Gallery – A tribute to the national treasure.


It is not often that one is guided, led and or waved on by God’s hand into the creative sanctuary of one of South Africa’s most revered artists. Sculptor, preacher and visionary; a diverse range of roles ascribed to one of South Africa’s most admired creative icons; Jackson Xidonkani Hlungwani at UJ Art Gallery, Mon - Fri: 09:00 -16:00 and Sat: 09:00 - 13:00. Exhibition closes on 16 July 2014. 


One with God, nature and his community, he transformed his hometown space and place into a site-specific Spiritual Mountain, titled “New Jerusalem. His massive, carved and sculpted platter (meat trough) stands upright, displayed to invite you to feast on his relentless creative appetite.


Driven by his call to serve and prepare spiritual feasts (manna from heaven) Hlungwani, fused Christian beliefs and Tsonga rituals and traditions to create a synergy between a life lived and dreamt.  His extraordinary creative works of animals, human, Biblical and plant images, in the words of Leibhammer (curator of this exhibition), ‘are fanciful, hieratic, somber or ceremonial. They also recall a range of other religious modes, such as Medieval, Romanesque, Oriental and traditional African art and architecture (2014).



The curator of this exhibition, Nessa Leibhammer, and the director, Anneli Dempsey, of the University of Johannesburg Art Gallery have exploited the internal exhibition space to great effect. The narrow space at the entrance of the building compels the viewer to engage the artist’s installation as if on route to the sanctuary of God, situated at the bottom end of the gallery – the widest and most expanded part of the internal space, the width of the entire building.


A large window at this end of the gallery faces north, and is masked with a rural landscape scene, light filters through to shroud the mythical works in a spiritual ambience, in keeping with the artist’s intent for the site-specific sculptural installation.


Hlungwani tells of a revelatory experience that changed his life: one night in 1978 the devil shot arrows through his legs. He managed to get rid of one of the arrows but the other stuck fast. He became so ill that he decided to kill himself. Fortunately, before he could, Jesus appeared before him and told him three things: he would be healed; must serve God all his life and he would see God. Later he founded his own church that he called ‘Yesu Galeliya One Aposto in Sayoni Alt and Omega’. (Art Talk – volume 14 Issue 2, October 2013).


This personal spiritual awakening (baptism in fire) quickened Hlungwani to construct New Jerusalem - a pilgrimage route up the hill along which believers could walk (images above). Near the top they could find the Altar to Christ and the Altar to God, comprising stone platforms with sculptures of God, Christ, angels such as Gabriel II, and a ‘map for God’ (page 5 - MTN brochure ). The Altar to Christ is permanently on display at the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG) whilst the Altar to God is in the permanent collection of the Wits Art Museum.

It took 30 years to visualise and realise his carved and constructed vision of New Jerusalem. In the heart of the gallery space, the curator has alluded to recreating Hlungwani’s sacred space, using a large-scale wallpaper image and a number of sculptural works. Ironically Hlungwani’s divinity is fittingly represented in the work titled Christ playing football – no doubt to coincide with the soccer world cup in Brazil.
Christ playing football. Hlungwani Restrospective at UJ; a tribute
sponsored by the MTN Foundation. 
In the words of Ricky Burnett, to the patient and inquisitive viewer, prepared to respond to the’…fancies that are curled around these images….’ Hlungwani’s work can become both a gateway to this Tsonga ancestry and to world culture.

A tribute to Jackson Hlungwani, this exhibition started its journey at the Polokwane Art Museum, a retrospective of 45 works, curated to provide the local community access to his works on a large scale. Few have seen or experienced his work in a comprehensive display. I first encountered his work in Newtown in 1989, at a solo exhibition shrouded in controversy, sponsored by BMW (South Africa) (PTY) Limited and compiled by their then arts advisor Ricky Burnett.


In retrospect, one cant begin to imagine what would have happened to the works and the ‘New Jerusalem’ had the wide range of sculptures, objects and panels not not been purchased by museums, galleries and art collectors at the time. What is exciting is that this inclusive exhibition is on view for a few weeks only at the University of Johannesburg’s Art Gallery.



MTN Foundation is the sole sponsor of this must see exhibition (Art Talk perfect for school excursions), a fitting tribute to a national treasure whose works, stylisation, art and craftsmanship will be forever inspire me in my creative endeavours. Site-specific, this installation crosses disciplines and integrates art, craft and design reminiscent of time when each and every artifact has “its roots in cultural contexts in which art was congruent with life, and in which artistry was integrated with utility” (Davidson, Art and Ambiguity. 1991:18). 



2 comments:

Annali Dempsey said...

What sensitive appreciation of Hlungwani's work. Eugene, you make the show come alive in this posting.

Press Release Format said...

What a sensitive collection for your site about football!Really nice.Good bye.