Archive: Issue No. 81, May 2004

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Andrew Nhlangwini

Andrew Nhlangwini
from the series 'The prophecy of the Cattle Killing of 1856/7 known as the Ibali lika Nongqawuse'
oil on canvas

Opening up to History?
by Gabi Ngcobo

Andrew Nhlangwini's show at the NSA comes at a time when we have just gone through the last leg of the 'honeymoon' phase in South African politics. Ten years into democracy we find we are less emotional about the vote we cast since "real" issues like "bread and butter" define the way we make our choice. The vulnerable spot to which we return is still tender but not as fashionable as it was. We stand collectively on the same "spot"; as we rejoin the queues, we return to the same questions, to the same point.

Like the elections, the ultimate goal of the cattle-killing movement of 1856/ 7 was 'a happy state of things for all'. It was not predominantly negative or hostile towards anything or anybody, but was driven by positive expectations, a desire to obliterate the evil past and to look towards a better future.

In this exhibition entitled 'The Cattle Killing of 1856/7, also known as Ibali Lika Nongqawuse' Port Elizabeth-based artist and academic Andrew Nhlangwini confronts us with a history not so distant - a history of the greatest of all Xhosa historical disasters. Using a bold visual language but not taking any clear stand on the issue, Nhlangwini reopens a dialogue on the historical pain of being invaded, leaving question marks about Nongqawuse's prophetic blunder. In a broader South African context, we notice a parallel to current cultural conflicts between past and present historical and political discourses.

The large-scale paintings are placed in seven scenes that the viewer follows as one would read chapters in a book. Nhlangwini sets things apart and brings them together again as the old becomes new and visualised fantasy and known fact compete for survival in the arena as well as in one's head. His symbolism is strong and his colours are bold. The dominant reds and oranges refer to the part of Nongqawuse's prophecy claiming that on the appointed day "the sun will rise blood red with a terrible heat until it turned back at midday to set again". Although the reds dominate they are not over-used but rather they symbolise a deep ancestral connection, a nation in cleansing and a mystery long-standing.

It seems the artist took great technical care and sensitivity in portraying the beauty and nobility of the Xhosa despite the tragic circumstances of the story. Occasionally he distorts elements creating uncomfortable stereotypical caricature-like features in his 'characters'.

Nhlangwini sees himself as an "African traditional artist" working in a traditional Western style of narrative/ history painting. His comment, "South Africa has a number of uneducated people. They cannot read or write. However, looking at the images without words they will understand" is strong and viable. One wonders, however, how many of those illiterate South Africans do enter spaces like the NSA Gallery and how much work has been done in opening up such doors in attempts at 'freeing' art so that a broader audience may have a chance to view it.

On the other hand one can only commend Nhlangwini on finally creating this aesthetically vulnerable forum!

Opens: April 6
Closes: April 25