02.09 - 26.07.2021
Central to the Christian civilising mission was the desire (or fantasy?) to empty the Native of all content, to carefully create clean slates out of whole populations the missionaries and colonisers were to encounter in that long and bloody invention of the New World. Clean slates. To make them anew, in their image, or images they so preferred.
One would be excused then for thinking of the Black Radical Tradition as an interdiction of this mission whose catastrophic consequences continue to haunt contemporary society. One would be excused then for thinking of Jackson Hlungwani’s work as a generative moment of augmenting – which is to say pulling in multiple interesting directions – this Tradition, and an attempt to crystallize its spiritual dimensions or qualities.
‘Alt and Omega: Jackson Hlungwani’, is a posthumous sculptural and filmic (there is video material of the artist in his home) survey of the late artist Jackson Hlungwani’s works. The show, curated by Nessa Leibhammer, Amos Letsoalo and Karel Nel, features Hlungwani’s impressive pieces created between the 1960s and 2010, the year he transitioned. Housed at Norval Foundation, the exhibition brings under one roof (though compartmentalised) some of Hlungwani’s delicate wood carvings and some that seem plucked from actual trees, providing a necessary contrast and texture to a remarkable body of work from one prolific artist.
Jackson Xidonkani Hlungwani, born in 1923 at Kanana in Klein Letaba River in Mpumalanga, learnt carving and carpentry from his father, and graciously transferred such dexterous skills to his sons. Anitra Nettleton, in Jackson Hlungwani’s Altars: An African Christian Theology in Wood and Stone, writes that in the late 1970s, after leaving the Zion Christian Church, Hlungwani “set up his own church Yesu Geleliya One Apóstol in Sayoni, Alt and Omega, of which he was the leader, preacher, healer (with some help from his wife), and sculptor”.1(2015:53) Hlungwani’s fateful departure from the ZCC (precipitated by a long illness) was encouraged by a visitation (or vision) from Christ and two figures.
Dreams and visions, or rather Godly visits, are not uncommon with the African spiritual traditions. For instance, the ‘Black Israelites’ in Queenstown, Eastern Cape, have as a seed a similar vision: Enoch ‘Jonas’ Mgijima, the mystical seer and preacher prophet who founded the Church of God and Saints of Christ (only to be savagely crushed by white settlers in what is now referred to as the Bulhoek Resistance Massacre of 1921). Mgijima was visited by God at the age of 39, in a story writer Bongani Madondo says defies and/betrays “logic, realism, fantasy and mystique” in his memoir Sigh, The Beloved Country.
Madoda situates the ‘Black Israelites’ within what he calls a broader ‘Black Jewry’ tradition that includes the Lemba nation of Venda, the Ethiopian Falasha’s, the historical settlement of Mapungubwe Kingdom, as well as Harlem’s Black Hebrews. I am drawn to what he admires as this tradition’s ability to traverse the “real and surreal” dimensions that blur fact and fiction while remaining faithful to a fundamentalist “theocracy”.
Alt and Omega
Hlungwani’s work is a refusal of the fantasy of the clean slates, and a refusal to be reduced to a clean slate. These works, and his broader practice, fall within the Black theological practices and are memorable for their boldly syncretic nature. This, I argue, is where the radical impulse of the work is most felt: in marking the distinction between what Jameson Maluleke (1991), in an unpublished conversation with Jackson Hlungwani, calls the Christianity of Cain’s descendants (Blacks), against that of Abel’s descendants (whites), and colonially imposed strictures on artistic creativity and imagination.
Hlungwani’s work, because it is a Black theological practice that marks what Madondo calls a “black ideological ferment”, is a negotiation with these politics; a kind of hybridity, multiplicity (in meaning and aesthetics), and a radical queering of the theologically normative including imagery and memory.
The sculptures refuse or rather “do not replicate any iconographic schemas from Europe”,2(Nettleton, 2015:53) but are rather “highly individual presentation[s] of Christian faith that synthesized Tsonga-Shangaan religious elements with biblical elements, influenced by Pentecostal theological precepts.” Moving between the figurative and literal, the pieces are Hlungwani’s defiance of Europe’s iconological limitations3(ibid: 59).
Moreover, I’m interested in what I perceive as his anthropomorphic inclinations that can be observed in Christ playing football, or God Playing Football, or any sculpture where God or Christ is imbued with human qualities and behaviour. These interventions are made with a productive and radical abstraction; here we are partially offered and robbed of identification simultaneously (that is, neatly matching these representations with dominant religious image-making practices from Europe). In one instance, we see a recognisable Christ-like figure (Crucifix ensemble) nailed to a cross (evoking what Athi Joja calls “spirits or illusions of christological ascension”), and nonconventional depictions of Christ (for example, Christ/ The Angel Gabriel (III) ).
‘Alt and Omega: Jackson Hlungwani’ is a welcomed presentation of an important and multi-layered body of work whose politics, aestethic qualities, and spiritual sensibilities intersect to offer us a rich meditation on the inseparability of art, nature, and God in the life of Jackson Hlungwani. The first section of the exhibition does a great service at situating this artist within a community of wood carvers. Even though the curation (especially the accompanying informational text on the walls) is a bit overly instructional (no harm here if you consider how the artist also used his art practice for didactic purposes too), the exhibition is a good showing and a welcome guide to the work and life of this great fallen tree.