Sensitivity and the vestiges of beauty

2011-07-22 15:08

In a new collection of large etchings, drawings and linocuts, Philemon Hlungwani has lived up to Stanley Crouch’s dictum that “elegance is the most sublime manifestation of human ­vitality”.

Hlungwani’s solo exhibition is on at the Everard Read Gallery in Joburg. It’s titled “Loko Dyambu Rixa, Rixa Na Swa Rona”, which is Tsonga for “Whenever the sun rises, it rises with its own fortunes (or trials)”.

The show confronts us with a body of work bent on returning us to the basics. Hlungwani’s vision comes on to our visual art scene at a time when a great many artists are caught up with conceptual concerns. By the mere choices of subject matter and medium, the artist registers a contestation of where our visual language should go. Printmaking and drawing are fine art’s most democratic mediums.

They have found an able champion in this artist.

The land, the Tsonga titles of his work, the people and their daily domestic struggles and ­banalities are the atomic fodder for Hlungwani’s creations.

There’s great sensitivity here. The etching Njiya a yi Fani Na Muroho, which loosely translates to “There’s dignity in struggling with little than to die with nothing”, is a case in point.

Here the artist confronts us with an image of a community hard at work in the village’s vegetable patch. The material poverty of his characters is apparent, but it doesn’t oppress them.

Hlungwani captures these people’s proud subsistence with a fresh resourcefulness.

In a linocut from a series that shares the show’s title, the artist’s connection with his ­subject is undeniable. The piece depicts a middle-aged woman strolling along a road.

Here Hlungwani manages to capture her peculiar rhythm and manner with admirable empathy. The walking woman dons an ankle-length floral dress and a checked sarong with a doek (head scarf). But the image is more than the sum of its parts.

The energy of the walking body encapsulates a whole code of feminine self-regard in Tsonga culture.

As the work makes obvious, Hlungwani is more than a virtuoso draughtsman.

He manages to master a personal visual vocabulary across different ­disciplines as he flows between drawing, etching and linocut.

This he manages by repeating some motifs in the different media. It’s as if he wants to say: Yes, I can do that too.

Hlungwani was raised in a ­village called kaThomo, near ­Giyani in rural Limpopo. The scenarios he depicts in the work were all culled from, as the ­accompanying brochure reveals, “the ­traditional customs and cultural practices of his community”.

The delicate awareness of the bushveld in his landscapes comes from observations made “as a herd boy tending his ­family’s goats”.

The centrality of mothers in Tsonga cosmology is very ­apparent here too in his bias towards the mother’s motif.
Other works study industrial landscapes, while others pay tribute to the landless – like the linocut Ha Tshama La! (We will settle here, or we won’t move!) – thus making reference to the historic defiant statement against forced removals.

Here he depicts men and women hard at work erecting shacks.

Hlungwani’s body of work carries a basic message: if we allow ourselves enough sensitivity, we will find even among the wrenched, vestiges of beauty.

» Loko Dyambu Rixa, Rixa Na Swa Rona hangs at Everard Read Gallery in Joburg until July 31. It moves to Knysna Fine Art on November 18.

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