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Remembering Scuptor Jackson Hlungwani

27 January 2014, 12:02


“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” – John 1 verse 1

Growing up in a Christian household, Calvinised since birth to believe in the omnipresence of God without questioning His physical form and shape never prepared me for the day sculptor and sage Jackson Hlungwani (1923 to 2010) instructed me and a bunch of tourists: sort of in an invitation to peep-through-a-keyhole, to “go see god”. A whole platoon of us, who until a moment ago were convinced that we were the smartest folks to ever step in Limpopo’s derelict rural areas, raised our ears like laboratory rats smelling fresh groundnuts. There was that towering-mystical-scary collective inquiry – have we died and gone to heaven?

True, we rushed to the direction of Hlungwani’s hand signal, cameras ready and notebooks handy – then froze in the moment. Anti-climax. As if we enjoyed the benefit of comparison. Right infront of us was god – or a god according to (St) Hlungwani. We circled the deity as we snapped our SD cards full with ‘his’ image.

Such was the mythical power of Hlungwani. The ability to move people with his voice. Move us to the mutilated buck of a tree that looks like work in progress and had us archiving it as if it had the power to receive our prayers and turn them into blessings. It’s an oral ability that only a few people possess. I deliberately use ‘people’ since the verse from the Holy book that we referenced at the beginning informs us that ‘in the beginning was the Word’.

It was the word that was used to create, “through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” – John 1 verse 3. Genesis 1 verse 3 says, “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light”.

Maybe Hlungwani played a bad but effective joke on us. Culture worker Vonani Bila who has studied his works and the cultural aesthetic that informs his artform revealed that Hlungwani never chopped down trees to produce his works. Bila said that the master-sculptor only uses dead wood to carve out his beautiful artworks that had adorned majestic building of extreme architectural design the world over. Hlungwani’s works can be found at, Irma Stern Museum (Cape Town),  S.A. National Gallery (Cape Town), University of Cape Town (Dept. of African Studies),  University of South Africa (Pretoria), University of the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg),  Tatham Art Gallery (Pietermaritzburg),  Sandton Convention Centre,  USA, Japan and Europe. 

So, unlike God who creates from nothing Hlungwani produced his version of god from dead wood. Given that gods are immortal he reincarnated his god out of dead wood – which in a sense gave him the ‘greatness’ of god. If the definition of god is ‘someone who can create something out of nothing’ and the definition of death is ‘the end of something (which is the beginning of nothing)’, then Hlungwani’s use of a ‘nothing’ to produce something should afford him some stature (or maybe statue).

However this Ka-Mbokota based career sculptor was not as simple a man as my attempt to mystify him on the paragraph above. I met him once and I often felt that my meeting with him never ended. Every aspect of that day is still in a fresh folder in my head. Four years since he passed away I’m still trying to deal with the impact of that meeting, what I took away from it and how I can utilise it in my pursuit of an Africa that celebrates its own and looks within for solutions. An Africa community worker Matshilo Motsei wags a finger at in a poem by saying, “that calls for its rebirth/ and yet shuns its own birth attendants/ looking up to the west/ as its midwife” (Child of the Earth from Sesesedi/Whirlwind). An inward-looking enlightened continent.

The West has over many years of cultural subjugation managed to redefine what cultural aesthetic should be – benchmarked on its own standards. Some of those standards are actually informed by what was stolen in dark Africa over many years of colonialism and cultural rape. It’s not by coincidence that the greatest music composers are Richard Wagner, Ludwig van Beethoven, Pyotr Iilyich Tchaikovsky, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and their modern tenor version are classical artists of European ancestry such as Placido Domingo, Jose Carrera and the late Luciano Pavarotti. When we go into classical paintings we are confronted by Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Leonardo da Vinci etc. No Western art critic ever dissects these hallowed ‘creatures’ the same way Pat Hoskins did Hlungwani when he observed, “He (Hlungwani) wears a none too clean army issue coat over old pants that fall on a broken pair of shoes. His body though, looks glowingly clean, which is another paradox of sorts. For his cleanliness is more than bodily, it is almost spiritual. It is induces (sic) also by an engaging charm and honesty that is open and interesting.”

Where is Africa in this whole celebration of human creativity? We are suddenly checking the cleanliness of the cow before indulging its nourishing milk. Van Gogh cut off part of his ear lobe because in the pursuit of a disloyal friend across Europe, armed with a razor blade he got annoyed, lost his mind and got sent to an asylum. How many people know this? How come his praise-singers find this irrelevant to interrogate his works? Why can’t we find an intelligent African to dwarf Italian Nicollo dei Machiavelli, no greater warrior than Alexandra the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte, no scientist to make Albert Einstein average? Yet the Lion King, an African story which was surrogated by Disney became one of the biggest stage productions of all time. Could it be that it became ‘biggest’ because it was surrogated by Disney or was it as classic as King Korn, Jock of the Bushveld, Sarafina, Athol Fugard’s Tsotsi or Ken Temba’s The Suit?

We need to understand Hlungwani’s world through this colonial and imperialistic cultural prism. What has been repeated over and over again is that he once had a vision of Jesus Christ after his Nineveh experience resulted in him losing a finger in a tea and coffee factory in Johannesburg.  He was 18-years-old when he returned home before his Damascus experience. The New Jerusalem Church, under which his Jerusalem One Christ sect was based is a concept with strong roots in orthodox religious ideologies. It became his religious injunction. Like Islam and Rastafarianism it positions religious devotion not as a Sunday or Saturday ritual but a way of life. Hlungwani was inducted into his beliefs through fire and a battle against the Devil that was reminiscent of Jacob’s Ladder. He did not end up with a broken rib but as he loved to tell researchers, an arrow was buried deep into him and turned into a snake that attacked his legs. As fire is a cleanser, Hlungwani found flame-cleansing a bearable sanitizer of evil spirits that were always battling to take residence in his body.

Reverend Theo Scheider alleges that Hlungwani told him, “I did not, in fact, see God’s full stature. I only saw his legs, from the knees down. I watched the legs passing by, going in the direction of KwaZulu. The Jesus ceased holding my hands.” So, Hlungwani did see a semblance of god or what it was safe for him to conclude it was God, as he was held by what he determined was Jesus – maybe based on Western artists’ impression of Him – a blue-eyed white man with manicured beard and shoulder-length hair.

Before I went to Ka-Mbokota to meet the old man I Googled him and was shocked by the high impressions. Right there I figured that I would be welcomed by a man with savagery tastes like Jean Bedel Bokassa, someone who all the money he is supposed to have made through his artwork should afford him a double storey castle in the middle of his village. I found a man who looked materially wanting by my township class standards but spiritually imposing. I detest spirituality because it often reminds me of how an empty shell I am.

Hlungwani had an abundance of that and his symbolic ‘Halleluiah!’ greeting never had a reference until I found out about his New Jerusalem lifestyle and its influence over every sculpture he ever carved. He loved carvings of fish in all its forms, crosses, birds, angels, animals, Jesus etc as an everyday form of worship to the god who gave him a second chance at sanity, a life full of creations and wonderful fresh people who listened attentively to his gospel.

He possessed an imposing, yet quirky decorum – punctuated with spirituality in jest, which is something I have not found in some of this generation’s greatest leaders. As a media personality I have been privileged to come into close proximity with people who ooze nothing but ego. People with double the page impressions of Hlungwani but whose lack of spirituality can guarantee me that free pass if a suicide bomber decided to take us all at the same time. I often lack faith but in their presence I can preach and get converts – they could become my converts as well if they were not so beyond redemption.

Hlungwani preached mostly to the non-converts – the lost sheep -  but he hardly converted anyone since tourists would have rather Euro-templated (yet rebellious anti-colony) philosophers such as Franz Fanon, Steve Biko, Ali Mazrui and many others hidden in the African Diaspora telling them what they know instead of a dreadlocked old man sitting under an avocado tree shooting from his hip. Hlungwani was too native (read ‘uncivilised’) to be taken to heart, they argued.

When I visited Hlungwani and got offered to see god I observed that he had his leg rested on a bench and it was in a bad state. Hopkins later identified the deformation on Hlungwani’s feet as ‘a form of cancer, eating into his lower limbs. The old man, adoringly known as Xidonkana (Little Donkey) did not take to his feet to welcome us as we have come to be accustomed to that protocol in these quiet villages with a heritage so rich they deserved to be treated like Pilgrims’ Rest. That whole mining town was declared a National Heritage site some years ago, thus protecting it from greedy developers and preserving it for posterity.

Ka-Mbokota is where the old man spent the better part of his life while his works were viewed, photographed and digitized for posterity in unfamiliar places for this messenger. Good work has a way of curating itself. But financial benefits, while they were not what drove Hlungwani in his religious journey need to accrue to anyone who ever lifted a brush, raised his voice, created a god out of wood or shared their intellectual property with the rest of humanity. Books do get impressions and are reprinted, translated and even filmed to conserve their integrity. Music is converted into MP4s, gets re-mastered and videos shot and re-shot to keep the product in the market. Classical paintings give birth to counterfeits and their value either escalates or recedes. Wood carvings, the discipline that Hlungwani excelled in never give birth to duplicates, never conform to technology but like the gods who create them remain immortal like the memory of the artist.

The old sage was never going to fit the Western comparison of William Blake as before there was Blake, if something Hlungwani loved to say about him being a reincarnation since he remembered a conversation he had with his grandfather – way before he was born was true, Blake was his sibling.

In her article African Artist and Muse, academic and artist Mahlodi ‘Uhuru’ Phalafala wrote, “These sculptures were functional in that they served as iconography in his ‘church’ just like sculpture would in classical Roman cathedrals.” She gave Hlungwani’s artworks a holy relevance and suggested that they were important to worship as the early paintings of Leonardo da Vinci would to any religious shrine. Hlungwani’s home was that shrine, and with the High Priest finally gone a big question, one which has dogged many dynasties in the past abounds; what is the succession plan? The Polish Pope was succeeded by a German to continue the Italian Catholic religious dynasty. Bishop Edward Lekganyane of the Zion Christian Church passed the baton to his son Barnabas.

With the High Priest gone, how does the heritage authorities maintain the sanctity of the shrine that Hlungwani built? Time should tell.

Gakwi Mashego is a journalist/writer and founder/director of Smokin' Gun Media

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