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Jackson Hlungwani

Hlungwani was a priest-sculptor and charismatic spiritual leader of a group of African Zionist Church followers in Gazankulu.

Hlungwani was a priest-sculptor and charismatic spiritual leader of a group of African Zionist Church followers in Gazankulu.

“Hlungwani combines traditional elements from his Tsonga heritage with those of his Christian belief in his personalised spiritual philosophy. These ideas are also the source of his images and the inspiration for his sculpture.

He reminds us of universal truths. Especially, he reminds us that man has free will, the creative space to express himself and his world in many ways. It is up to us to express this difference, this unique creative spirit, in sincere and genuine ways if we are to change the world ...” (Hopkins [s.a.])

Esmé Berman (1993) refers to a leading exhibition in 1985, the BMW Tributaries, that stood out in the turbulent socio-political conditions of the late eighties because it did not reflect or portray the brutality and violence, but rather the artists “who recognised the healing, humanising value of artistic vision and who sought spiritual essence amid the harshness of objective truths”.

The curator of the exhibition, Ricky Burnett, visited the countryside and searched for work by unknown black artists whose work had previously been labelled as “traditional art”, craft or even curios.

“Suddenly prevailing canons were subverted ... and assumptions about the supremacy of Western aesthetic values were exposed as self-deceptive and essentially elitist ...” according to Berman. Jackson Hlungwani’s work was included here.

Why this sudden enthusiasm for artistic expression that was regarded as inferior before? Berman’s opinion is that this unexpected appearance of work rooted in tra- ditional values, uncontaminated by the prevailing art movement and especially free from the rhetoric and rage in most artistic expressions of the time, was like a cool breeze on a hot summer’s day. 

Its appeal to common sensibilities, across the barriers of culture, race and ideology, performed a healing function and seemed to signal a ray of hope. (Berman 1993)

Even in full sensibility of the upheaval all around them – maybe because of it – there were artists in South Africa who recognised the healing, humanising value of artistic vision and who sought spiritual essence amid the harshness of objective truths. (1993)

In the collection of Johannesburg Art Gallery

Photos courtesy of Johannesburg Art Gallery