Jackson Hlungwane

On Sunday, 11 January 2009, I watched a documentary in which a Christian Minister, looking for reasons to live, came upon Jackson Hlungwane's work and went on a quest to discover whether art is a form of worship or whether it is artistic expression in the service of humankind.

In Jackson Hlungwane, he found a man who, driven by his religious beliefs, set up a new Jerusalem in the village of Mbokoto in Limpopo Province (previously the homeland Gazankulu).  Hlungwane, a sculptor, who carves his pieces out of wood, had built a shrine that he filled with icons and images, the expression of his faith.  At this shrine, he preached to his following, his understanding of the Christian faith, an understanding that was uniquely African, an esoteric understanding that inspired his sculptures, works of pure genius.

Then Hlungwane was discovered.  His entire collection was bought up, transferred to a museum in Johannesburg and brought into the commercial, Western world of art. Decontextualised, exhibited in museums as individual works and offered for sale, his sculptures were no longer items in the service of God; they were now in the service of humankind.  His shrine depleted, he lost his Jerusalem and the flock that used to worship with him.  As an artist in the Western sense, his work became art for art's sake and after the initial sensation that he caused in the late eighties and early nineties, much of it lies in a basement.  Recognition of his work had beguiled him for a while and he lost his way, and consequently his Jerusalem and with it the inspiration to create.

As an African, his art, had been an expression of his private spiritual world, had been functional, communal and dedicated to God.  Though each sculpture was a work of genius, in the anaesthetised atmosphere of the museum they lost the vibrancy of the spirit that had carved them as an expression of his devotion to God. As individual pieces they lost the integrity of being.  They were meant to represent the spirit of community that was Hlungwane's Jerusalem.

The young man, Abel Hlungwane, Jackson's godson, is back in Mbokoto dreaming of restoring Hlungwane's Jerusalem and having it declared a heritage site.  Surely, that is exactly what needs to happen.  Why is it one man's objective?  Where are those who bled Hlungwane's vision and doomed his art to anonymity?  If they really appreciated Hlungwane's genius and did not simply seize his sculptures from opportunistic desires for fame and fortune, surely they must see the need for restoring the work to its original site where it has meaning and creating a World Heritage Site?

To answer the Christian Minister who set out on this quest to find Hlungwane: like anything else in the world, art can be dedicated to God.  The problem is not whether art is worldly or spiritual.  The problem lies with intent. In the African world, Hlungwane's art was spiritual, a reaching out to God and community.  In the Western world, it was reduced to a commercial value. 

Nobody can buy the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  It remains the inspiration of all who worship in that chapel.