Archive for May, 2013

His diverse body of artwork includes driftwood sculptures, totem poles made from beach reclaimed flip-flop shoes, discarded Coke bottles, ocean buoys, and ocean reshaped plastic object assemblages, paintings and filmmaking. His award winning, critically acclaimed art has been featured in numerous art shows, museums and galleries around the world.  A regular on the international lecture and teaching circuit, Dahlsen has also organised environmental art shows around the globe, to further not only an appreciation of art but also to foster consideration for how we (mis)treat the environment.

Interview With John Dahlsen

Rope and Plastic Totem by John Dahlsen. Contemporary environmental art sculpture. Totem made from found nylon ropes and plastic. Abstract recycled art created from rope and plastic collected from Australian beaches.

This video is an in-depth study on the Australian Environmental Artist John Dahlsen’s visual art practice. It was shown on National Television on the ABC arts show.

Lennox by John Dahlsen. Contemporary environmental art wall work, made from found plastic objects, assembled behind perspex. Semi-abstract/Landscape, recycled art created from plastics collected from Australian beaches.

Credo Vusamazulu Mutwa

Credo Vusamazulu Mutwa

Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa is a charismatic and controversial figure, and is regarded by many as Africa’s William Blake; rejected by some as a madmen or fake,  and worshiped by others.  No one could however, dispute Credo’s prodigious creative output as a writer, playwright, story teller, and artist, no matter how controversial his views may be. Two years older than Jackson Hlungwani, he will be 92 years old on 21 July 2013, and at this age he still creates artworks and continues to inspire controversy.

Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa was born as an illegitimate child in the Natal on July 21, 1921. Credo Mutwa grew up religiously divided between his father’s Roman Catholism and his mother’s adherence to traditional religion. His very name is a composite of his cultures of origin. “Vusamazulu“ is a Zulu honorific, meaning “Awakener of the Zulus“ and came through his initiation as a Sangoma (Traditional Healer, Shaman). But the name “Credo“ was given to him by his father, a Christian. It is from the Latin “I believe“. “Mutwa“ is Zulu for “little Bushman“ – “Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa“ then may mean “Great Awakener, I Believe (in) Little Bushman“.

credo mutwa

 Credo was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church. His father held the position of “catechism instructor“. His mother Numabunu, however, was the daughter of the shaman-warrior Ziko Shezi, who had survived the battle of Ulundi, which ended the Zulu-Wars. Shezi was a Samgoma, and custodian of Zulu relics. Memorably the child would carry his grandfather’s medicine bags, full of sacred objects, to various ceremonies.

 The split in religion was to prove decisive for his parents’ relationship, and they never formally married, separating soon after Mutwa was born. Credo was educated in mission schools, taught in English about Western history and civilisation, and confirmed as a Christian in the process. His goal in those years was to become a schoolteacher.

 In 1935 his father converted to Christian Science, the American church founded in the 19th centuary by Mary Baker Eddy, who understood God as a Divine Mind responsible for healing the Body, mind and spirit.

In 1943 there began a time of sickness and disorientation for the young man. He was afflicted with dreams and visions, and a strange malaise would often come over him. Mutwa was forbidden conventional medicine in keeping with the avoidance of modern medicine practiced by the Christian Scientologists. Instead his father read to him from the book, “Science and Health”, by the “American Holy Woman.” Rejecting his father’s holy woman, Mutwa turned to his mother’s family during his crisis.

Illustration by Nikhil Singh

 Under their tutelage , he learned that his illness was not an illusion, as the teachings of the Christian Scientists said, but an entry into a new and special role within African traditional teachings. He was experiencing the sickness that often comes to future Sangomas, initiating their call to become a Sangoma. There are several kinds of traditional healers among the Zulu. An “Inyanga“ may inherit the profession from relatives, but a “Sangoma“ must receive a “call“ from the spirits, which seemed to be happening to the young Mutwa.

 In Credo’s own words;

It was while growing up that it was discovered that I was something of a visionary and a prophet. A talent, which together with an artistic inclination, to draw and to sculpt, the woman who now brought me up, my fathers new wife, did her uttermost to suppress.

 I did not attend school until I was well within my 14th year of life. And because my family now kept on travelling, as a result of my fathers building profession, which took him from town to town, we became a family of travelers  who never stayed long in one place.

 It was here that I began to question many things that I never questioned before. Were our ancestors really the savages that quiet missionaries would have us believe they were? Were we Africans really a race of primitives who possessed no knowledge at all before the white man came to Africa? These and many, many other questions began to haunt my mind. And then one day when he was sure that I was fully returned to health, my grandfather told me that the illness that had been troubling me for so long, had actually been a sacred illness which required that I had to become a shaman, a healer. And when the old man said this to me, I readily agreed to undergo initiation at the hands of one of my grandfather’s daughters, a young sangoma named Myrna.

Image by Christa Zettle

Image by Christa Zettle

 Mutwa had to undergo purification ceremonies, renounce formal Christianity, and begin to prepare himself to receive the training of the Sangoma. Credo Mutwa was eventually was elevated to the rank of “High Sanusi“, like the Indian “Sannyasin“, a holy man who has taken vows. However, …

As the years past, I became filled with a fanatical obsession; I realized how rapidly Africa was changing. I realized to my shock and sorrow that the culture of my people, a culture that I had thought immortal, was actually dying. Very, very soon the Africa that I knew would become a forgotten thing. A thing of the past and I decided to try and preserve somehow, what I could of my people’s culture. How was I to do that? Friends advised me to write books. One friend advised me to build living museums in which I would preserve the dying culture of my people.

When I was made into a Sanusi, I took a vow never to reveal my knowledge, never to tell people about my profession or about the sacred artefacts that I am entrusted with. But I feel that this vow is a hindrance, and some years ago I decided to break it. The result of this has been that my people have ostracized me and many people have bitterly blamed me for what I had done.

Credo Mutwa believes in the value of tradition, but also affirms that we live in changing times. The traditions are to be kept, but their influence is to be made open to a larger audience than the dwindling faithful among the Zulu people.

The keepers of traditional stories are called “Guardians of the Umlando (tribal history), a different but overlapping role with that of the Sangoma. This role Credo has also embraced. To become this kind of traditional storyteller requires and aptitude for precise memorization and also the dramatic and artistic recitation of the stories.

His Art 

Mutwa had no formal training in art. All of his artworks are an outflow of his personal mission and vision to bring the almost forgotten tales, myths and knowledge of traditional African Spirituality to a wider audience and to preserve it before it is completely lost, as most of African traditional knowledge was passed on orally from the mouth of the teacher to the ear of the student. According to Credo great emphasis was placed on memorising these stories in exact detail.

Both Credo Mutwa and Jackson Hlungwane are considered either as extreme eccetrics, bordering on madness or great visionaries from various sources.

Bob Cnoops also a spiritual South African Artist influenced by Credo Mutwa and who uses symbols and metaphors from African tribal customs, and their spiritual belief systems to express the meaning of his composite images, made an interesting comment on how madness and eccentricity is viewed, as relating to both Jackson Hlungwane and Credo Mutwa.

What particularly interests me is the very fine and fluctuating line drawn between madness and extreme eccentricity. Madness usually results in total rejection by the community, with extreme consequences, while the most bizarre eccentric will be treated with utmost respect and even fear. Two well known examples of this treatment are Credo Mutwa and  Jackson Hlungwane. Mutwa is both revered and reviled in the same community. The two camps are generally divided by age: the young who revile him and the old who revere him. Hlungwane, on the other hand, is revered as an artist by the young (not the old), and revered as a “prophet” and seer by the older section of the community.

This also refers to Crazy wisdom, also known as holy madness, that is a manifestation of certain spiritual adepts where they behave in unconventional, outrageous, or unexpected fashion. It is considered to be a manifestation of spiritual accomplishment in some spiritual traditions such Dharmic Traditions, Zen, Sufi, Charismatic Christianity, and Shamanism. Crazy wisdom is also a modality of communication, in which the adept employs esoteric and seemingly unspiritual methods to awaken an aspirant’s consciousness. The sacred fool, divine madman & madwoman, village idiot, and divine ecstasy is also associated with it. There is a biblical reference to divine madness, when the Holy spirit descended on the disciples and they were seen as drunk. – Acts 2:15

William Blake’s The Ghost of a Flea, 1819–1820.

Credo Mutwa has often been compared to the 18th centuary poet and artist William Blake, who was considered mad by his contemporaries for his idiosyncratic views, but was held in high regard by later critics for his expressiveness and creativity, and for the philosophical and mystical undercurrents within his work. Blake adapted pagan and christian mythical motifs to create his own innovative, idiosyncratic and creative religious mythology. Credo can also been seen to have done the same with African traditional motifs and Western religious and mythical symbolism, thereby redefining indigenous African religion.

Titamogofaudon- Soweto Cultural village

Titamogofaudon- Soweto Cultural village

Like William Blake, Credo claimed to have seen visions from a young age and experienced visions throughout his life. Blake believed that he was personally instructed and encouraged by Archangels to create his artistic works, which he claimed were actively read and enjoyed by those same Archangels. Like Blake, Credo’s visions are the basis of his artworks, some of his paintings are even seen as prophesies by some of his followers.

Mutwa’s cultural villages can also be seen as large installations, or environmental art, reflecting his spiritual vision of Africa’s indigenous religions. He regards creativity as a type of prayer in action. This is also an integral part of other African  religions.  Mutwa sees artistry and creativity as powerful  forces to recognize and enable the divinity in mankind.  Like Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, he believed that art had an “awakening and prophetic power.”

Credo’s artworks includes his paintings, monumental sculptures in cement, and smaller recycled steel sculptures. His paintings are mostly in oil and represents his mystical visions, prophecies and African myths.


Most of Credo’s sculptures were part of the two cultural villages he designed and built. These villages included architectural structures representational of the traditions and myths that Credo wanted to depict and were interspersed with his giant scultures. The sculptures that he constructed juxtaposes African folklore and art with an increasingly Westernised society. Mutwa used a combination of modern and traditional materials including stone, reed thatching, recycled metals and cement, and was helped by a team of assistants he trained.

Most of his sculptures were monumental in size. Stylistically they do not reflect the traditional African simplifications and abstraction but are naturalistic representations. His human figures nevertheless reflects African aesthetics in their proportions. His female goddess figures were especially characteristic of Credo’s particular style; typically nude with rounded bellies and large breasts with gigantic proportions. Some of his sculptures were painted, if the colour were important to his vision like his Adam and Eve and the serpent, at Lotlamoreng Cultural Village, which he painted to represent the typical African skin type. While in others he retained the natural cement texture and colour. He is especially known for his mythical and alien creatures.

Credo Mutwa Soweto Village

Credo Mutwa Soweto Village

Soweto – Cultural Village

Credo Mutwa lived in Diepkloof in Soweto in the 1970s when he worked on the village, or what he saw as a living museum of the traditional African cultures or his vision of African traditional history and beliefs.

During that period Mutwa was employed by the South African National Parks Board. During the 1976 riots students attacked Credo’s village, burning the huts, carvings and other artifacts, because they saw his tourist village as promoting the separate development of Apartheid. Credo abandoned the village in 1978 after his son who was to succeed him was murdered by rebels who believed that his holding on to traditional faith was tantamount  to collaboration with the White Oppressors.

“Many black people misunderstood the purpose of my having built this living museum. They falsely accused me of cooperating with the apartheid regime and glamorizing the Soweto ghetto.” – Credo Mutwa

But I did not see myself as a politician, I saw myself as a healer, whose duty it was to preserve the greatness of his people, regardless of which government happened to be in power in South Africa. I saw myself as a healer whose purpose it was to create job opportunities for my starving people in Soweto, regardless of whether we were ruled by the apartheid regime or the ANC government. I believed firmly that knowledge was about politics and that a race that did not know its true greatness, will never obtain full freedom. And I was saddened by the fact that out people were making huge sacrifices, fighting for freedom when they did not know their full greatness. I said to my now late wife, Cecilia, and myself that if our people gain freedom under these circumstances, that freedom would be an illusion and a fraud.

I believed then as I believe now, that the African has never really gained freedom and independence. Which is why our people have not been able to achieve what nations such as India and the tiger Nations of South East Asia, which were once also colonized by the white people as we were, have today achieved. For example today India is a nuclear power feared and respected by all nations on earth. India is admired for its great culture and its ancient religious philosophies as well as its other philosophies. While Africa is a downtrodden casualty of history forever dependent like a whipped slave upon her former oppressors.

Bust of Shaka guarding the entrance to the main area

Bust of Shaka guarding the entrance to the main area

The entrance of the Sowetan village is guarded by two busts –one of Shaka, the Zulu king, and the other of Chief Ngungunyani of the Tsonga.

The large sculptures (most over 2 meters in height) of human and animal figures were placed among a number of thatched huts, constructed in a variety of African building styles and depicting a style of life now mostly lost.

Indigenous god-figures like Nomkhubulwane, the female goddess worshipped by the Nguni people; and Mvelinqange, a male deity reputedly worshipped in the pre-colonial era, dwarf the other statues.

Nkulu Nkulu, God the father and the chief of creation - Soweto village

Nkulu Nkulu, God the father and the chief of creation – Soweto village

The site in Soweto  consists of a number of different areas, the central one containing the monumental figures of Nkulu Nkulu, God the father and the chief of creation, and Nokhubuwana, God the mother, and three smaller figures. Alongside Nkulu Nkulu, who has four faces representing an African, a San, a Chinese and a European, is the figure of Umvelingangi, sun god of Africa, with a striking eagle face. These figures have now been restored and painted a uniform jade colour

credo soweto

Next to the Zulu village is the Basotho village, complete with huts and kraals. It tells the story of shepherds playing morabaraba – a traditional African board game dating back thousands of years – while guarding their livestock from marauding leopards.

African Moon Goddess - African Athena

African Moon Goddess – African Athena

There is also the Arab village, constructed by Mutwa, with oriental architecture and a mosque occupying pride of place. Prehistoric African mammals – presumably long extinct but reincarnated by Mutwa – include a three-horned beast called “triotribes” and a dragon-like creature called “titamogofaudon”.

The village in Soweto was partly destroyed during the riots but restoration of the village was initiated in 2006.



Mafeking – Lotlamoreng Cultural Village

The next village he built was in Mafeking at the Lotlamoreng dam which was a more ambitious tourist project for the then independent homeland of Bophuthatswana under the rulership of Lucas Manyane Mangope. Bophuthatswana was reintegrated into South Africa in 1994.


The village was truly a creative masterpiece and to enter it was to be transported to another world, populated with strange mythical creatures and dominated by the ruling earth mother goddesses.  Great attention to details were given from the construction of the numerous architectural structures right down to agricultural methods and traditional games, even a stone circle. In every respect it was a living museum for Credo particular vision and dedicated to honour Africa’s rich spiritual heritage.

Beginning in 1983 he supervised the construction of the villages, each representing the traditional culture of one of South Africa’s tribal groups. Not only was dozens of buildings of different styles created – demonstrating the differences for example between Basarwa, Pedi, Tswana, Zulu, Venda but the entire complex was dotted with fantastic figures, often on a giant scale. In addition, many of the rondavels were extremely large. There was also a complete mission church with its figures of John the Baptist sculpture, and a black Adam and Eve with the serpent, and a complete mission house, representing his interpretation of Christianity in Africa.

The beginning of the following video, and in between his prophesies are great images of  Lotlamoreng Cultural Village, before its destruction.

Colossal Earth Mother - Lotlamoreng

Nomkhubulwane – Colossal Earth Mother – Lotlamoreng

Other sculptures and masks with symbolic designs represented good and evil, fertility, rain, sun, moon and night and the spirituality of Africa, and its inner meaning. Some of the walls of the buildings were painted with drawings illustrating African proverbs. The complex was also a center that encouraged local crafts with a shop in the mission house that sold the crafts as well as some of Credo’s recycled metal sculptures. This complex especially showed Mutwa’s amazing versatility, his artistry, creativity and imagination.

credo village composite

The Cultural Village’s close relationship with Bophuthatswana was however, in the end, its undoing and most of it was destroyed by turmoil of of the transition years at the end of Apartheid.

Shamwari Game Reserve

In 1994 Mutwa was expelled from the village and he moved to the Eastern Cape employed by Shamwari Game Reserve. There he became more involved in nature conservation and was even rewarded in 1997 with the Audi Terra Nova Award for his contribution to wildlife conservation. The merger of culture and nature at Shamwari defined a new role for for Credo Mutwa as an indigenous environmentalist

“Apartheid is dead,” he said, “but separatism is alive and well, on an apartheid-like separatism between human and animal.”

Earth Mother - Shamwari Game Reserve

Earth Mother – Shamwari Game Reserve

The statue is called Mother Earth and the three breasts represent Birds, Fish and Animals on Land. The skull she is leaning on represents ancestors which play a vital role in the Xhosa culture. The Dolphin is seen by Credo as man’s connection with nature and god. According to him both the whales and dolphins were supernatural creatures and incarnations of a dead god.They were brought to earth by the sea god Mpangu, to protect the earth against negative forces. The dolphins were called ihlengethwa – the redeemer fish and are custodians of ancient knowledge that will be revealed once human beings can learn to communicate with them. According Mutwa the San were able to communicate with the dolphins by using a series of clicks and other sounds that are close to the Khoisan language.


Credo Mutwa is currently resident in Kuruman where he continues to sculpt and paint. After his first wife’s death he remarried, and with Virginia with whom he is busy on a new project.

Pontius Pilatus and the Ethiopian queen - Kuruman

Pontius Pilatus and the Ethiopian queen – Kuruman

A collection of Credo's metal sculptures

A collection of Credo’s metal sculptures


Most of Credo Mutwa’s paintings depicts his prophecies and visions or tales from Africa. His best known paintings were created during the 1970s and 1980s.  Many of his best works from this period were unfortunately lost, or are in private possession.

Credo’s visionary paintings displays a dreamlike quality with a naturalistic depiction of the subjects he represents.  Just like his sculptures, they are depicted in a traditional western art style rather than using the the stylistic abstraction found in African Art, as if to convey his visions as clearly as possible, which is in keeping with his personal philosophy to bring African spiritual traditions to as wide an audience as possible. He uses both natural and symbolic colurs rather than expressionistic colours so often used by his contemporaries. This in itself illustrates Credo lonely stance during the turbulent 80s in South Africa, when most other artists focused on political issues, and were breaking away from African traditions which was perceived to be promoting the separate development of Apartheid.

His works also reflects his ability a master story teller, clearly illustrating their narrative content. His horizontally composed narratives of  traditional myths reminds one of Renaissance allegories which revived myths from the classical  period. Just like the Renaissance artists used ancient symbolism in their works, so Credo used ancient African motifs but depicted them in a contemporary visual language and technique rather than traditional African techniques. In so doing he brought Africa’s hidden culture into a Western light of understanding, hoping to uplift Africa’s perceived “primitive”  beliefs to be seen in a new light.

Credo can be seen as an innovator in African folk religion. Like William Blake, who adapted recurring pagan and Christian mythic motifs to create his own innovative, creative and idiosyncratic religious mythology, Credo has drawn upon recurring patterns and processes of indigenous African religious life to reproduce an innovative mythology that ranges from the original earth goddess to to the encounters of human beings with aliens from outer space.

credo with alien

Neither the goddess nor the extraterrestrials in this mythology simple preserves African folk religion. Instead against the background of an indigenous religious landscape, these mythological inventions creates new possibilities for African religions in a contemporary world. His representations of African gods and goddesses on monumental scale reflects his vision of them as superhuman which he compares with the vision of westerners viewing themselves as superhuman in context of history and especially in relation to Africa. Just like animals are viewed as subhuman Credo alludes to westerners viewing Africans as subhuman in their exploitation of Africa and its resources. He goes further to explore the irony of extraterrestrials viewing humans as subhumans. As a religious figure representing both indigenous authenticity and innovative applications, his work challenges the superhuman status of western beings in Africa, mediating among superhuman, subhuman and human beings in the world. (Ref David Chidester,p70 – 80)

The Judgement of the Kings (1983)

The Judgement of the Kings (1983)

The Judgement of the Kings (1983) is a large oil painting steeped in ancient Zulu culture. It depicts militant leaders such as Shaka, Hitler, Idi Amin and Napoleon in an African setting. Playing a key role to save their souls, is uMvelinganga,, sun god of Africa, with an eagle face who in the Zulu tradition created the world. In the sky is Nomkhubulwane, the female goddess worshipped by the Nguni people. The bull framed by the the sun is of the Nguni cattle which were revered as the soul of the nation and called “the cattle of the sun.” When one of the Nguni cattle died, its skin was made into two shields for warriors whose loyalty to king was was beyond question and formed part of the king’s body guard.

How the Turtle was forced to work

How the Turtle was forced to work

How the Turtle was forced to work – African people believe the sun is male and therefore static, while the earth is female and therefore mobile and that the earth moves around the sun. They say the sun is a great ball of fire burning on the summit of a great mountain in the middle of a great sea, and that the earth is carried round and round this mountain on the back of a huge turtle known as Chikaka.



Nommo – Humans were created on a world far away from this one, a world which was destroyed by a great war between men and women. The survivors moved to another world where reptile-beings called Nommo lived. These humans started a war between the Nommo and themselves and in that war humans were decimated and only a few left. Two Nommos took pity on the surviving humans and transported them to Earth inside a hollowed out egg, which later hung in the sky as the Noom.

Paul Kruger

Paul Kruger

Paul Kruger – One African legend had it that President Paul Kruger had been brought up by a fabled bird as a baby. One day a Tswana witchdoctor prophesied to Kruger that he would be defeated in battle and overthrown by a woman. Kruger scoffed at this, but in the end he was defeated by Queen Victoria’s soldiers in the Anglo Boer War (1899 – 1902), going into exile in Holland where he died.


Credo Mutwa

Credo Mutwa Village

Credo Sculptures Lives Again

Crop Circles in Africa

Religion, politics, and identity in a changing South Africa,  edited by David Chidester, Abdulkader Tayob, Wolfram Weisse

Thandeka Mtshali, Credo Vusamazulu Mutwa

The impact of ‘hieroglyphics’ on the allegorical art of Renaissance Italy


father Frans Claerhout

Image from Dirk and Domminique Schwager (1994)


The Flemish artist Father Frans Claerhout was born at Pittem in the western part of Belgium in 1919. Claerhout completed his training for the priesthood in 1945 and was sent to South Africa in 1946 as a Catholic missionary.  (His other choices had been Brazil or the Congo) Initially he worked in the Transvaal but in 1948 he was transferred to Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State. He worked as a missionary among the black villages around Bloemfontein, where his congregations consisted of simple and illiterate people living in impoverished surroundings.

Father Claerhout's Congregation

Father Claerhout’s Congregation

During his first year in Bloemfontein, Claerhout made no contact with other artists and his only artistic activities were little illustrative sketches for his mother. He started painting seriously in 1957, rough sketches, somber scenes in dull colours. In 1960 Claerhout moved to Thaba ‘Nchu where he started painting more. He saw Thaba ‘Nchu as an artisists paradise. He had more time to paint, as he no longer had to travel between districts. In November 1961 he held his first solo exhibition in Johannesburg.

In 1979 while in Belgium, he suffered a heart attack. After a bypass operation in Bloemfontein later that year, he experienced what he likes to call his second lease on life. His work became even more colourful – his colours radiating his warmth for and love for South Africa. (Ref)

“I see through African eyes with a touch of Belgium here and there. After all, you can’t put your heritage in a plastic bag and fling it out the window.” Claerhout

Claerhout lived to make other people happy; always smiling, even in the winter of his life.

The nature and the soul – that is a gift … like writing or singing. And I am happy because it was a need to be myself…but then you are happy that somebody say: Ooh, I want it, I like it. I am very happy too that so many people have joy in life through my paintings. Life is beautiful, one must enjoy it fully.” (Ref)

Suncatcher – Image from DS Oosthuizen Gallery

Father Claerhout also authored several books, including four works of poetry. His artistic legacy includes 22 sculptures.  Claerhout continued to paint daily during the last few years of his life at a home for retired Catholic priests. He died in his sleep at the age of 87 in a Bloemfontein hospital after being admitted with pneumonia in 2006.

By using the money Claerhout made from his paintings, he funded the bulding of 20 churches, chapels and church halls, 8 vehicles for the transport of the sick, pensioners, and school children. built homes in the neighbouring town of Botshabelo, sponsored children’s education, and assisted priests financially in building their own churches.


The Wedding

Aims and Characteristics

I like to paint through the eyes of a child. To a child a mother isn’t someone with 10 fingers, but a kiss, love or a bunch of flowers. – Frans Claerhout

Blommetjies vir my (Flowers for me)

Blommetjies vir my (Flowers for me)

Claerhout had no formal art training but came from an artistic family and he belonged to a local art society in his student years. He visited Belgium and toured its museums in 1957 and, on his return, began to sketch and paint with total dedication.

claerhout christ and

His style owes much to Flemish Expressionism. His earlier palette inclines to warm, almost somber, tones; although it has brightened over the years, under the influence of the open Freestate landscape, with flashes of clear blue and yellow illuminating the general ochre-umber glow. The Free State’s stark clarity and wide open skies and its indigenous population with their love of brightly coloured headdresses, blankets and dresses, nudged Claerhout into broadening his palette- adding more red, yellow, green and blue. Through constant experimentation he mastered the colour of his environment. (Ref)

Crucifixion with village mourners

Christus in Tweespruit – Crucifixion with village mourners

He often distorts and elongates his forms for emotional emphasis, but retains the overt visual character of all his subjects.  He doesn’t paint an actual person but he uses his subjects as a representation, as a basis on which he creates the whole idea. (Ref) His artworks are also characterised by their thick impasto paint, exaggerated forms, humour and compassion. He primarily worked with oil paints on canvas or rough surfaces, but he also experimented widely with other media e.g. modeling in clay and wood-carving, wall-paintings, monotypes and linocuts, stained glass set in concrete windows and a prolific stream of drawings in charcoal, pen-and-ink or crayon. (Ref)

In the 60s he began giving added attention to drawings and monotypes. These were usually studies of single figures, in which he freed himself to some extend from the repetitive mannerisms which were beginning to make his  oil compositions all appear familiar.Forceful blocks of colour and spontaneous almost hasty line contribute to the vitality of the sketches. Forceful blocks of colour and spontaneous, almost hasty, line contribute vitality to the little sketches.

To Claerhout the sketch was an easy medium to capture quick impressions and to memorize his tales. However naive Claerhout’s charcoal sketches appear, they flow with understanding of his subject matter. He developed his sketches by rubbing them with oil paint. His tonal values, although dark and somber at times, give a decorative edge to his work. Towards the end, Claerhout only worked with charcoal and acrylics.

Lady Figure with Duck

Lady Figure with Duck

His subject matter are the people, animals and the village scenes around  the mission station at Thaba ‘Nchu. He found the eclecticism of their lives fascinating – the combination of traditional and western cultures. Thaba ‘Nchu was established as a homeland for Tswana and Sotho people under the 1913 Natives’ Land Act, and was characterized by widespread poverty and underdevelopment. The residents participated in subsistence- and small scale commercial farming ventures which mostly involved manual labour.

His donkey depictions are particularly well known. He also achieved particular renown through his child portraits with impersonal faces to portray the spirit of the child. He looks at the soul of the child, whose colour, race, background or civilization is immaterial. The shining faces always constitute the central theme, enlivened with a pretty dress full of flowers.



With Claerhout art and inner feelings are couple, so it is not surprising  that much of his subject matter is religious. Even though he paints the people with whom he works, going about their daily activities, one feels God radiating from them. (Ref) Thus to Claerhout his faith and his painting are indistinguishable: “my belief inspires me.”  Father Frans Claerhout often depicts the everyday scenes he observes around him as Biblical Themes. When asked whether he would continue painting in heaven, he replied; “Of course I shall.  I shall paint what I see.”  (Ref)

Claerhout sees Christ as a man covered in mysticism and he seeks to penetrate him, not as a supernatural being but as a living Christ risen from the dead. Frequently still bearing a crown of thorns, but forever pleading as man and God, moving among his earthly creatures like one of them … (Ref)

Houses, Figures and Donkey


 His early works were greatly  influenced by the Flemish expressionists. Like the German expressionists, the Flemish Expressionists art were a protest art, but Claerhout felt, they had a mystique to their work, which made it more sympathetic than that of their contemporaries. He cites his strongest influence was that of the Flemish Expressionist Constant Permeke, whose paintings from the 1920’s and 30’s, like Claerhout’s, were concerned with peasants and the land they tend.

Constant Permeke – Aardappelrooister 1929

Permeke’s work was not religious, but it was his ordinary subjects, everyday characters doing their daily chores; big hands, big breasts, that Claerhout admired. Claerhout got to know his work through books and he actually met the artist once. Permeke’s style is characterised by powerful contours, dark colours and simplified forms executed in a highly expressive manner. His figures are deliberately distorted and his colours warm. (Ref)

Constant Pemeke Flemish Expressionist

When Claerhout held his first solo exhibition in Johannesburg in 1961, the influence of Flemish art on his painting was still evident both in the colour and the atmosphere of these works, and it took a while before the clear blue skies of the Orange Free State and the greens, browns and yellows of its vegetation left their mark on his paintings.

Expressionism to Claerhout is painting only the necessary – I draw mouths, hands, faces, not feet and toes. He does not paint the actual person, but he uses them as a representation, as a basis on which he creates the whole idea.

The donkey camp

The Donkey Camp depicts the community headmen’s residences clustered around the chief’s residence, protectively built to include a ‘kraal’ for housing the animals. Drawing inspiration from the scenery around the Mission Church, Claerhout used expressive brushwork and muted colours to add to the rural character of ‘The Donkey Camp’. The heavy, abstracted figure of the farmer tending to his donkeys as the early morning mist starts clearing, is rendered in a rich earthy brown, emphasising his role as a man of the land. Donkeys, a treasured possession in the rural community, were commonly used as pack animals, for ploughing the fields, and for personal transport, and became one of the trademark subjects in Claerhout’s oeuvre, symbolising a simple, sober way of life. The two donkeys, encircled by the camp’s fence and patiently awaiting their next assignment, are symbolically central to the composition, their role essential to the day-to-day survival in this tough environment. (Ref)

Analysis of his Paintings by Previous Students

The Donkey Cart

The Donkey Cart

In the Donkey Cart Claerhout depicts a rural scene of a woman and child on a donkey cart. Claerhout also made many other Mother and Child portraits.These portraits, often virgin and child, echo the unhampered existence of African women, the natural bonding between mother and child without social restrictions. To him women are the core of families.

Karretjie People

Karretjie People

Although this image could be a depiction of the “karretjie people” found in South Africa, the red halo around the baby’s head immediately tells us that this image depicts a biblical theme, that of Mother Mary and baby Jesus, rather than just an ordinary rural scene. The predomination of blue also gives the painting an overall feeling of spirituality, especially with the contrast of red and yellow which makes the painting glow.

The loose brush strokes, bright arbitrary colours and the heavy black outlines used in this painting shows the influences of the Expressionists and Fauvists. The figures and the donkey’s forms are simplified and distorted to emphasize the emotional content of the painting. The background colour and the predominating colour is bright splashes of blue and turquoise, reminding us of the traditional Christian depictions of Mother Mary where her cloak always used to be blue. The red of the donkey is repeated in the woman, the baby, halo and splashes in the right hand foreground forming a binding element in the painting. As the baby’s blanket is the only white in the image one’s eye is drawn to the baby.

By depicting a biblical scene through ordinary people from the villages around him, Claerhout brings his spiritual vision down to earth. One feels that it reflects his spiritual mission of bringing the gospel to the poor through his own good works.

claerhout suncatcher painting

The Suncatcher

Like in most of his other art works Father Frans Claerhout depicts in The Sun-catcher his personal spiritual beliefs. Father Frans Claerhout writes in his poem, The Sun-catcher: “Die son sal skyn in jou hart as u die steun gee aan die struikelende mens…”  “The sun will shine in your heart if you give support to the stumbling person. The Sun-catcher, also resonates with his philosophy: “If you can catch the sun, you will never die.”

In the Sun Catcher Father Frans Claerhout depicts a seated woman with what looks like a sunflower. His brushwork and lines are loose and expressive, giving the impression that it was quickly sketched but observed with accuracy. The figure is simplified into its simplest elements, appearing almost childlike in its simplicity and in the economy of line used to depict the shapes. Rounded shapes dominate and is repeated in the sunflower, the woman’s belly and head, emphasizing both  the thematic and visual focal point. The viewer’s eye is lead back and forth between sun and the woman’s belly. He uses flashes of blue, green and yellow to illuminate image. In this image he also distorts and elongates his forms for emotional emphasis, like he does in his other works, but he still retains the overt visual character of all his subjects. The forceful blocks of colour and spontaneous, almost hasty, line contribute vitality of the sketch.

Christ and the other person

Christ and the other person

Claerhout explained this particular series as follows: “The series of Christ and the other person is a meditation of Christ and People.  What Christ is, cannot be found in research by the human mind. He was human – with and for man.  I feel I do not know much about him, but what I know and feel, that I like.”

To Claerhout faith is to be delightfully underage, expectantly.” Christ is to him the same in all his encounters with people, but each time different.  A Man for all seasons. He stirred the heart of all people and in this series are a few [of these people]. For the people that we know through the Gospel, who met Christ, He was man, prophet, something grand, an outcast, a sinner, love, forgiveness;  always an emotional sensation, visible and palpable. Almost all thinking people need other people – it is the beauty but also the tragedy of man. The medium here is paint. Color – line … the meditation is bound to the Evangelical text, it is the source … I hope that, with reference to the Gospel text, the 21 paintings will bring us love and growth. The last picture is the secret of faith: Christ alone. Who is the other person, me, you, us? “

The Original Father

The Original Father

In this series of paintings Claerhout’s figures are especially distorted and elongated for emotional effect so characteristic of the Expressionists. Colour is applied in loose expressive brushwork with thick sketchy outlines.

Crown of Thorns

Crown of Thorns

Through these artworks discussed we can get a clear image of Father Frans Claerhout’s spiritual beliefs. Most of his artworks depicts biblical themes but he uses the people and ordinary lives of those who surround him to depict his spiritual vision. Christ and the Other series perhaps most clearly expresses his belief that Christ must be experienced by each individual, in their own way.


Crouse Art

Johans Borman Art

Christy Lee Folkey – Meeting Fr Frans Claerhout’s%20Fr%20Claerhout.htm

Roberts on Art

Dirk and Dominique Schwager, Claerhout – Artist and Priest (1994)

South African History Online

Henry Taylor Gallery

Tributes to Ff Frans Claerhout

Great tutorial from Devionart

Hlungwani is Tsonga-speaking and many of his ideas and images combine elements from Tsonga and Christian traditions.

Jackson Hlungwani was born in Nkanyani, Gazankulu, in the northern Transvaal.  He did not go to school, but his father, Mundunwazi, taught him to carve household objects, to sharpen tools and to work with iron. As a child, he spent a lot of time observing the animals, birds and fish around him, while herding cattle with his brothers.

Hlungwane, like so many of his generation spent some time working in Pietersburg (Polokwane) at an asbestos mine and Johannesburg (at a tea and coffee merchant), though returned home after losing a finger in an accident. In 1946 he was ordained into the African Zionist Church.

Zionists marching on Easter Weekend 1970. Photo: Ludo Kuipers.

Christian Zionism is an African Christianity religion. It mixes Christianity and African cultures into one. Zionist worship is singing, dancing to drums and other African musical instruments, possession by the Holy Spirit, and healing of illnesses. Zionist churches brought together elements of Christian and indigenous African religious belief and practice,  mixing African heritage and christian principles. (Ref)

Photo by Gueorgui Pinkhassov

In 1978 while he was employed as a construction worker near Louis Trichardt in the Northern Transvaal a visionary event occurred that which changed his life. In Hlungwani’ s mythology, Satan shot arrows through both of his legs. This caused terrible abscesses on each leg. The one leg eventually healed while the other went from bad to worse . His condition became so painful he decided to kill himself by drinking the poisonous sap of the Nkondze tree.

It was during the night, after this fatal act, that Hlungwani claims to have received his Divine calling. He believes he was visited by Christ and two companions. According to Hlungwani, Christ gave him a triple promise – he would be healed, he would become a healer himself and he would see God pass by. According to Hlungwani, he did see God pass by, or rather God’s feet, visible beneath the clouds and adorned with eggs, walking “in the direction of KwaZulu”

From this point on Hlungwane became a preacher, starting his own sect in the Zionist tradition named ‘Yesu Geleliya One Apostle in Sayoni Alt and Omega’ (Jerusalem One Christ). In Mbhokota, a rural village near Elim in north-westen Gazankulu, he became Xidonkani, the Little Donkey, the mount that brought the Virgin Mary to Bethlehem. There is a very rich sculptural tradition in this area. On a hill, atop which was an Iron Age site, he and his small band of followers began enhancing the intrinsic qualities of the site by creating a Great Zimbabwe like labyrinth of dry packed stonewalls that he called New Jerusalem. On his hill-top sanctuary he built two altars, one for women and one for men, which he embellished with figurative sculptures; he narrated their roles during his religious services and healing procedures. Hlungwani refers to New Jerusalem as the Men’s Church and New Canaan as the Women’s Church. There he also taught his followers and helped the sick. Faith healing, both physical and psychological, remains a central tenet of ‘Pentecostal’ or ‘Zionist’ churches.

Zionist Church Woman being exorcised Photo by Kyle Meyer

Although he had been carving for many years, it was around this time that he began carving a great deal and produced many sculptures. Most of the sculptures were removed from New Jerusalem for a retrospective exhibition held in Johannesburg in 1989. By the beginning of 1993, though the stone structures remained, there were no sculptures left at New Jerusalem, except the Aerial of God. They had all been taken to galleries or sold.

Self-portrait drum – Late 1980’s Silver Cluster Leaf wood (Terminalia sericea) and cowhide

In the self-portrait by Jackson Hlungwani he has transformed himself into a drum, a significant functional object. The shape of the drum reflects that of the traditional African Djembe drum. The Djembe in Africa, was originally created as a sacred drum to be used in healing ceremonies, rites of passage, ancestral worship, warrior rituals, as well as social dances. Self Portrait drum is carved out of wood, just like many of his sculptures. The texture in this sculpture has been reworked to a smooth finely sanded surface, and has been carved from one log and has a fluid unified feeling because of this.

The physical proportions are expressive and simplified. Hlungwane did not use realistic proportions, the shape and size of his sculptures were often related to the shape and size of the piece of wood  it was carved from  as well as the character of the figure, and the symbolism and meanings of the figure that he wanted to to portray. The carving process has been described as “a peeling away, a process of revealing the form.”The style is similar to facial features seen in older examples of Tsonga and Shangaan sculptural forms evident in staffs, bowls and Shangaan storytelling puppets.

The face is clearly carved to portray the shapes of the eyes, nose, mouth, cheek , chin and ears. The features were created through incisions into the wood.The shapes of the eyes were created by incisions representing the outlines of the eyelids and the shape of the mouth and lips are indicated by a curved line, that together with the downcast eyes, gives the appearance of a quiet internal smile, or spiritual contemplation. The shape of the face becomes thinner towards the mouth, chin and long beard carved with rhythmic vertical lines. On both sides of the face are two exaggerated large ears shaped from round relief shapes. The features can also be compared to Romanesque sculptures in Europe. The arms are resting on the belly, but he has turned the arms and hands into serpents. Even the surface has been carved with stylized scales.

In African traditions, drums are symbolic of communication with ancestor and spirit world, as well as carriers of messages of power. Traditionally metaphoric symbols were often carved on drums. By using a drum to portray his self portrait, Hlungwane may refer to the role he sees he had in in his spiritual community, that of a messenger of God, as he explained that his sculptures were as the communication of Christ and the ancestors through him. Hlungwani used his sculptures to preach to his followers about God and African beliefs.

As he works often portrayed a duality in symbolism, essential in his apocalyptic view, opposites were often reflected in his works, such as good and evil and male/female. Looking at the symbolism in his work both traditional and Christian symbolism are therefore part of the interpretation. The symbolism of the snakes, are important symbols in African biblical narrative but also a sign for the ancestors in African understandings.

His arms as serpents or snakes could therefore express both Christian and traditional meanings. In Christian beliefs the snake is linked with the exile from Eden. In traditional Tsonga beliefs there are both good and evil snakes and they are often associated with ancestral spirits. There is for example the powerful water serpent, Nzunzu (Ndhzhundzhu), who allegedly captured the traditional healers are called n’anga, and submerged them in deep waters. They did not drown, but lived underwater breathing like fish. Once their kin had slaughtered a cow for Nzunzu, they were released and emerged from the water on their knees as powerful diviners with an assortment of potent herbs for healing. There is also in Tsonga traditions belief in nyoka, as Tsonga- and Shona-speakers call the invisible snake, or internal “snake”, often described as a power or force of some kind that dwells in the stomach but that can move throughout the upper body. There are said to be two nyokas, one male and one female, and a nyoka may be happy or angry, depending upon the “purity” and “cleanliness” of the body. .His arms as serpents may therefore refer to him as being an instrument of the ancestors, or refer to the Christian aspect of humanity’s choice between performing good or evil acts.

His sculptures took into account two aspects of his life: his Christian beliefs and his Tsonga background. He remains within his craft tradition by using local materials, traditional tools and carving techniques, as well as traditional images, but he combines these with personal and western Christian images.

 Influences and Aims:

Hlungwani’s work cannot be understood outside of a local African Christian context which combines Christian and indigenous African religious belief and practice, African heritage and Christian principles, like other leaders of the over 6 000 African Independent churches in South Africa .  Hlungwani is both a charismatic spiritual leader, a healer and an artist.

Hlungwani’s relationship to African shamanism is not only evident in his work and ideas, but also stems from his position as an initiated healer in a rural Tsonga community. The notions of prophecy and redemption form an integral part of both Christianity and traditional African Shamanism. Hlungwani’ s apocalyptic world view and his idiosyncratic interpretation of Christianity is freely mixed with Tsonga myth and symbology, and he can be seen to straddle both traditions.



His work, was to him the work of God, whom he claimed worked through him. Hlungwani combines aspects of his Tsonga tradition with biblical imagery and his art, can therefore be seen as an expression of his private spiritual world, and served as a functional, communal and dedication to God. His work were meant to represent the spirit of his community; Hlungwane’s Jerusalem.

In particular it is Hlungwani’s apocalyptic vision of human redemption that  is expressed through his art and his teachings. Through  the vision which he claimed to have received from God, he prophesied the advent of an apocalypse which would result in man’s salvation. Most of Hlungwane’s work portrays this visionary message.

The primary meaning of the term ‘Apocalyptic vision’, which dates to 1175,  refers to the Revelation of John (Greek, Apocalypsis Ioannou), the last book of the New Testament. The revelation which John receives is that of the ultimate victory of good over evil and the end of the present age, or End of Times.



He did not produce art for commercial purposes but as an expression of his vision from God. However, while Hlungwani considered himself to be a visionary, he objected to being regarded, as a traditional healer, or shaman on religious grounds.

“African medicine men are dangerous people. The only safe doctors are those of the white people, and African medicine-men who have become Christians”. Jackson Hlungwane

In his view he is a Christian equivalent of a traditional healer. The distinction is important to Hlungwani:

Magical healing practices are used by Satan, but they can be brought back to God. In the book of Genesis, we read of how the Lord created human beings and decided to give them wisdom … Yes, for me who is a Christian, the Bible is my bag of divining bones. While for the traditional healers, the bones are those they throw and consult. I heal them and convert them. From then on, their divining bones and their remedies are again at the service of the original order of things described in the Bible .

Hlungwani however, can also be seen as a traditional shaman as he received the archetypal shamanic calling. After the ‘call’ in shamanic traditions, the individual is transformed through initiation into one who is sacred – a shaman.

Hlungwani is an artist of what is possibly the most ancient kind. As much a visionary, a prophet and a healer as he is maker of objects, he manifests the classic complex of the ‘wounded healer’, the shaman. The shaman, because he has crossed over to, or has access to ‘ the other side'(death), has a special knowledge to impart to the living and special powers with which to serve them. From Ivor Powell; ‘Gazankulu’ s wounded shaman sculpts his strange temples’

A crisis involving an encounter with death is important to shamanic mythology in that the shaman has to symbolically die in order to be spiritually redeemed. The shamanic journey is also called an awakening to another order of reality or “an opening of the visionary realms,” through deep suffering –  at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation. The black moment is when the real message of redemption is going to come.

New God

New God

Hlungwani, like the traditional shaman, experienced his “voice of salvation” at a time of deep suffering when he experienced a close encounter with death. In Hlungwani’s vision, it was God who gave him the message of the coming realisation of peace and harmony, and the passing away of the old order. For Hlungawani the apocalypse, the passing away of the old world, leads to redemption. This redemption will be heralded by the descent of heaven to earth – the realisation of a cosmic harmony.

 Characteristics of His work

It can be said that Hlungwani is a visionary artist whose work and ideas display similarities with two visionary traditions – that of Gothic Christian art and culture, and traditional African shamanism. His sculptures have thematic and stylistic features common to both Gothic sculpture and African traditional sculpture.

God and Christ 1990  Carved and stained wood

God and Christ 1990
Carved and stained wood

Hlungwani’s religious sculptures reflects his strong views and consist of religious and Christian metaphors and Tsongo symbology. Most have an international theme of Christianity and religion that is reminiscent of medieval forms of Christianity or Gothic Christian themes of the Apocalypse. They served as visual cues for his ‘church’ and congregation,  depicting the meanings of his prophesies, and creating a sense of a holy site in his community. Like most traditional African art, his sculptures were functional, in that they served as iconography in his ‘church.’


Stylistically his work displays characteristics of traditional African art in the distortions of proportions and abstractions of form to reflect emotional proportion rather than natural proportions. Many of his sculptures have strong angular edges to forms, with simplified features, such as the angular protrusion of such features as lips, eyes, and nose.

Much of the original shape of the tree trunks he carves his objects from, has been retained in his sculptures and the internal forms and shapes have been utilized in realizing the image. Only hand tools were used, as there was no electricity where Hlungwani lived – adzes and axes to create the broad general shapes, chisels for details and marking patterns, and sandpaper to smooth out some of the rough edges. The texture of his work reflects the natural woodgrain.

Springbok Drinking Water

Springbok Drinking Water

His works like Springbok, Bush devil and Rabbit are viewed by some as modernist non-figurative abstractions, especially because they have  poetic titles.

Sculpture Analysis and Interpretations

New Jerusalem

New Jerusalem

In Hlungwani’s mythology after the Apocalypse there will be the advent of man’s salvation, his return to paradise or Eden. He referred  to this paradise on earth as the New Jerusalem. Hlungwani’s vision of the New Jerusalem is depicted in his work The New Jerusalem (1979) – a large stone sanctuary built on a hill at the edge of his village, Mbhokota. Hlungwani claimed to have received instructions from God to build a temple on this site. His idea of the New Jerusalem as a realisation of his vision of peace is an obvious reference to the Biblical ‘Holy City of Peace ‘ (Revelations 3:12), which symbolises the perfect society and is also a reference to Isaiah’s prophecy of cosmic harmony which looks forward to a return to paradise or Eden:

“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth … I create Jerusalem … The wolf and the lamb shall feed together … They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain …” (Isaiah, 65:1725).

Hlungwani believed that the apocalypse has already occurred and that his vision of the New Jerusalem came into operation in 1985. This was, he claims, a consequence of Satan’s death. The reason the world still appears unchanged is because Satan’s servants are still active. In Hlungwani’s words: “Satan has disappeared, leaving his servants behind.“

His dualistic world view, is composed of opposites – first and last, beginning and end, life and death, entrance and exit, male and female, left and right, good and evil. These opposites are articulated in the route, and are experienced on the various thresholds and space on the acropolis. (Ref)

The layout of Hlungwani’s New Jerusalem can also be seen as a pilgrimage route. The plan of the New Jerusalem is referred to by Hlungwani as ‘The Map of Life’. It is a route with a beginning and an end, an entrance and an exit, an ascent and a descent. Upon visiting the acropolis one returns via the same route that one came. The beginning and end of the route function as religious metaphors for life, death and spiritual awakening. This idea of the route as a spiritual journey recalls the central idea behind the shamanic trance .

The New Jerusalem site incorporates what is believe to be the ruins of a former Iron Age site, this in itself reminds one of the way European Christian churches were often built on top of sacred pagan sites.

Aerial of God, 1980

Aerial of God, 1980

Hlungwani describes the New Jerusalem as “the centre of the world … the meeting point of  heaven  and earth”  and  the  place  where  “the  laws  of  God  are  being  enacted” At the centre of the New Jerusalem complex, the centre of the centre of the world as it were, one finds Hlungwane’s sculpture the ‘Aerial of God’

This is a cross based on a silver painted telephone  pole which tapers into a complex of smaller crosses and shiny objects at the apex. For Hlungwane this represents an extension of the middle point of the world. It symbolises the three realms of of life, the upper (heaven), the middle ( the realm of the dead) and the lower (the material world). The idea that Hlungwane used a telephone pole (symbol of communication) in this piece which doubles as a cross suggests the linking between heaven and earth or the imminent descent of heaven to earth. Some suggests that Hlungwani has created a powerful metaphor in his work as he turned a “broadcast aerial into a cross and a cross into a broadcast aerial’ thus creating ‘channels of communication with heaven.” (Ref)

Man Riding Fish

Man Riding Fish, Kiaat wood

Hlungwane’s emblematic fish sculptures, usually perched on a carved base drew on the symbol of St. Peter as ‘fisher of men’ popularised as a Christian motif, though the Tsonga – Shangaan women had also incorporated this symbol into the beaded and embroidered ‘nceka’ worn on special occasions, along with water and cosmic imagery linking them to the ancestors and also their trading heritage during their time in Mocambique prior to migration. The Nceka is a cloth worn over the upper body by Tsonga-Shangane women of the north-eastern provinces of Limpopo and Mpumalanga .


Tsonga ‘nceka’ fish motifs

So, for Hlungwane the fishes were the symbols of Christ and the people of the Northern province. Hlungwane’s Fish sculptures have also been interpreted as symbols of redemption. The Fish sculptures are said to embody his prophecy that “after the apocalypse, man will acquire the freedom and ease of fishes.

In Man Riding Fish, the biblical story of  Jonah, the reluctant prophet and the great fish comes to mind. Looking at Hlungwane’s drum self portrait with its stylized beard, one could interpret this sculpture also as a self portrait reflecting his call from god to prophesy. The character riding riding the great fish indeed has physical characteristics of  Hlungwane with its stylized beard, matted hair and stylized cap. The bulging eyes are traditionally in African art a reflection of a visionary experience. Perhaps Hlungwane also reflected on the aspect of Jonah spending the same amount of time—three days—inside the fish as Jesus did in the tomb, which again brings to mind both the shamanic and christian concept of having to die to a previous life in order to receive redemption. Like Jonah Hlungwane felt himself called to bring a message of redemption to non-believers.

Stylistically the sculpture shares many characteristics with traditional African art.  Both the man and the fish is simplified in form, yet are recognizable as a man and a fish. The man’s features are angular and geometric in form, with only an indication of arms, and hoof-like feet. He uses the natural texture of the wood, with rough edges lightly sanded but not polished. The fish appears to have a rougher texture and seems to be made from a lighter coloured wood, possibly from a different piece of wood. The horizontal lines in the pectoral fins are rhythmically repeated in the tail fin, but the dorsal fins are left unpatterned as simple geometric shapes. Rhythmic line pattern is often found in traditional african art. Both his face and the way the figure is stylized reminds one of African masks and traditional African figurative carvings.

There is a feeling of anticipated movement or unease in the sculpture as the man riding the fish appears to be slightly off-balance, or about to step on the fish. The fish itself appears to be moving through the waters, rather than static, as its tail fin is slightly bent, the mouth slightly open, and the eyes appears to looking upwards.  The stomach of the fish is shaped so that looks like a hull of a boat indicating that it will glide with ease through the water, further adding to an illusion of movement.

Like Hlungwane’s other sculptures Man Riding Fish would also have served as visual cues for his ‘church’ and congregation,  depicting the meanings of his prophesies, and creating a sense or ambiance of a holy site in his community. Like most traditional African art, his sculptures were functional, in that they served as iconography in his ‘church.’

Large Crucifix 1990

Large Crucifix 1990

The idea of a cosmic harmony, the linking of heaven and earth  or God and man, is evident in Hlungwani’s  sculptures  Large  Crucifix (1990) and Adam and the Birth of Eve  (1985-1989).

Large Crucifix is a crucifix with raised arms carved into a tree trunk. It is decorated with a complex series of carvings including an elephant, people and fish at its base. Hlungwani believed that this sculpture symbolises that it is “possible for man to live in harmony with nature.

By placing man in the same space as the Divine, Hlungwani evokes his vision of a cosmic harmony – the union of man and God . The depiction of man’s redemption as an eternal realm where God and man share the same space is an idea that is reminiscent both of William Blake’ s ideas and Gothic art.

In Gothic painting, to portray man’s redemption or the eternal realm, man and God share the same pictorial space. “God and Man, Christ and the Multitudes stood in the same space. The material world was considered as the active body of God, a conception reflected in the sacred buildings of the period and in the artworks that adorned them”

Hlungwani sees man’s salvation as part of the union of opposites. The dualistic nature of Hlunwani vision is reflected in that he often speaks of “man/woman, Adam/Eve, Cain/Abel, black/white, good/evil, old world/new world” This philosophy comes from Isaiah in the Bible

“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth … I create Jerusalem … The wolf and the lamb shall feed together … They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain …” (Isaiah, 65:1725).

In Adam and the Birth of Eve, for example, Hlungwani made Adam and Eve into one figure. This was, according to Hlungwani, to symbolise unity. (Ref)

Crucifix (II), 1972

Crucifix (II), 1972

As well as reflecting a similar world view to the Gothic tradition , Hlungwani’s body of work depicts thematic, formal and stylistic features of Gothic art.  Like Gothic art, Hlungwani’s works are based on themes from the Bible. He has done many sculptures of the crucifixion, the angel Gabriel and, the creation of Adam and Eve. It is both the Biblical themes and Hlungwani’s interpretation of these themes which are reminiscent of the Gothic visionary tradition.

Christ on the Cross, Le Devot Christ, 1307

 Hlungwani’s affinity with Gothic form is evident when comparing his work Crucifix II to Gothic representation of the crucifixion such as Christ on the cross (1307). Hlungwani’ s depiction of this theme parallels the conventional depiction of Christ which was, handed down from Medieval times. In this tradition “the anguished bearded Christ” is represented naked except for the loin cloth tied around his waist, his feet crossed and pinned with a single nail”

The image of Christ on the cross shows a similar treatment and stylisation of torso and limbs which are puppet-like in their rigidity and thinness, as well as the thin elongated torso and in the position of the arms on the cross. Hlungwani has also emphasised Christ’s ribcage which is also often found in Medieval crucifixions. The emphasis of the ribcage adds to the agonised depiction of Christ. In Hlungwani’s image Christ’s arms are more or less in line with horizontal unit of the cross. The unnatural position of the arms seems to emphasise the rigidity of the figure. As in most medieval crucifixions the head is tilted forward in agony.

Apart from stylistic details, an important parallel between Hlungwani’ s image and the Medieval images is that that they are not naturalistic portrayals of the human figure. It can be said that these works were formed by the imagination . A primary function of Medieval art was to evoke, in the audience, a sense of the spiritual. In this regard, Hlungwani’s sculptures reveal “surprising re-embodiments of forms and stylistic features identifiable with farflung artistic traditions, for example the Byzantine, the Gothic …”

Hlungwani’s crucifixion however, differs from conventional depictions of the crucifixion in that he has carved a bird above the head of Christ in the place of the standard ‘I. N .R I. ‘ which is an acronym for the latin inscription Iēsus Nazarēnus, Rēx Iūdaeōrum –  in English –  “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews.”  It is also suggests that the bird could be equated with an angel – an idea which is accepted by Hlungwani. However, to him it is more specifically a Rain Bird – a symbol of rain, rich harvests and an abundance of food, as well echoing the shamanic idea that birds are a symbol of transcendence. (Ref)

Hlungwani’s gods leg eggs

God's Leg with Eggs

God’s Leg with Eggs, 1984

God’s Leg’s with Eggs is a sculpture depicting Hlungwane’s vision of God. The sculpture is in a form of a stylised, monumental foot with egg-like shapes carved onto its surface. The relationship between this image and Hlungwane’s own wounded leg is unavoidable as the eggs on God’s shin undoubtedly corresponds to the ulcers on his own.

Profound insight is often gained through great suffering is related to to the shamanic call to healing. This can also be linked to the shamanic idea  that the shaman must be healed first, before he or she is able to heal the community. This also includes the notion that the ‘wound’ which symbolises a spiritual sickness, or the lack of spiritual awareness, must be located in the individual before the collective can be healed.

Hlungwani continued to scald his wound, the one that never heals, throughout his life, with fire. This, he claimed, was to keep the devil out. Hlungwani’s festering wound seemed to symbolise the relationship between suffering and visionary knowledge, ideas which are intrinsic to shamanism. In this way, his wound can be seen as the mark of the shaman – the wounded healer. (Ref)

Large Devil

Large Devil, Silver cluster wood

The Large Devil with its horns and stylized face reminds one of the way Tokoloshe is often depicted in African art. The Tokoloshe is seen as a mischievous and evil spirit that can become invisible by swallowing a pebble. Tokoloshes are called upon by malevolent people to cause trouble for others. Its power extends to causing illness and even death upon the victim. Horns and tail is also characteristic of Christian depictions of the devil, or the personification of evil – that which leads the the believer away from redemption. As this figure could visually depict both the christian devil and the traditional African Tokoloshe, it is an excellent example of the dual influences in Hlungwane’s art and beliefs – that of African Christianity and his traditional Tsongo heritage.

The devil’s form is simplified an abstracted with strong angular aspects of the facial features. The viewer’ s eye is drawn to the face but then the eye is immediately drawn to the proportionality long leg that extends horizontally beyond the body. Despite being out of proportion it visually balances the composition in relation to the head which is about a third of the size of the body. In contrast the arms seems small and almost withered,

In African art the head is often the focus of a sculpture and usually proportionately large, reflecting the African belief that the head is the seat of one’s destiny. Perhaps in Hlungawne’s Large Devil the head could be the seat of evil thoughts and desires. The fact that the body is almost insignificant in the sculpture could be a reflection that the body is merely and instrument of evil thoughts. The large leg is also phallic and serpent like in shape in shape, again reflecting the aspect of evil desire. On the other hand the emphasis on the leg could symbolize his leg wounded by the devil in his vision. “The one that never heals”, and which he had to scald with fire throughout his life, with fire to keep the devil out.


Michelle Coetzee, The Artist as a Visionary, 1996

Gallery 181

John Borman Fine Art

Trudi Makhaya

Revisions – Jackson Hlungwane


Installation art describes an artistic genre of three-dimensional works that are often site-specific and designed to transform the perception of a space. Generally, the term is applied to interior spaces, whereas exterior interventions are often called Land art.

Installation art came to prominence in the 1970s but its roots can be identified in earlier artists such as Marcel Duchamp and his use of the readymade and Kurt Schwitters’ Merzart objects, rather than more traditional craft based sculpture. Its roots lie in the conceptual art of the 1960s where the artisis’ intention is all important. This is a departure from traditional sculpture which places its focus on form. Early non-Western installation art includes events staged by the Gutai group (means”Embodiment”) in Japan starting in 1954, which influenced American installation pioneers like Allan KaprowWolf Vostell. (Ref)

The installations at AfrikaBurn usually have quite a short lifetime and with the huge amount of effort that is put into the planning, fundraising, building and eventual burning of these art pieces. Started in 2007, AfrikaBurn takes place in the Tankwa Karoo in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa.

Africa Burn

Sculpture (Photo by Photokatz)


Photo Keith Shirlaw

The theme for AfrikaBurn 2013 was ‘Archetypes’  with themed camps, mutant vehicles, colourful costume, and

Also see a Time lapse of AfricaBurn 2013

Spiritual Expression in the Romantic Era

In Romantic art, nature—with its uncontrollable power, unpredictability, and potential for cataclysmic extremes—offered an alternative to the ordered world of Enlightenment thought.

 “… all that stuns the soul, all that imprints a feeling of terror, leads to the sublime.” –  Denis Diderot

In French and British painting of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the recurrence of images of shipwrecks and other representations of man’s struggle against the awesome power of nature illustrates this view. The Raft of the Medusa became an icon of the emerging Romantic style.

The Raft Of The Medusa,1819, Theodore Gericault

William Blake

William Blake, He who desires but acts not breeds pestilence.

William Blake (1757-1827) is a mystical artist and poet whose work was born out of authentic spiritual vision. Against all authority, he devised his own personal mythology to illustrate his mystical view of the universe.  He was one of the most original visual artists of the Romantic era. Whereas notable contemporaries such as J. M. W. Turner and John Constable found the subjects of their art in the landscape, Blake sought his (primarily figural) subjects in journeys of the mind.


Born in London in 1757 into a working-class family with strong nonconformist religious beliefs, Blake first studied art as a boy, at the drawing academy of Henry Pars. He served a five-year apprenticeship with the commercial engraver James Basire before entering the Royal Academy Schools as an engraver at the age of twenty-two. His conventional training was supplemented by his private study of medieval and Renaissance art, Blake sought to emulate the example of artists such as Raphael, Michelangelo, and Dürer in producing timeless, “Gothic” art, infused with Christian spirituality and created with poetic genius. (Ref)

Reverent of the Bible but hostile to the Church of England – indeed, to all forms of organised religion – Blake was influenced by the ideals and ambitions of the French and American revolutions, as well as by such thinkers as Jakob Böhme and Emanuel Swedenborg.

William Blake, The Ancient of Days Setting a Compass Upon the Face of the Earth ( Proverbs, viii. 27), Frontispiece to “Europe: a Prophecy,” printed 1794


Blake did not like oils , but devised a wholly original method of “relief etching,” which creates a single, raised printing surface for both text and image. The relief-etching of the illuminated books such as Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794), along with the line-engraving or intaglio printing of the illustrations of the Book of Job (1825) and Dante (unfinished at his death), utilize different and opposite techniques: as such they can be interpreted on the one hand as representing the visionary form and spiritual unity of Blake’s imagination and on the other, the power of pure line engraving to evoke tradition and the perfect union of style and content. (Ref)

His illuminated printing involved writing the text of the poems on copper plates with pens and brushes, using an acid-resistant medium. He then etched the plates in acid to dissolve the untreated copper and leave the design standing in relief (hence the name). This is a reversal of the usual method of etching, where the lines of the design are exposed to the acid, and the plate printed by the intaglio method, designed to facilitate the mechanical reproduction of images for mass consumption. (Ref)

Pouring Acid onto a Copper Plate: Blake’s Relief Etching Method

 His technique tries marry form and content, body and soul.

But first the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul is to be expunged; this I shall do, by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.

William Blake, Jerusalem

Blake described his technique as “fresco,” using oil and tempera paints mixed with chalks, Blake painted the design onto a flat surface (a copperplate or piece of millboard), from which he pulled the prints simply by pressing a sheet of paper against the damp paint. He finished the designs in ink and watercolor, making each, rare, impression unique, using yellow ochre, green, and raw sienna pigments mostly in the early years, which were the least expensive pigments in London at the time

Relief-etched plate on the bed of the press and impression before watercolors and pen and ink finishing.

Relief etching allowed Blake to control all aspects of a book’s production: he composed the verses, designed the illustrations, printed the plates, coloured each sheet by hand, and bound the pages together in covers. The resulting “illuminated books” were written in a range of forms—prophecies, emblems, pastoral verses, biblical satire, and children’s books—and addressed various contemporary subjects—poverty, child exploitation, racial inequality, slavery, tyranny, religious hypocrisy.

Although Blake has become most famous for his relief etching, his commercial work largely consisted of intaglio engraving, the standard process of engraving in the 18th century.

Blake’s Vision

The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with Sun (1805) is one of a series of illustrations of Revelation

He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star. – William Blake

William Blake who had experienced visions since his childhood, and throughout his life can be described as a mystic, but he also had an amazing insight into contemporary economics, politics and culture, and was able to discern the effects of the authoritarianism of church and state as well as what he considered the arid philosophy of a rationalist view of the world which left little scope for the imagination. He abhorred the way in which Christians looked up to a God enthroned in heaven, a view which offered a model for a hierarchical human politics, which subordinated the majority to a superior elite. He thus challenged this depiction of God as a remote monarch and lawgiver, and the use made of such imagery to justify authoritarianism. (Ref)

“May God us keep from Single vision and Newton’s sleep.” Blake

Newton (1795-1805)

He also criticised the dominant philosophy of his day which believed that a narrow view of sense experience could help us to understand everything that there was to be known.

“Would to God that all the Lord’s people were prophets”, he wrote, thereby including everyone in the task of speaking out about what they saw. Prophecy for Blake, was not a prediction of the end of the world, but telling the truth as best a person can about what he or she sees. (Ref)

Spirit of a Flea

Swedenborg’s theory that natural phenomena actually represent, or rather shadow, unseen spiritual conditions and existence can be seen as reflected in much of Blake’s work.

“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up till he sees all things through narrow chinks in his cavern.” – William Blake 

To Blake all things exist in the human imagination,” and “in every bosom a universe expands.” He believed that in the human imagination lay man’s only source of divine illumination. Blake used his visions as the inspiration for his art.

The Crucifixion: `Behold Thy Mother’ (1805), William Blake

His Influence

Blake’s apocalyptic and revolutionary beliefs, as expressed in his art, never found a popular audience during his lifetime and he was considered mad by contemporaries for his idiosyncratic views.  His paintings and poetry have been characterised as part of the Romantic movement and “Pre-Romantic”. Although Blake struggled to make a living from his work during his lifetime his influence and ideas are possibly the strongest of all the Romantic poets and artists on the twentieth century.

Blake’s work was neglected for a generation after his death and almost forgotten when Alexander Gilchrist began work on his biography in the 1860s. The publication of the Life of William Blake rapidly transformed Blake’s reputation, in particular as he was taken up by Pre-Raphaelites, in particular Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Charles Swinburne.

While Blake had a significant role to play in the art and poetry of figures such as Rossetti, it was during the Modernist period that this work began to influence a wider set of writers and artists.  William Butler Yeats, who edited an edition of Blake’s collected works in 1893, drew on him for poetic and philosophical ideas, while British surrealist art in particular drew on Blake’s conceptions of non-mimetic, visionary practice in the painting of artists such as Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland.

William Blake, Time

William Blake, Time

After World War II, Blake’s role in popular culture came to the fore in a variety of areas such as popular music, film, and the graphic novel.Blake had an enormous influence on the beat poets of the 1950s and the counterculture of the 1960s, frequently being cited by such seminal figures as beat poet Allen Ginsberg, songwriters Bob Dylan, Pete Doherty, Jim Morrison, Van Morrison, and English writer Aldous Huxley.

Paul Gauguin

Paul Gauguin “Christ in the Garden of Olives” 1889

Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin ( 1848 – 1903) was known for his experimental use of colors in the Synthetist style and the closely related movement Cloisonnist style which was directed at the appearance of forms. Line and colour, as well as the artist’s personal response to those forms was integral in Synthetism. Sythetism placed emphasis on the two dimensional plane that were influential to the French avant-garde and many modern artists, such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.

The Yellow Christ (Le Christ jaune), 1889

His  The Yellow Christ (1889), is often cited as a quintessential cloisonnist work. Gauguin reduced the image to areas of single colors separated by heavy black outlines. In such works he paid little attention to classical perspective and boldly eliminated subtle gradations of colour.

The yellow color links Christ to the landscape… The agricultural cycle is seen as a parallel to the religious cycle of Christian life – birth, life, death, and rebirth in Heaven. It also follows more specifically the Passion Cycle of Christ: fall, when crops are harvested, would be equivalent to the crucifixion; then follows winter, when nothing grows, parallel to Christ’s three days in the tomb; and finally springtime arrives, when everything comes back to life, a celebration like Christ’s resurrection.” (Ref)

Gauguin was also an important figure in the Symbolist movement as a painter, sculptor, print-maker, ceramist, and writer. The major themes of the Symbolist movement expressed longings for transfiguration “anywhere, out of the world” and  is related to the gothic component of Romanticism. Symbolism was a reaction against naturalism and realism, anti-idealistic styles which were attempts to represent reality as it is, and to elevate the humble and the ordinary over the ideal. Symbolism was a reaction in favour of spirituality, the imagination, and dreams.This name came from the artists’ desire to create art that symbolizes thoughts, feelings, and experiences. In the late 1800s, the idea of painting to convey emotion rather than physical reality was truly revolutionary. (Ref)

Machinery Section at the Great Exhibition of 1851

The Industrial Revolution began in England in the middle of the 18th Centuary,and by the late 1800s the automobile, airplane, camera, and telephone were invented. As the industrial age, Western society witnessed a significant change – the birth of sprawling cities, urban culture, mechanized production, and an increasing emphasis on capitalism. It was in this time that the modernist movement also came about, questioning the new world order that industry and machinery were creating. Many modernists noted that modern society has also been industrialized in a sense, and that personal lives had degraded to an artificial, mechanized, and impersonal routine. (Ref)

Industrial Revolution Landscape

Unlike the Impressionist artists before him, Gauguin was a member of a group of painters and poets who sought to escape the stress of the modernizing world. Many Impressionist painters created scenes of modernity and city life using large brushstrokes and textured surfaces. Gauguin too painted with large brushstrokes and patches of color but instead of depicting European modernity, Gauguin painted serene images of the pre-industrial world which paved the way to Primitivism and the return to the pastoral.

Raro te Oviri, 1891

Spirituality in Gauguin’s Work

Gauguin’s interest in non-European culture was thus part of the nineteenth-century European colonialist interest of “going native” in order to distance themselves from European society and to discover a native “authenticity” through experience and cultural knowledge.  It is within the cultural and political framework of the nineteenth century and the larger movement of spiritual universalism that Gauguin developed a personal interest in non-European forms of spirituality. Gauguin’s association with the Theosophists and his references to Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufi mysticism, and Tahitian religion in his paintings are products of his individual interests as well as products of colonialism. His interest in different religions and spirituality become his primary means of depicting other cultures as well as his own. (Ref)

Spirit of the Dead Watching 1892

In your light I learn how to love.
In your beauty, how to make poems.
You dance inside my chest,
where no one sees you,
but sometimes I do,
and that sight becomes this art.

A common theme among all religions is the need for an origin story. It was this search for origin stories that became a dominant theme to his religious works as well as his self-portraits, and lead him to search out places closer to an idyllic Paradise.

In order to find appropriate subject matter Gauguin traveled to the quaint countryside of Brittany, France, and later to the island of Tahiti and the Marquesas. Gauguin wanted to return to an earlier period of civilization in which mystical rituals and ancestral worship provide a mythical, rather than rational, system of meaning. 

Self-portrait(Gauguin) with Halo 1889

Self-portrait(Gauguin) with Halo 1889

It is suggested that Paul Gauguin’s interest in origins is synonymous with his desire to cast himself in the roles of different religious figures in his paintings, and that his self-portraits and religious works are a means of working out his questions and uncertainty regarding his personal beliefs and spiritual existence. His taking on of other roles and his shifting modes of self representation in self-portraits, writings, and other works provide viewers and readers with a fluid understanding of a man seeking answers to the great questions of existence.

He for example paints Self-Portrait with Halo, which recalls the Christian creation narrative in Genesis through the symbols of the snake and apples, and casts himself in the dominant role. As Gauguin had a lifelong interest in questions of identity, it is reasonable to interpret his symbolic role-play as a form of identity exploration. Gauguin, however, never places himself within his Tahitian scenes of landscape, daily life, or religious ceremonies. His choices to include himself in his Christian works and to remove himself from his Tahitian paintings shows his role as ethnographic observer; a witness rather than a participant. Although Gauguin removes himself from Europe and the European settlement in Tahiti, he calls attention to his identity as a European within a foreign colony on account of his status, appearance, and relationship with the native population. (Ref)

White Horse, 1891

Gauguin painted the White Horse during his second stay in Tahiti. He liked to roam through the countryside and explore the mountains and forests of the interior. These out-of-the-way places swarmed with all sorts of wildlife and plants which enchanted him. (Ref)

Analysis from Musée d’Orsay

This scene was however, not taken from real life; it is an imaginary, synthetic vision of a Tahitian landscape. The contorted branches of a native tree called bourao, a sort of hibiscus, along with lilies and imaginary flowers in the foreground make a decorative frame for the main motif. The sky and the horizon are locked out of this enclosed space.

A white horse, its coat tinged with the green of the vegetation, has given the painting its title. It is drinking, standing in the middle of a stream which flows vertically through the composition. The solitary animal probably has a symbolic meaning related to the Tahitians’ beliefs about the passage of the soul into another world. In Polynesia, white is associated with death and worship of the gods.

Behind the sacred animal, two nude figures are riding bareback into the distance. The tiered arrangement of these three animated motifs in the landscape accentuates the vertical, flat vision of the scene. To intensify the decorative effect, Gauguin has used a sumptuous palette. The greens – from grass green to emerald – and the deep blues contrast with orange and pink notes and the coppery colour of the riders’ skin.

 An impression of paradisiacal serenity emanates from this canvas which has become a veritable icon. The pharmacist in Tahiti who commissioned the picture did not appreciate Gauguin’s daring use of colour. He refused it on the grounds that the horse was too green.

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? 1897

Gauguin had received a seminary education in his youth. His religious beliefs never deserted him although he increasingly questioned the strictures of the traditional Catholic church.  This questioning reached a peak during his last years in Tahiti – when he was dying, destitute, isolated from the Tahitians because of his illness, and mourning the death of one of his daughters.

Gauguin vowed that he would commit suicide following this painting’s completion. After completing this masterpiece Gauguin failed in his attempt to kill himself and continued to paint for another six years.

The painting is meant to be read as a story – from right to left, with the three major figure groups illustrating the questions posed in the title. Initially, an age of childhood is shown, followed by youthfulness and the daily activities of adulthood. Lastly, on the left-most side, the aged and contemplative is shown as a final stage in life. The painting is also rich with symbolism, which serves to convey more spiritually related messages.

In this work Gauguin asks broad, philosophical questions about identity, meaning, and the afterlife. Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? This painting can also be seen as a composite work that incorporates figure studies, religious imagery, and animals all within a Tahitian landscape. The title of the work and Gauguin’s own religious and cultural position support the interpretation that the painting is the culmination of his personal research into with unfamiliar cultures and religious beliefs.

The central figure reaching above his head for an apple from the Tree of Life and recalls Adam or Eve in a pastoral setting, suggesting that the painting it is a type of Tahitian Genesis scene. The Christian idea that all human folly originates from this singular moment explains why Gauguin placed the figure in the center of the canvas. The figure and the scene from Genesis directly answer Gauguin’s first question for followers of the Christian faith. (Ref)

Similarly, Gauguin incorporates figure groups from his other canvases to form a pastiche. The nude figures in the lower right of the painting can also be seen to form a nativity scene complete with animals, and this group continues the theme of society’s origins. Jesus becomes a second Adam whose birth leads to the redemption of humankind and represents his own beginning on earth. Gauguin also includes an homage to artistic origins, citing Degas’ bathers by including the two crouching nude figures whose backs are turned toward the viewer. Although Gauguin incorporates fragments of other works of his own and others, the painting itself is a complete work with the unifying theme of a search for meaning. It also refers to the Gnostic belief in second baptism.

He attempts to reconcile the uncertainty of human origin and the fate of the soul in a way that traditionally derives from one’s religious beliefs. Gauguin’s curiosity about being and his engagement with other cultures led him to explore meaning through the archetypal symbols of religion. Although Gauguin believed that Christ’s model was an ideal one for humans to emulate, he did not believe that Christ was the only such model. He believed, for example, that Buddha was another ideal example of what humanity could become.

Visually, Gauguin includes figures from the story of Christian origin, the Hindu pantheon, and Tahitian religion. It is possible that the idol in the background is possibly not a Tahitian religious artifact, but another icon (probably Buddha-inspired) as by the time Gauguin arrived in Tahiti, “virtually nothing remained of the ancient Tahitian religion and mythology…” and the predominant religion was Christianity through missionary work. Gauguin however, was familiar with Tahitian cosmology and refers to particular deities in his writings and art, so that Scholars generally assume that the figure is the goddess Hina whose mystical union with Ta’aroa results in the birth of the universe.

This indicates that Gauguin had ignored the fact that Christianity was the dominant religion, and sought to represent the spiritual beliefs of the ‘primitive’ people through an idol that is less familiar to Western society. In a way, he is trying to allude towards the original, untouched spiritual culture and religion of the Tahitians before the process of colonization began. (Ref)

Gauguin also uses unconventional images and style as a means of rebelling the dogma he decried in his letters and notebooks. The backdrop of the painting, especially in the right half, seems to be clearly out of proportion with flattened areas and a lack of three-dimensional space. This is in fact a method Gauguin employs to abstract away from nature and express his primitivism.

He uses lack of natural scale to convey the state of the mind, rather than a physical observation – he is abstracting away from nature to express his feelings and emotions. This can be viewed as the early age of abstract expressionism and the Symbolist movement in which the goal is emotional expression and the odd proportions are a tool for achieving it

By contrasting and balancing western illusionism with non-western patterning, uniting Christian and non-Christian religious symbols, using religious morality tales as vehicles for narratives about eroticism and the abundance of nature.  Gauguin breaks open myths which are well-known, uses their structure but fills them with contradictory and new meanings.  Through his radical treatment of color, shape, and myth, he becomes a model for the 20th-century abstraction of Kandinsky and the later 20th-century surrealist goals of revitalizing mythology. (Ref)

Wassily Kandinsky, “Rider of the Apocalypse”. 1911


Expressionism developed during a period of history that saw Germany undergo severe social, political, and economic dislocation following the country’s defeat in World War I.  There was a widespread feeling of anxiety, a feeling of loss of authenticity and spirituality. German Expressionism conveyed a feeling of chaos through dark violent images that reflected the state of mind of both the artist and society in general.

They depicted the world solely from a subjective perspective, distorting it radically for emotional effect in order to evoke moods or ideas. Expressionist artists sought to express meaning or emotional experience rather than physical reality. Abstraction’ stood for metaphysical anxiety, and primordial psychic anguish associated with jarring formations and non representational, abstract art. (Ref)

Crucifixion, Nolde, Emil [German, 1912

From 1911 European avant-garde art was divided between two needs: the need for individual subjective expressiveness and a striving for order in a time of pending chaos.  Both needs were rooted in a desire to escape through an inward journey into feelings or to an ideal structure. Both needs were part of the culture shock that swept Europe at the beginning of the century, as the implications of the Industrialization were sinking in.  The avant-garde artists tried to create a new language to respond to these needs: the Cubists searched for a near scientific logic to the construction of the world and the Expressionists sought the answer in the irrational and a return to a more primal spiritual state. (Ref)

For the Expressionists, art and religion were closely intertwined, as both involved surrender to an inner, spiritual energy and a preoccupation with the human soul. Although they lived in an age of intellectual skepticism and philosophical nihilism, the Expressionists were still drawn repeatedly to the Christian themes and motifs that had shaped German life and culture for centuries.

A desire to comprehend events in spiritual terms was reflected in the artists’ recurrent images of prophets and seers, and the belief that theirs was an age of apocalyptic transformation manifested itself in various archetypally Christian motifs of creation and rebirth. The incomprehensible horror of World War I led several artists to turn to Biblical themes of salvation and redemption, and to the woodcut technique, which had a strong association with German medieval and Renaissance religious imagery. (Ref)

There were two schools of German Expressionism. Whereas Die Brücke (The Bridge) focused on the depicting the spiritual inner struggle, Der Blaue Reiter, (The Blue Rider) spiritual depictions were of a more mystical nature.

Where the Brücke artists used distortion to signal tensions in the artist and sharpen viewers’ responses, Blaue Reiter artists typically wished to involve us in a more meditative communication. Whereas some of the Brücke artists wished to be seen as 20th-century Germans developing a truly German art in a country too long dominated by French values and manner, the Blaue Reiter circle was of its nature international, and viewed art in global, even eternal terms. Der Blaue Reiter was defined by its focus on the spiritual and also on a more personal experience of art. For these artists, synthesis meant the unity of stylistic development in terms of color, which was linked to mysticism. (Ref)

Der Blaue Reiter combined two currents: the general European Expressionism and French Fauvism and added to these currents an interest in inner and mystical construction, stemming from Theosophy.  Despite the close affinity between Der Blaue Reiter and the Fauves, the approach to art making was radically different—the French artists were more interested in a formal extension of Post-Impressionism while the German artists were interested in mysticism.  (Ref)

Max Beckmann, Descent from the Cross, 1917

In this work, painted in the midst of a seemingly never-ending war,  Max Beckmann focuses on corporeal suffering. His controlled application of color conveys the lifelessness of Jesus’s body, which is covered in bruises and still mirrors the shape of the cross in its rigor mortis. Black blood pools around the gaping holes of the stigmata. Beckmann was influenced by the exaggerated depictions of bodily decay and torment he saw in medieval German paintings. (Ref)

Emil Nolde, Christ and the Children, 1910

Emil Nolde’s heavily textured brushwork conveys the intensity of religious belief. He contrasts the innocent faith of the children, who all appear in rich, warm tones, with the restrained and cool blues of the skeptics to Christ’s left. (Ref)

Otto Dix, The Nun, 1914

Otto Dix portrays a nun’s internal struggle between her hope for eventual heavenly rewards and her desire for immediate worldly pleasures. The jarring, acidic colors on the nun’s face and hands contrast sharply with the anguish and torment conveyed by her downcast eyes and furrowed brow. The deep lines and fractured planes of her face parallel the soaring vaults of the Gothic cathedral. (Ref)

"Der Blaue Reiter" (The Blue Rider), painted 1903 by Wassily Kandinsky

“Der Blaue Reiter” (The Blue Rider), painted 1903 by Wassily Kandinsky

Der Blaue Reiter, led by Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky, wanted to create the blueprints for an enlightened and liberated society which emphasized spirituality as opposed to cold industrialization.

Marc and Kandinsky shared similar ideas on art: both believed that true art should possess a spiritual dimension. For Marc the spiritual aspect of art was more concerned with representing the inner soul of a being, and Kandinsky represented the spiritual by abstract means.

Franz Marc, Blue Horses, 1911

Franz Marc, Blue Horses, 1911

In Blue Horses also called The Large Blue Horses the simplified and rounded outlines of the horses are echoed in the rhythms of the landscape background, uniting both animals and setting into a energetic and harmonious organic whole. Like the Byzantine religious icons which Marc was familiar with, which were meant as an aid for the worshipper in prayer, and an encouragement to contemplate the life of the saint or the biblical figure depicted, Marc invites the viewer to connect with the animals in his paintings and to contemplate the spiritual beauty that he strove to depict.

His paintings are, more often than not, devoid of humans as though it is an animal-only world. When viewing it, humans are allowed to become a part of the work it, since the viewpoint is often at the level of the animal. The viewer is given the chance to get closer to the animals in his paintings and experience their beauty. Marc’s compositions, especially those before the influence of Orphism and Futurism, are often formed by a sculptural mass of animals at the centre of the picture plane, with curved lines dominating in order to underline the sense of harmony, peace, and balance.

Die Grossen Blauen Pferde (The Large Blue Horses) demonstrates this compositional technique, and together all of these elements further emphasise the spiritual beauty of the animals depicted.

I am trying to intensify my feeling for the organic rhythm of all things, to achieve pantheistic empathy with the throbbing and flowing of nature’s bloodstream in trees, in animals, in the air. Franz Marc

Marc was a deeply religious person and his depiction of animals and nature reflects this “pantheistic empathy,” which is the belief that beauty is equated with God, and that God is present in nature and all substance. Marc uses animals as his chosen means of expression just as the human figure was for Michelangelo. Marc was primarily concerned with representing the spirit and thus the beauty of the animals, in order to represent a sense of the pantheistic.

Blue is the male principle, astringent and spiritual. Yellow is the female principle, gentle, gay and spiritual. Red is matter, brutal and heavy and always the colour to be opposed and overcome by the other two.

Franz Marc painted animals in symbolic colors, especially the primary colors: red, yellow and blue.  Marc devised an elaborate theory of art and its colors—blue was masculine and spiritual and yellow was female and joyful—and used them to indicate the inner life of the animals, not the animals themselves.

Franz Marc, The Tiger

He did however on occasion deviate from strictly sticking to this in for example The Tiger which is depicted in yellow but the sense of playfulness and joy, as outlined in Marc’s colour theory, is far from the mood evoked. In this painting it is the geometrical composition and angular shapes and lines which dominate as opposed to colour. Marc has used shapes and lines here in order to convey the sense of terror. This was perhaps necessary when his colour theory did not allow for sinister moods or emotions to be represented. (Ref)

Franz Marc, 1913, The Tower of Blue Horses

In contrast, the Turm der Blauen Pferde (Tower of Blue Horses) (1913; missing since the Second World War and known today through reproductions considered to be one of his masterpieces), is exemplary of Marc’s dogmatic application of his colour theory. The Tower of Blue Horses draws strength in its unification of colour and composition. His belief in blue as the “male principle, stern, and spiritual” is here underlined through the verticality of the composition, which emphasises male virility and strength, yet still maintains a sense of elegance and spirituality.

Franz Marc, The Trees Show their Rings, the Animals their Veins, 1913

Around 1912 and the years leading up to the First World War, his work and representations of animals began changing. The animals within  these compositions become smaller and are often spread out; the sense of calm and contemplation is absent since the picture plane begins to be cut up and divided by lines and geometric forms through the influence of Cubism, Futurism, and Orphism. There are more evidence of human life, as in The Unfortunate Land of Tyrol as Marc’s idealised animal kingdom begins to give way to reality.  Animal Destinies, The Trees Show their Rings, the Animals their Veins, 1913 typifies this period. (Ref)

This work is also characteristic of the sense of apocalypse and doom which began to taint Marc’s work at this time and could be related to his feelings on the impending war. In a 1915 letter to his wife Maria, Marc explains that this change in his art occurred because he began to see the ugliness in animals which he had previously thought only existed in humans. He states that he was no longer able to see the beauty which animals had once represented for him.

The animal motifs which once conveyed a sense of emotion no longer held their appeal and possibility. The application of paint and the division of the
picture plane through the use of lines and geometric shapes now carried the emotional charge previously conveyed by animals. This change may be related to Marc’s ideas on the impending war. Marc no longer saw animals as separate entities in their own perfect kingdom, as he had once represented them. At the point when Marc began to identify the ugliness in animals, he recognised them as part of the universe which man also inhabited and which was in need of redemption. (Ref)

In Marc’s very final works before the outbreak of the First World War, it is extremely difficult to identify any animals, since non-representational form and abstraction have taken over. Fighting Forms is dominated by two swirling shapes, one red and the other black. Some claims that the red form on the left is an abstracted the image of an eagle with beak-like and claw-like shapes. If this had been Marc’s intention, it would seem, therefore, that even when his art appears to be the furthest from his earlier representations, the use of animals as emblems of emotions and expression is still prevalent. The image of war is thus perhaps represented here by a bird of prey and the conflict in the contrasting colour shapes.(Ref)

Fighting Forms may be viewed as a composition on violence and, have lost the “prettiness and polish” of his earlier works. His identification of the harsh realities of the world, led him to depict what he believed to be purer and more beautiful than man, namely animals. Since at the end of his career Marc could no longer recognise the beauty and purity in animals, as he had once been able to, and with his country on the threshold of war, it seems that he could no longer create an idealised world but had to bow to reality.In 1914, with the outbreak of the First World War (1914-18) Marc volunteered for military service, and in 1916 was killed in action, at the age of 36. (Ref)

Franz Marc – Fighting Forms

Like Marc, Wassily Kandinsky believed that colors had symbolic meanings, but his theories stemmed from his readings of Theosophy, especially those of Rudolf Steiner, a follower of Madame Blavatsky.  Involved in the realm of the spiritual, Kandinsky ceased to even see reality itself and he replaced the objects that once populated his paintings with his “inner aspiration,” which led to his development of pure abstraction. (Ref)

Theosophy influenced many late-19th- and early-20th-century artists. The Theosophical Society, was founded 1875 by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Kandinsky’s belief in the spiritual power of art, and that the artist was a kind of messiah or prophet (or even magician) whose job it was to communicate a higher truth to humanity, stem from Theosophy. The Theosophy philosophical or religious teaching encouraged mystical insight into the nature of God and the world through direct knowledge, philosophical speculation, or a physical process, such as painting. Deeper spiritual – , or  transcendental states were achieved through intuition, meditation, and other practices, common to many mystical belief systems.

‘Our minds are infected with the despair of unbelief, of lack of purpose and ideal. The nightmare of materialism which has turned the life of the universe into an evil, useless game, is not yet past; it holds the awakening soul still in its grip.‘ Kandinsky

To Kandinsky colours on the painter’s palette evoke a double effect: a purely physical effect on the eye and a deeper effect, causing a vibration of the soul or an “inner resonance”—a spiritual effect in which the colour touches the soul itself.

For example; yellow is a typically terrestrial colour, whose violence can be painful and aggressive. Blue is a celestial colour, evoking a deep calm. The combination of blue and yellow yields total immobility and calm, which is green. For him clarity is a tendency towards white, and obscurity is a tendency towards black. White is a deep, absolute silence, full of possibility. Black is nothingness without possibility, an eternal silence without hope, and corresponds with death. The mixing of white with black leads to gray, which possesses no active force and whose tonality is near that of green. Gray corresponds to immobility without hope; it tends to despair when it becomes dark, regaining little hope when it lightens.

In his writings, Kandinsky also analyzed the geometrical elements which make up every painting—the point and the line. He called the physical support and the material surface on which the artist draws or paints the basic plane, or BP. He did not analyze them objectively, but from the point of view of their inner effect on the observer.

A point is a small bit of colour put by the artist on the canvas. It is neither a geometric point nor a mathematical abstraction; it is extension, form and colour. This form can be a square, a triangle, a circle, a star or something more complex. The point is the most concise form but, according to its placement on the basic plane, it will take a different tonality. It can be isolated or resonate with other points or lines.

For example; a horizontal line corresponds with the ground on which man rests and moves; it possesses a dark and cold affective tonality similar to black or blue. A vertical line corresponds with height, and offers no support; it possesses a luminous, warm tonality close to white and yellow. A diagonal possesses a more-or-less warm (or cold) tonality, according to its inclination toward the horizontal or the vertical.

Wassily Kandinsky, Blue Mountain (Der blaue Berg), 1908–09

Wassily Kandinsky, Blue Mountain (Der blaue Berg), 1908–09

Wassily Kandinsky’s use of the horse-and-rider motif symbolized his crusade against conventional aesthetic values and his dream of a better, more spiritual future through the transformative powers of art.

In 1909, the year he completed Blue Mountain, Kandinsky painted no less than seven other canvases with images of riders. In that year his style became increasingly abstract and expressionistic and his thematic concerns shifted from the portrayal of natural events to apocalyptic narratives. By 1910 many of his abstract canvases shared a common literary source, the Revelation of Saint John the Divine; the rider came to signify the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who will bring epic destruction after which the world will be redeemed.

The Apocalypse is a common theme among Kandinsky’s first seven Compositions. Writing of the “artist as prophet” in his book, Concerning the Spiritual In Art, Kandinsky created paintings in the years immediately preceding World War I showing a coming cataclysm which would alter individual and social reality. Raised an Orthodox Christian, Kandinsky drew upon the Jewish and Christian stories of Noah’s Ark, Jonah and the whale, Christ’s resurrection, the four horsemen of the Apocalypse in the book of Revelation, Russian folktales and the common mythological experiences of death and rebirth. Never attempting to picture any one of these stories as a narrative, he used their veiled imagery as symbols of the archetypes of death–rebirth and destruction–creation he felt were imminent in the pre-World War I world. (Ref)

kadinsky 28

Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation 28 (second version), 1912

In both Sketch for Composition II and Improvisation 28 (second version), Kandinsky depicted, through highly schematized means, cataclysmic events on one side of the canvas and the paradise of spiritual salvation on the other. In Improvisation 28, for instance, images of a boat and waves (signaling the global deluge), a serpent, and, perhaps, cannons emerge on the left, while an embracing couple, shining sun, and celebratory candles appear on the right. (Ref)

Wassily Kandinsky, Great Resurrection (Grosse Auferstehung) (plate, folio 52) from Klänge (Sounds), 1913

In Great Resurrection, Kandinsky combined Bavarian and Russian folk imagery with an abstracted visual language to create this frenzied scene of the Last Judgment. In the upper left, an angel trumpets the coming apocalypse. In the lower right, a kneeling decapitated figure, holding its head aloft, returns to life as foretold in the Book of Revelation. (Ref)

Composition IV and later paintings are primarily concerned with evoking a spiritual resonance in viewer and artist.  he had intended the work to evoke a flood, baptism, destruction, and rebirth simultaneously. As in his painting of the apocalypse by water (Composition VI), Kandinsky puts the viewer in the situation of experiencing these epic myths by translating them into contemporary terms (with a sense of desperation, flurry, urgency, and confusion). This spiritual communion of viewer-painting-artist/prophet may be described within the limits of words and images. (Ref)

Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VI, 1913

Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VI, 1913

Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VII, 1913

Composition VII is the pinnacle of Kandinsky’s pre-World War One artistic achievement. The creation of this work involved over thirty preparatory drawings, watercolors and oil studies, documenting the deliberate creative process used by Kandinsky in his compositions. Through all of the preparatory works and in the final painting itself, the central motif (an oval form intersected by an irregular rectangle) is maintained. This oval seems almost the eye of a compositional hurricane, surrounded by swirling masses of color and form. In Composition VII’s  final form, Kandinsky has obliterated almost all pictorial representation. Art scholars, through Kandinsky’s writings and study of the less abstract preparatory works, have determined that Composition VII combines the themes of The Resurrection, The Last Judgment, The Deluge and The Garden of Love. (Ref)

Tapestry, Christ in Glory, designed by Graham Sutherland, 1950s – 19662

After the Second World War spirituality and religion became disconnected. A new discourse developed, in which (humanistic) psychology, mystical and esoteric traditions and eastern religions are being blended, to reach the true self by self-disclosure, free expression and meditation.

The distinction between the spiritual and the religious became more common in the popular mind during the late 20th century with the rise of secularism and the advent of the New Age movement.

Francis Bacon’s (1909 – 1992) provocative and disturbing images carry a raw sense of anxiety and alienation. They reflect that existential fear, loathing and incomprehension at the atrocities of the Holocaust that came to light at the end of World War Two. Bacon’s art was seen as a metaphor for the corruption of the human spirit in the post World War Two era.

Painting is the pattern of one’s own nervous system being projected on canvas’. Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944

Francis Bacon, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944

In 1944, one of the most devastating years of World War II, Francis Bacon painted Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. In this  triptych depicting anthropomorphic creatures writhing in anguish, Bacon established his reputation as one of England’s foremost figurative painters and a ruthless chronicler of the human condition. During the ensuing years, certain disturbing subjects recurred in Bacon’s oeuvre: disembodied, almost faceless portraits; mangled bodies resembling animal carcasses; images of screaming figures; and idiosyncratic versions of the Crucifixion. (Ref)

The three ‘figures’, bestial mutations of the human form, were Bacon’s interpretation of the Furies: the three goddesses of vengeance (Alecto, Megaera and Tisiphone) from Greek mythology. Their task was to punish crimes that were beyond human justice. Bacon painted the work at the end of World War Two, as the accounts of the Nazi death camps were beginning to emerge. The three deformed ‘Figures’ were a metaphor for the corruption of the human spirit and the artist’s revulsion at man’s inhumanity to man. (Ref)

Picasso “Bathers with a Toy Boat”. 1937

The form of the Furies is borrowed directly from Picasso’s late 1920s and mid-1930s pictures of biomorphs on beaches, in particular from the Spanish artist’s The Bathers (1937). 

The theme reflects human suffering on a universal scale while also addressing individual pain. The Crucifixion appeared in Bacon’s work as early as 1933. Even though he was an avowedly irreligious man, Bacon viewed the Crucifixion as a “magnificent armature” from which to suspend “all types of feeling and sensation.”The crucifixion in Bacon’s work is a “generic name for an environment in which bodily harm is done to one or more persons and one or more other persons gather to watch.” (Ref)

For Bacon there was a connection between the brutality of slaughterhouses and the Crucifixion. Bacon believed that animals in slaughterhouses suspect their ultimate fate. Seeing a parallel current in the human experience, as symbolized by the Crucifixion in that it represents the inevitability of death; “we are meat, we are potential carcasses.” (Ref)

The triptych, was a devotional format that was first used in Christian altarpieces. Bacon used this form of display for two reasons. First, exhibiting such despairingly secular subjects in a religious format could only be viewed, in the context of the time, as a calculated act of desecration that would amplify the shock value and emotive response to his images. Secondly, the adjacent frames of a triptych arrangement allow Bacon to conduct a kind of abstract or psychological narrative between the consecutive images. The idea to use a triptych format was probably inspired by the expressionist paintings of Max Beckmann which Bacon would have seen in Berlin.

Francis Bacon, ‘Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X’, 1953(oil on canvas)

If Velazquez’s ‘Portrait of Pope Innocent X’ portrays the public face of power while hinting at the private flaws of the man behind it, then Bacon’s ‘Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X’ broadcasts his inner psychoses.

Bacon’s Pope inhabits an ethereal world of perpetual torment – a living hell from which there is no escape. He is paralysed with pain and fear, and jolted with shocks from his golden throne which has been transformed from a symbol of authority into an instrument of torture. The composition reaches its focal point as a primal scream shrieks from the pope’s mouth. This scream echoes back to birth expressionist art – ‘The Scream’ of Edvard Munch. (Ref)

Francis Bacon’s art is full of paradox – he both repulses and seduces his audience simultaneously. He repulses them with his shocking subject matter, however, he also seduces them by the rich sensual qualities of his beautiful paint surface with its rich brushwork and expressive colour.

The same kind of contradiction confounds his subject matter. While ‘Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X’ attacks the authority of the Catholic Church, the social and religious establishment of his Irish childhood, it is also part of an obsessive fascination with its iconography. Bacon, himself, revelled in such ambiguities, ‘The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery………If you can talk about it, why paint it?’ (Ref)

The Rothko Room at The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Photo © Robert Lautman

Abstract Expressionism can be divided into two kinds of paintings; Action Painting like Jackson’s Pollock’s paintings, and those that can be called still paintings, or are called Colour Field Painting, like the work of  Mark Rothco.

Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko has been called a spiritual and a religious painter, but he is a religious painter for a secular age, providing what the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard called “a space to daydream”. It is a space in which we can contemplate not only the natural grandeur of the world, but the silence and stillness at the core of who we are. (Ref)

“Seeking to represent a spiritual experience, Mark Rothko invoked the power of color in his work.”

Rothko’s rectangles developed after a long maturation process, in which his painting moved from an expressionist-grounded realism, through a surrealism in which classical, mythological, and Christian subjects provided the ground for exploring the unconscious, to the final form he arrived at with his breakthrough work in 1949 that culminated in the dark murals for the Houston chapel, painted between 1964 and 1967—“imageless art that sought great religious and moral depth.” (Ref)

While Rothko was concerned about the moral and religious content of his work from the beginning, his classic period arrived a moment in the history of art and religion in American culture when both were in crisis. Post-war America, in its burst of affluence, was going through what many saw as a secularization process, while art was experiencing a crisis of representation following the exhaustion of Social Realism (William Gropper) and American Scene painting (Thomas Hart Benton).

Rothko’s response was to try to figure his sense of the discomforting of transcendence without figuration, in the pure abstraction of luminous rectangles and their sensuous suggestion of portals, their hint that something existed, perhaps a kind of light, behind the surface. By emptying the canvas of obvious story Rothko could paint a more emotionally accurate “portrait of the soul,” as he sometimes called his paintings.(Ref)

Mark Rothco,

His paintings may appear calm, even serene, inviting restful contemplation, but they are far more demanding. They require sustained attention, and what at first appears to be stillness is actually very alive, almost pulsating in the soft, undefined borders between the colors and the edges of the paintings. The blocks of color invite you into an intimacy that draws you out of yourself, but at the same time the size of the painting requires you to keep your distance. There is the sense of a presence—beyond, behind, within—but it is invisible,  inexpressible.

While the paintings are completely emptied of narrative content, Rothko insisted they were not formally abstract.

I’m not an abstractionist, I’m not interested in relationships of colors or forms or anything else.…I’m interested in only expressing basic human emotions, tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on—and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate those basic human emotions. The people who weep before my pictures, are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.”

For some viewers, the shimmering rectangles and ambiguous relations between foreground and background, as well as the tensions among the blocks of color, suggest a mystical dialogue between absence and presence. (Ref)

Mark Rothco, No. 14, 1960

The only only valuable subject matter in paintings are the tragic and the timeless. Mark Rothco

In some ways his work serves the same purpose for the mid 20th centuary man as did the Byzantine religious icons for their contemporaries; for spiritual contemplation and focus. His work also evokes the same mood and feeling for his mid 20th centuary contemporaries as the landscapes of German Romantics did in the 19th centuary for their contemporaries. The German Romantics’ work conveyed the sublime through their landscapes where the vastness of nature overpowers man in its smallness; it is at the same time beautiful and terrifying, and it creates a feeling of longing and absence.

The Monk by the Sea (German: by the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich. It was painted between 1808 and 1810

For Rothco nature, or a beautiful landscape could no longer express the same spiritual feelings in us as it did in the 19th centuary. It could no longer reach us with its religious language. With scientific advancement of the 20th centuary much of nature has become demystified. Powerful beings no longer speak to the modern contemporaries through volcanoes and cascades. For Rothco representational landscape no longer evoked such powerful experiences in us and reflected the spiritual crisis of the times.

He uses a vertical format that is normally used for portrait paintings, whereas horizontal format is used for landscapes, The vertical format is however, divided into horizontal bands, or blocks that can be seen as remnants of the landscape, as for him the non-representational is the only way to evoke the same powerful spiritual feeling in his contemporaries.

His works therefore reflects the sense of the sublime and attempts to speak the unspeakable, to bring the viewer into contact with that which escapes your grasp, that which is beyond things and escapes understanding, creating a strong feeling of yearning reminiscent of the feeling created in the German Romantic landscape. It leaves the viewer with a longing for that which cannot be see, cannot be grasped or understood.

Rothco Chapel, Texas

His paintings (1964 – 1967) for the Rothco Chapel in Texas, appears black at first glance, but with contemplation hues of colour emerges from black. These are said to represent “the unbearable silence of God.” The blackness and figurelessness representing a visual silence.

In a Rothco painting you have three or four different layers of thinly washed paint, hazy blocks of colour on top of colour, all interacting with each other, almost swimming into each other. It is actually not easy to establish what colours are in which layer, which adds to mystical mysteriousness of Rothco’s paintings.

We favour the simple expression of concrete thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for the flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth. Rothco and Motherwell

When you look at a Rothco painting you realize what is meant by the overall, which is often used in regard with the Abstract Expressionist’s paintings. The edges, or sides are of no less importance than the core. You cannot complete your experience of the painting without letting your eye wander all over the surface of the work. It is like being in a zone of no gravity, or a weightless zone.

Like other Abstract Expressionists he did not want his paintings to be framed. A framed painting is understood as an illusion of an imagined space or scene. For the Abstract Expressionists their work were not alluding to another space; what they were making was the reality that they wanted to present to the viewer. A frame would separate the painting’s reality from the viewer’s reality. What they wanted was a joint reality.

Like the other Abstract Expressionists’ all the traditional conventions of painting is subverted. There is none of the past illusions of representation; no focal point, no depth, no positive or negative space.

The sense of boundlessness in Rothko’s paintings has been related to the aesthetics of the sublime, an implicit or explicit concern of a number of his fellow painters in the New York School.

No. 5/No. 22, 1949

The rectangles within this painting do not extend to the edges of the canvas and appear to hover just over its surface. Heightening this sensation is the effect of chromatic afterimage. Staring at each colored segment individually affects the perception of those adjacent to it. The red–orange center of the painting tints the yellow above it with just a bit of green. The yellow above seems to tint the orange with blue. Despite these color relationships, Rothko did not want his pictures appreciated solely for their spectral qualities. He said, “If you are only moved by color relationships, then you miss the point. I’m interested in expressing the big emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom.”

No. 3/No. 13, 1949

Magenta, Black, Green on Orange follows a compositional structure that Rothko explored for twenty–three years beginning in 1947. Narrowly separated, rectangular blocks of color hover in a column against a colored ground, their edges are soft and irregular. The green bar in Magenta, Black, Green on Orange, appears to vibrate against the orange around it, creating an optical flicker. In fact the canvas is full of gentle movement, as blocks emerge and recede, and surfaces breathe. Just as edges tend to fade and blur, colors are never completely flat, and the faint unevenness in their intensity, besides hinting at the artist’s process in layering wash on wash, mobilizes an ambiguity, a shifting between solidity and impalpable depth. (Ref)

These two lectures by Jon Anderson on the The (Spiritual) Crisis of Abstract Expressionism gives an excellent perspective on the subject focusing on Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko



David E. Anderson, Anecdotes of the Spirit

Arty Factory – Francis Bacon

Magdalena Dabrowski, Kandinsky: Compositions

Der Blaue Reiter Painting


 Gauguin: Primitivism and “Synthetic” Symbolism

Gauguin: Primitivism and “Synthetic” Symbolism

Guggenheim – Francis Bacon

Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art

Bronner Kellner – Expressionism

Gabi La Cava, The Expressionist Animal Painter Franz Marc

Irene Lanridge, William Blake – A Study of His Life and Art Work

Daanish Maqbool, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

Metropolitan Museum of Art – William Blake

MoMa Learning, Abstract Expressionism

MoMa – Expressionism

Musée d’Orsay – Gauguin, White Horse

New York Times article on William Blakefrom 1910

Nancy Spector, The Blue Mountain

Swindle, Stephanie Nichole, Paul Gauguin and Spirituality

Sue Hubbard, Rothko Retrospective

The Art Story – Expressionism

The Art Story – Paul Gauguin


William Blake and his Contemporaries

William Blake Archive

What is the definition of Spiritual?

Sibusiso Duma, When we were young, acrylic on board

 ‘ … the way some person lived within his or her historical context a chosen religious ideal in sensitivity to the realm of the spirit or the transcendent’. – Walter Principe

The definition by Principe is the definition from which most current definitions of what is spiritual is derived from. What we understand today as “being spiritual” is actually a relatively new but shifting concept to define that which is purely spiritual as opposed to that which is religious.

The modern connotations of what is spiritual originated from the thoughts of several religious thinkers in their attempts to relocate authentic religion outside or beyond the sphere of churches and institutions. The word spiritual was actual very rare in historical texts. (Ref) The attempt to define what is spiritual is parallel to the development of intellectual thinking, or stems from the time when ordinary mortals first realized that we have the power to inquire into the hidden nature of the universe. In earlier cultures there would have been no need to define what is spiritual. The question, ‘what is spiritual’ is thus really a more modern Western concept.

Zwelethu Mthethwa, Guardian Angels, 2004, Oil pastel on pape

The word spiritual is derived from the Hebrew word Ruach, the  Latin word spiritualitas and the Greek word Pneuma. All three has the original base meaning of ‘moving air’ – whether in the form of breath, a breeze, or violent storm winds, or that which animates life. Most English bibles translates ruach as spirit. Immaterial beings are called ruachot; such ghosts, and angelic beings and spirits. Ruach has also been translated as ‘mind’, in the sense of thoughts, convictions, dispositions, drive even courage. (Ref)

According to the Greek philosopher Anaximenes, “just as our soul (psyche), being air (aer), holds us together, so do breath (pneuma) and air (aer) encompass the whole world.”

With this in mind one can perhaps define spiritual as shifting definition for that which is transcendent, unseen, except in unusual circumstance, but which nonetheless has a visible effect and without which there would be no life.

More useful concepts for defining spiritual:

What is a Belief?

Whatever an individual is willing to subjectively accept without direct verification by experience or without the support of evidence, resulting in assumption which is taken as a basis for action or non-action.

What is a Belief System?

A belief system is the actual set of precepts or principles, upon which a person base and live their daily life, and governs an individual’s thoughts, words, and actions. Without these precepts you could not function.


Allegory is a device in which characters or events represent or symbolize ideas and concepts. Allegory has been used widely through out the history of art, and in all forms of artwork. A reason for this is that allegory has an immense power of illustrating complex ideas and concepts in a digestable, concrete way. For example, this function of the device is possibly most evident in Christian doctrine, where Satan symbolizes evil and God symbolizes good. The concept of goodness is portrayed as a character, and his behaviour and intentions follow suit with this goodness. Therefore, in allegory a message is communicated by means of symbolic figures, actions or symbolic representation. Allegory is generally treated as a figure of rhetoric; a rhetorical allegory is a demonstrative form of representation conveying meaning other than the words that are spoken.(Ref)

Useful Questions to ask when analyzing Spiritual Art

What does the artist/culture believe?

In order to find out what belief system an artist operates from, or have adopted, certain questions must be asked. The core of what they believe starts with whether they Truly believe in one of the following.

  • A supreme being,

  • Just an existence beyond the physical of some kind

  • Nothing at all.

For those who believe in a Supreme Being, or God, how is the being depicted? How does the being communicate to people things they need to know, do, and be.
Is it that God only talks to a few people, or to everyone ?
Do you think cultural differences and personalities would affect the message?

Credo Mutwa, The Judgement of the Kings (1983)

Spiritual and religious works of art convey a non-verbal message, whichever form it takes, regardless of culture, religion, date or location. In the past, only the highly educated and members of the clergy were able to read. Visual imagery was thus used to convey spiritual ideas to the illiterate masses.

Spiritual Art

Spiritual Art visually depicts and communicates the artist’s spiritual beliefs, or reflects, or oppose, the spiritual doctrines of the ruling ideologies. It often reflects the desire to push “behind the veil of appearance” to the “other side” to seek “the hidden things in nature and life . . . the inner spiritual side of nature and life.” Mystical Art is created through the guidance of a spiritual being, or through visions received by the artist.


One can very well say that most of the art from art history can be classified as spiritual art. It was only with Modernism and the Avant Garde art movements that spiritual art started to reflect the individual’s spiritual views. The first artists that produced cave paintings were likely to have been shamans or priests. Later religious art reflected the doctrine and symbolism of each particular belief system. Yet, just as each of the major religions will have regional interpretations, just so the religious art reflected the particular historical environment, culture and spiritual interpretations of their beliefs.

Christ Pantocrator, early 17’th century. Portable Icon. Work of Jeremiah Palladas Collection of the 4th Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities of the Dodecanese.

Early cultures used artwork to worship divine beings, and in the Middle Ages, artwork was used to canonize religious themes and spiritual leaders. During the Renaissance period, painted images began to gradually move away from society’s spiritual ideologies and become more and more individual. In modern times, artists have become completely independent from societal ideologies, and instead of communicating the realities of life, artwork has become a means for the artist to communicate personal ideologies and spiritual themes through visual and other elements. (Ref)

African Art

Lydenberg head, ca. A.D. 500-700

As Spirituality is always culturally formed and informed and the formation of spirituality is always cultural-contextual, Africa’s beliefs and religions reflects its multi-cultural context. Africa is a vast continent, incorporating a wide variety of cultures and ethnic groups. Northern Africa differs totally from Southern Africa.

Traditional African Beliefs

In traditional Africa life is not divided into compartments, with separate “spiritual” and “secular” components. Life as such is spiritual.

In (traditional) Africa, there is no division and/or differentiation between the animate and inanimate, between the spirit and matter, between living and non-living, dead and living, physical and metaphysical, secular and sacred, the body and the spirit, etc. Most Africans generally believe that everything (human beings included) is in constant relationship with one another and with the invisible world, and that people are in a state of complete dependence upon those invisible powers and beings. Hence, Africans are convinced that in the activities of life, harmony, balance or tranquillity must constantly be sought and maintained. AA Berinyuu

It has been suggested that African spiritual beliefs can be depicted as a triangle. At the top, head of all powers, is the Supreme Being. On the sides are the two greatest powers, gods and ancestors. Man is in the middle , and must live in harmony with all powers that affect his life, family and work. At the base are lower forces, with which magic and medicine are concerned. Ubunye (the unity of all reality) is kept intact through Amandla (power), which in turn operates within Ubuntu (community). In African spirituality it is all about the maintenance of equilibrium and therefore guarding against the loss of power.

Sibusiso Duma, Inkanyamba

Sibusiso Duma, Inkanyamba (According to traditional Xhosa beliefs, a strong winds takes the form of a giant winged snake, known as inkanyamba. This being lives in deep water and flies through the air, looking for its mate.)

Traditional African religion is based on oral traditions, which means that the basic values and way of life are passed from elders to younger generation. The elders are the final authority and are trusted completely. These traditions are not religious principles, but a cultural identity that is passed on through stories, myths and tales. (Ref)

Myth and symbol, ritual and rhythm determine everyday life in the African context.  The way people relate to the environment and the nature of inter-personal relationships are all part of the spiritual make-up of Africans. There exists a very thin line between the religious and the cultural phenomena in African cosmology. Religion and culture are inextricably intertwined. Most of the religious rituals are appropriated into the cultural scheme of things and the cultural domain shapes and influences the religious philosophy and practices.

Trevor Makhoba, “Circumcision”

Trevor Makhoba, “Circumcision”

Issues of moral behavioural patterns; natural plagues and disasters; familial inter-connectedness; domestic animals; fields (the land ethic) and several rites are directly linked to particular events in the life of the individual and the community together.

Lonyana Rock, Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa.

In traditional African religion the community is the most important part of someone’s life. This community is made up of people who remember and share the same traditions. This sense of unity with(in) the universe has been embedded in African spirituality since the dawn of time. It is depicted on many of the rock paintings that can be found throughout Southern Africa. In the example found at Lonyana Rock in KwaZulu-Natal the community is dancing around a sick person lying under a karos (animal skin). But the living animals are also there – the food stock. They seem to be moving in and out of the circle. Here, in one artwork, we find community, child care (women accompanying children), religion (expressed in the dance), medicine, work (hunting), etc. in an intertwined spirit of holism. This is indeed African spirituality. (Ref)

Sangoma throwing bones

There are spiritual leaders,who are the equivalent of shamans and priests  in most traditional African religions. These traditional healers have to be called by ancestors. They undergo strict training and learn many skills, including how to use herbs for healing and other, more mystical skills, like the finding of a hidden object without knowing where it is. (Ref)

Although traditional African religion recognises a Supreme God, followers do not worship him or her directly. They therefore ask the ancestors to communicate on their behalf. The Supreme Being is called upon in times of great hardship and need, like drought or epidemic that may threaten the entire community. The Supreme Being is the connection between people and their environment.

Ancestor worship

Ancestor worship and belief is an extension of a belief in and respect for elders. Followers of traditional African religion believe that ancestors maintain a spiritual connection with their living relatives.

Most ancestral spirits are generally good and kind. The only negative actions taken by ancestral spirits is to cause minor illnesses to warn people that they have gotten onto the wrong path. To please these unhappy ancestors, usually offerings of beer and meat are made. (Ref)

Adolphus Opara’s large-format, painterly images of diviners from regions of South-western Nigeria

African ritual art and artefacts

African art is a term typically used for the art of Sub-Saharan Africa, as the art of the North African areas along the Mediterranean coast has long been part of different traditions and for more than a millennium has mostly formed part of Islamic art, although with many particular characteristics. The Art of Ethiopia, with a long Christian tradition, is also different from that of most of Africa, where Traditional African religion(with Islam in the north) was dominant until relatively recently. (Ref)

As opposed to most Western art, African art serves a particular function rather than Art for Arts sake. The object may confer status, or serve a function that may be ceremonial, sacred, or practical. In the cycles of life, the rites of passage between them, are important as events for which objects are made.

Power Figure (Nkisi Nkondi). Democratic Republic of the Congo. KaKongo Kongo artist, 19th century. Wood, iron, glass mirror, resin, pigment

For example, African spirituality is about power and empowerment, and often also the disempowerment of your enemies. This can also clearly be seen in African art. In the Congo, for instance, there are sculptures called nkisi nkondi (power figures). An nkisi nkondi serves as a container for potent ingredients used in magic and medicine in judicial and healing contexts. To make an nkisi nkondi, a carver begins by sculpting a male human or animal figure with a cavity in the abdomen. Then a ritual expert completes the work by placing ingredients with supernatural powers on the object and in the cavity provided. He activates the figure by breathing into the cavity and immediately seals it off with a mirror. Nails and blades are driven into the figure, either to affirm an oath or to destroy an evil force responsible for an affliction or disruption of the community. The pose, with hands on hips, symbolizes the nkondi’s readiness to defend a righteous person and to destroy an enemy. (Ref)



Most masks are made not to look like real human faces. They are usually designed and created to provide somewhat of a shock value. They tend to convey various emotions such as sadness, anger or suspicion.

They play very different roles to the various tribes across the continent. They are normally kept in a safe- or sacred place, only to be brought out for important occasions and ceremonies.

Masks were and still are usually worn during various celebrations such as weddings, funerals, initiation ceremonies, and to entertain important visitors.

African masks are normally worn by men, however in some cultures women also own and perform in masks. One example will be during a ritual that initiates them into female society.

Masks can be worn on the head as helmets covering the entire head or as acrest, resting on top of the head, or simply a mask.

Niagara African Dancing Mask

The most common use of the African mask involves ritual dancing. This involves the dancer wearing a mask and full costume. Often there is singing and music in these rituals and the mask becomes a strong spiritual force. During some of these ritual dances, because of the power certain masks possess, some people are not allowed to look at them. (Ref)

Female Face Mask. Chokwe peoples, DR Congo or Angola. ca. 1930s. | Wood,pigment, reeds and fiber.

Main Visual Characteristics

Ife head, Ife, 12th-14th century.

There should be a balance between resemblance and likeness; a figure, for example, should be identifiable as a man, but not identifiable as a specific man. An object that bears a resemblance to the original model draws power from the original, which is desired, but not to be overdone. Individual portraiture is considered presumptuous and dangerous, because of the power that the object may contain.

Pendant Mask, Lyoba, Nigeria

Clarity of line and form. This gives the powerful graphic quality that is so characteristic of African art, and so attracted early European modernists. Strong angular edges to forms, smoothly polished planes and curves, and the angular protrusion of such features as lips, eyes, and nose accentuate these features.

Igbo Mask, Nigeria

Igbo Mask, Nigeria

Proportion; In much of African Art, proportions are scaled according to conceptual significance rather than the physical size. Thus the meaning and function of the object requires that emotional proportion supersede natural proportions. The head, for example in figure carvings, is often one-fourth the size of the body because in many African societies it is considered to be the seat of one’s destiny. It also provides a larger surface for culturally significant details that are conveyed through facial expressions, hairstyles, jewelry or scarification. In figural groups, the larger figures are clearly the most important.

Nok terracotta, 6th century BC–6th century CE

Gesture and Expressions; The stance or facial expression of a sculpted figure often conveys clues into its meaning and significance. Hands resting on the abdomen may suggest the capacity to bear children. Downcast eyes may express dignity and poise, introspection and attention to a world beyond our own, while glaring eyes and a gaping mouth can signify power, trance (especially with bulging eyes), aggression or a call to action. (Ref)

Texture; Artwork’s surface can be smooth from frequent handling or textured from tool marks, paint or added materials. A sticky-looking object may have  received offerings at a shrine, its surface suggesting ritual use. objects that are densely covered with horns or porcupine quills, mud and other materials may represent powers from nature. By contrast a serene figure with polished surface may portray  someone who is stylish, civilized and cultured.

Colour and Pattern; Colours are frequently symbolic of important messages, though the meanings will vary from culture to culture. The most common colours used in African art are red, white and black.  Patterns which may also vary in meaning from culture to culture, provide insights into personal style and culturally specific aesthetics.

Spatial Relationships; How does the artwork relate to the space around it? Was it intended to stand on its own or was it once part of something else – like a place on a shrine? (Ref)

It is considered proper that persons be only depicted in the prime of life. For example, a memorial figure of an ancestor who died in old age must be shown as a young and vigorous person; to do otherwise would be insulting and also possibly dangerous.

The idea of the interrelatedness of forms is expressed through images that carry double, or even triple meanings. This idea reflect the religious idea that spiritual forces inhabit all of nature, all of which is interconnected. For example, a carved headdress from the Ibo people of Nigeria can be seen as a human torso, a bird, or a ram. These visual “puns” carry spiritual as well as humorous meanings.

Some African people do not designate aesthetic qualities at all. Since sculptures are consecrated and holy, all are considered equally beautiful, and it is therefore sacrilegious to pass judgement on the relative merits of particular items. (Ref)

Australian Aboriginal art

Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri

Australian Indigenous art is the oldest ongoing tradition of art in the world. Initial forms of artistic Aboriginal expression were rock carvings, body painting and ground designs, which date back more than 30,000 years. Present day Aboriginals are descended from several groups that came to Australia via Asia when the land bridge still existed.

Art has always been an important part of Aboriginal life, connecting past and present, the people and the land, and the supernatural and reality. It includes works in a wide range of media including painting on leaves, wood carving, rock carving, sculpture, ceremonial clothing and sandpainting.

 Aborigines of all tribes painted and engraved on caves, rock, bark, sand, didgeridoos,  boomerangs and their huts, opossum fur coats & their bodies. Most art was meaningful.   Art was used in place of a written language to instruct in tribal law, religion and history. Each area of Australia has its traditional style of Art and Painting. Dot art is the traditional form of painting around a relatively small area of the Northern Territory and the eastern part of Western Australia. X-ray Art mainly comes from Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. (Ref)

Aboriginal Rock Art, Anbangbang Rock Shelter, Kakadu National Park, Australia


Often, aboriginal designs illustrate the “Dreamings” that underpin Aboriginal spiritual and cultural life. The human and other natural and animal images of Aboriginal art are representative of stories and/or dreams handed down from generation to generation. In Aboriginal art animal images, earth colours, and  drawing in patterns of dots, lines, and shapes are characteristic.(Ref)


Aboriginal symbols are an essential part of a long artistic tradition in Australian Aboriginal Art and remain the visual form to retain and record significant information. Aboriginal people used symbols to indicate a sacred site, the location of a waterhole and the means to get there, a place where animals inhabit and as a way to illustrate Dreamtime stories. Since Aboriginal people traveled vast distances across their country, significant information was recorded using symbols in regular ceremony. Sand painting and awelye (body painting) ceremonies kept the symbols alive and remembered. Later, these symbols were transformed into a more permanent form using acrylic on canvas but the meanings behind the symbols remains the same. Generally the symbols used by Aboriginal Artists are a variation of lines, circles or dots. Similar symbols can have multiple meanings and the elaborate combination of these can tell complex Aboriginal Dreamtime Stories. (Ref)

Aboriginal symbols

Denis Nelson Jupurrula, Kangaroo, Rain, Flying Ant, Possum Dreaming

This painting by Denis Nelson Jupurrula is a good example of an Aboriginal painting rich in Aboriginal symbols. This painting is titled Kangaroo, Rain, Flying Ant, Possum Dreaming. The bottom left of the painting shows the kangaroo tracks around a campfire (white circle). The smoke (white line) rises from the fire into the sky creating rain clouds (purple sky with symbols for rain). In the centre of the painting is the flying ant which migrates to form a new colony when the rains come. The possum tracks are shown on the left side of the painting in the yellow section. The U shape reflects the mark left behind by a person. Groups of U shapes would indicate a meeting place for aboriginal people sitting around a campsite.

Patterns of dots are used to represent many Aboriginal Dreamtime Stories – including stars or native berries. Aboriginal artists often use the technique of over-dotting to obscure meaning and to mask certain symbolism. (Ref)

Buddhist Art and Artifacts

Footprint of the Buddha. 1st century, Gandhara.

Buddhist art originated on the Indian subcontinent following the historical life of Siddhartha Gautama, 6th to 5th century BC, and thereafter evolved by contact with other cultures as it spread throughout Asia and the world. (Ref)

Aims of Buddhist Arts

Traditional Buddhist arts are intended to be reminders and inspiration pointing the individual towards the Buddhist principles, with no interest in personal fame or originality for its own sake, as this would be counter to Buddhist practice. Traditional Buddhist art forms were made to complement and enhance traditional practices found in temples, monasteries, centres, hermitages, the home and places of retreat.

These art forms can include wall and scroll paintings, sculpture, carvings, textiles, hand crafted ritual implements, illustrated sacred texts and poetry.


Early Buddhism did not portray the Buddha himself and may have been aniconic. The Buddha was only represented through symbols such as an empty throne, Bodhi tree, a riderless horse, Buddha’s footprints, and the dharma wheel. This reluctance towards anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha, and the sophisticated development of aniconic symbols to avoid it (even in narrative scenes where other human figures would appear), seem to be connected to one of the Buddha’s sayings, that discouraged representations of himself after the extinction of his body (Ref)

An aniconic representation of Mara’s assault on the Buddha, with an empty throne, 2nd century, Amaravati, India

Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist art frequently makes use of a particular set of eight auspicious symbols, in household and public art. These symbols have spread with Buddhism to many cultures’ arts, including Indian, Tibetan, Nepalese, and Chinese art. (Ref)

These symbols are:

The boy Buddha rising up from lotus. Crimson and gilded wood, Trần-Hồ dynasty, Vietnam, 14th-15th century

1.Lotus flower. Representing purity and enlightenment.

2. Endless knot, or, the Mandala. Representing eternal harmony.

3.The golden fishes symbolises the auspiciousness of all living beings in a state of fearlessness, without danger of drowning in the ocean of sufferings, and migrating from place to place freely and spontaneously, just as fish swim freely without fear through water.

4. The golden wheel symbolises the auspiciousness of the turning of the wheel of Buddha’s doctrine, both in its teachings and realizations, in all realms and at all times, enabling beings to experience the joy of wholesome deeds and liberation.

5. The treasure vase symbolises an endless rain of long life, wealth and prosperity and all the benefits of this world and liberation.

6. The umbrella or parasol representing detachment from illusion, representing the crown, and protection from the elements.

7. The conch as a symbol which fearlessly proclaimed the truth of the dharma. It stands for the fame of the Buddha’s teaching, which spreads in all directions like the sound of the conch trumpet.

8. Victory Banner. Representing a victorious battle.

In later periods both the major schools of Buddhism have made great use of representational art, though Theravada temples and other sites typically concentrate on a single large sculpture of the Buddha, whereas Mahayana temples have larger numbers of images of a greater variety of figures with varying degrees of spiritual significance. However some schools, such as Zen Buddhism in Japan, have also shown a general tendency towards aniconism, though without specific prohibition of figurative images.

A statue of the Buddha from Sarnath, 4th century CE

Mexican religious art

Mexican Ex-Votos

Small tin paintings known as retablos (literally, “behind the altar”) were often displayed in the homes of devout Catholics in Mexico to honor patron saints. Near the end of the nineteenth century, the increased availability of colour lithographs and other inexpensive reproductions contributed to the decline of this tradition, but one form of retablo, the ex-voto, continues to be produced today by artists in a variety of media.

Ex-votos (from the Latin, meaning “according to a vow”) are offered to give thanks for an answered prayer. This testimonial, while a personal expression of gratitude, contributes to a public affirmation of belief since votive paintings are displayed in churches. There they testify to the efficacy of ritual as well as to the power of faith and the particular church or shrine. A dedication or description of the pictured event is typically written below the painting. (Ref)

From Chucuito, Puno, Peru, Triptych with Virgin of Purification and various Saints. Early XIX century

This art form is found throughout Latin America, though Mexico particularly is known for its use of tin as the painting surface. The Peruvian retablos is normally in the form of three-dimensional wooden boxes, populated by a variegated world of gypsum figures. typically with peaked roofs.

Peruvian Retablo

Origins of the traditions

The tradition of offering a votive object to a god or a holy personage in thanks or petition dates back, in Europe, at least to the ancient Greeks. The Spanish brought the tradition to the Americas. Similar practices have been common in other parts of the world as well.

Retablos with their images of saints served the church’s desire to spread Christianity. Ex-voto paintings are said to have developed out of the need to express problems and concerns of the villagers or townspeople.

Ex-voto, 1894, oil on tin, Inscription; Luz Orosco became gravely ill with typhoid. She invoked the Most Holy Mother of Light and and became healthy, and in proof of gratitude offers this (ex-voto).


Retablos emphasized certain attributes of the saints and were typically copies of other saint images. The imagery of ex-votos, however, was created in response to the expressed desires of the person ordering the painting; style and subject varied greatly.

Ex-voto, 1890, oil on tin, Inscription; On the 31st day of March,1890, finding herself at the doors of the grave, Doña Jesus Coronel for reason of giving birth to a child and not finding any remedy, her husband Juan Pineda, with a true heart, prayed to the Most Holy Virgen Virgin of Sorrows that is venerated in the Santuario de Paila, and (thus) healed and in an act of thanks dedicates this retablo.

The bold use of colours in crafts and other constructions extends back to pre-Hispanic times. These were joined by other colours introduced by European and Asian contact, always in bold tones. Design motifs vary from purely indigenous to mostly European with other elements thrown in. Geometric designs connected to Mexico’s pre-Hispanic past are prevalent, and items made by the country’s remaining purely indigenous communities. Motifs from nature are popular, possibly more so than geometric patterns in both pre-Hispanic and European designs.(Ref)

Doña Josefa Peres Maldonado offers this monument of her gratitude to the Most Holy Christ of Encino, venerated in the Church of Triana, and to the Most Holy Virgin Mary of El Pueblo, in perpetual memory of the benefit, due to her piety, that resulted from an operation that took place on 25th of April 1777, when the surgeon Don Pedro Maillé removed six cancerous tumors from her breast, in the presence of the gentlemen and ladies depicted on this canvas. Although the wound closed perfectly on the 25th of July 1777, other accidents befell her from which she died on Friday, the 5th of September, at 3 p.m., with clear signs of the patronage of the Holy Image and of her salvation.

Virgin of Guagalupe

Symbolism and mysticism may seem part of an earlier time, but in Mexico City, notions of magic and spirituality are very prominent pieces of a contemporary lifestyle.  Since 1531 the Virgin of Guagalupe has become the most powerful symbol for Mexicans, and her image is seen throughout the Americas as a figure of hope, peace, and salvation.

Lady of Guadalupe

The Virgin of Guadalupe was absolutely fundamental in the creation of modern Mexico – a uniting force in a tumultuous time of European conquest.  The European Catholic image of the Virgin Mary assumes characteristics of the indigenous religion to create a unique mix of two traditions, like the culture of modern Mexico. La Virgen appeared to a young indigenous man on Tepeyac Hill in 1531 and now, each year, thousands of pilgrims embark on a pilgrimage to honour the woman referred to as the Queen of Mexico.  Pilgrims come from all walks of life and each has their own interpretation on the meaning of the Virgin of Guadalupe.  Some pilgrims ascend the hill on their knees to show extreme devotion and penitence, others travel as families. (Ref)

Mexican Ex-votive


Aboriginal Art Treasures

Aboriginal Art Online

Aboriginal Art Store


African Spirituality

D. Alexander, Buddhism and the Arts

David E. Anderson, Anecdotes of the Spirit

All About African Art

Brooklyn Museum of Art

Johan Cilliers, Formations and Movements of Christial Spirituality in Urban African Contexts

Fowler Museum at UCLA

Hebrew Streams, Ruach Studies

How to Look at African Art

Charlotte Jirousek, African Art

Mariolina Salvatori, University of Pittsburgh

South African History – Traditional Beliefs


This a useful chart for alternative descriptive words when you are writing an analysis of an artwork. 

Other ways to say

The visual arts teach important “habits of mind” that can’t be learned in traditionally “core” academic areas. These habits are invaluable to not only in education, but also forms an essential basis for the next generation of careers.

From Texas Art Teacher

Art and 21st Centuary Skills

From Art Inspired