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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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)
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 .
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.’
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)
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.
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)
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)
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
Revisions – Jackson Hlungwane