Jackson Hlungwani: A close encounter with an artistic deity
Updated: Feb 11
The migration of art viewing to digital spheres that Covid 19 and social distancing encouraged inspired a deep longing to view art in person, in-situ. However, it is only when you stand in front of a sculpture, such as Jackson Hlungwani’s Hand of God, that you are reminded why art holds so much sway in our digitally-driven world. When it is good, powerful, and/or driven by metaphysical concerns, it can offer a form of transcendence that simply can’t be replicated virtually.
Nothing can replace standing in front of an object that appears to defy the boundaries of logic, is beyond the limits of human intervention yet somehow also affirms our place in the universe and the role of art and aesthetics in mediating this state. These are the recurring thoughts during a physical encounter with Jackson Hlungwani’s Hand of God. It is one of the highlights of a new survey exhibition of the late artist’s practice at the Norval Foundation in Cape Town. It probably helps that Hlungwani was a lay-preacher and had a refined understanding of art’s metaphysical functions. Even if you are more of an atheist, the waves of delight, awe and reverence you experience as you wander through this show, will leave you feeling as if Hlungwani somehow was a channel through which an unearthly power flowed.
How is it possible that someone with no formal art training was capable of such a vast array of sculptural expressions, evoking different historical periods of western and African artistic periods? He came late to art too. Born in 1925, he appears to have only got stuck in in the late 1970s after hitting rock bottom and vision of Christ sent him on an artistic and religious path. This comprehensive survey titled Alt & Omega, is curated by Karel Nel, Nessa Liebhammer and Amos Letsoalo. It establishes the breadth of Hlungwani’s range as a sculptor via a loose chronological order tracing the aesthetic and conceptual shifts in his practice.
In his early woodcarvings he initially takes his cue from Tsonga and Shangaan culture, producing headrests. Staffs produced by Tsonga-Shangaan and Venda artists from the late nineteenth and twentieth century, which are also on display, establish an historical antecedent for the ‘egg’ motif that recurs in his later sculptures, but also the use of symbols in evoking spiritual worlds, existence.
However, in this same gallery are intricate carvings with strong biblical references that as co-curator Nel rightly observes “seem to come from Medieval times.” Certainly, a quartet of sculptures presenting the Crucifix motif bring medieval churches and objects to mind, though each one is given its own treatment and is combined with other idiosyncratic features. Such as steps up the cross. This leaves you with the sense that he was testing, exploring different kinds of visual vocabulary that were secular in nature. While non-believers will luxuriate in his skills and the impact of his works, he appears to have viewed art as a medium through which belief in an omnipotent power could not only be expressed but formed the earthly touchstone, offering proof of its existence.
In the sculpture Hand of God Hlungwani shifts to an idiom that parades as contemporary. This artwork seems not to have passed through human hands, though ironically it evokes one. The wood appears to be plucked from a natural environment. You have to circle the sculpture to perceive the digits of the titular hand and in particular the gentle hollow evoking the distinctive line which leads to a thumb. In this way what could from one angle appear to be an ordinary shaped piece of driftwood is also this monumental portal to another existence beyond human conception or sight. - first published in the Mail & Guardian, 2020.