In this text I will attempt to extend some of the observations I had made in the catalogue for the exhibition Dungamanzi (2008). In that text I had pointed to some limits in the language that is used to describe the work of artists such as Jackson Hlungwani who was the focus of the essay. Let me start by admitting that I have been victim to these limits of language and that there is no such thing as a rural artist. And there is no such thing as a Limpopo artist. Perhaps the larger question I wish to put forward is: To what extent does the language shape or limit the reception of the artwork itself and as a means of exclusion. This question is much larger in scope than can be dealt with in this essay but it is something that has been of concern to me over a number of years especially with regard to those artists who are said to be self-taught and rural artists.
Recently I participated in a roundtable for the NKA Journal of Contemporary African Art. At the beginning of the exchange the moderator and convenor of the roundtable, Prof. Chika Okeke Agulu related a story about having asked an anthropologist working in Nigeria what was difference between the artists he had been researching, the Akigbo artists, and the artists who had been trained at university and the anthropologist answered that the difference was that the university trained artists could answer back and were likely to be in the audience of conferences where he would be presenting.
Crude as it might be, this assessment remains one of the primary ways in which artworks made by artists who do not occupy our discursive environment are evaluated and discussed. Broadly speaking I would say that the discursive environment I am talking about is a function of a combination of several co-dependant factors. These include the type of education one has received, the working environment, access to resources and technologies and access to networks which might include among other players, curators, academics, critics, artists from other countries and art historians as well as cosmopolitan spaces. It is this discursive environment that allows the type of language that not only enables us to speak to each other but also entitles us to speak on behalf of those who exist outside of it and to some extent also “gatekeep” their participation in “our” networks and the privileges that flow from it. It also allows “us” to label others as one thing or the other.
This is not to say that those artists who may be termed rural artists do not (a) have occasional access to this other world and (b) that there aren’t discourses on art outside the “environment” which I spoke about earlier. What it does mean is that we can ignore those discourses because we believe ourselves to be in possession of the analytical tools required to understand and know what everybody is doing, that our critical framework is the most reliable standard by which everything else can be measured.
Again, this also does not mean that those who occupy the discursive environment I am referring to have the same position of privilege within it. Historical, economic and geographic divisions between the West and the South, race and patronage, etc. also determine or influence one’s relative standing within that system. This relative standing and internal consistency within the discursive environment is also significant in silencing dissenting voices while keeping the appearance of criticality and objectivity.
A few years ago I came across a text titled Black Artists, White Critic by Jean-Marie Dederen. In this text Dederen had delineated three kinds of readings: conservative, liberal, radical that were used ostensibly by white critics to describe the work of Black artists. Dederen the proposes a fourth, “artist-based” reading of the work of Albert Munyai.
At the time of writing of the text for Dungamanzi I had found much inspiration from Dederen’s essay and observations. While I agree with Dederen’s assertion that the artist-based reading should be central to the analysis of an artwork, I believe there are limitations to the artist-centrered reading.
One such limit is that artists do change their minds about what their work and what they say about their work. Hlungwani was not always consistent in ascribing explanation of his work. Secondly, the basic problem of the artist’s access to the discursive environment which we inhabit limits their ability to question how their words are edited, used and interpreted.
In other words, the problem is a structural rather than an ideological one. The problem of who produces knowledge, where and how and for whom it is produced as well as the manner in which that knowledge circulates, is validated and canonised is as important as the ideological positioning of the people involved within that system.
A third problem is access not just to the words of the artist but to their own visual landscape, their discursive environment and their universe of meaning. By this I do not mean that these are so thoroughly alien to our own that there is no possibility for common ground. What it means however is that we cannot take it for granted that these aspects of the artist’s conceptual framework is self-evident and that our access to it is guaranteed. Without in-depth research into things such as whom the artist is inspired by, whom do they discuss their work with, how they understand the social value of their work, etc. much of the readings of art works remain speculative.
From this perspective it is clear that the practice of analysing works of art whatever the artist’s background or approach to art, there are no ready-made answers. If that could be said of art criticism, the same could be said of art history.
The practice of any discipline requires to some extent delineating certain practices and categorising information into a coherent body of knowledge. This exercise, it seems, requires among other things relying on established analytical and critical tools no matter how flawed they might be. It also relies on some consensus on basic principles and standards but perhaps most crucially it requires an act of imagination. The latter is one that is often rejected by historians because if history is allowed to be a product of conjecture rather than hard facts it opens the door for the distortion of history either through ignorance or malevolent intentions.
If we accept that the act of deciding which artworks are important and relevant or which aspects of the work are worth highlighting and how to distinguish between art and material culture, is itself partly a faculty of the imagination, it is possible to conclude that art history itself has been heavily influenced by intuition and imagination as much as the artworks they hope to describe. And as such terms such as “transitional” art, “traditional” art, “township” art, or even modern and contemporary art may have more to do with the discursive space that language and our imagination offers, until they are disrupted by other analytical approaches.
Similarly, identity is not one that is simply bestowed to us at birth. Self-identification with a particular ethnic group is not a sufficient basis for declaring that a particular artist’s production can be best understood through the lens of their ethnic identity. This is especially so if one considers the argument made by Mahmood Mamndani that ethnicity in Africa is largely a colonial invention and that the meaning attached to ethnic identity is itself not assured.
In his essay for the catalogue Dungamanzi, Prof. Karel Nel goes to great lengths to illustrate traits of Tshonga/Shangaan carving practices that recur in the work of Jackson Hlungwani. It makes for fascinating reading especially in the recurrence of the motifs of the chevron and the foot in these works and in how these motifs are fashioned. One aspect that Nel’s analysis raises is that while he resides in both the worlds of modern and contemporary art and is an expert on traditional art, Hlungwani was not in a position to answer back.
Could it be that this is another way of saying that since Hlungwani’s work contains elements of traditional carving it does not belong to modern or contemporary art? That it has been weighed against other works of modern art and failed?
One of the assumptions around works by African artists, especially those that are termed to be autodidacts and rural artists, is one of innocence. It is often assumed or taken for granted that the lack of formal education automatically means that the artist achieves visual competency, not through the rigours of practice, analysis, inquiry, research, etc., but through intuition and simulation.
Indeed all of art, no matter which part of the world it happens to originate or which era of human history it is made, relies to some extent on established tradition and intuitive impulses.
It is not that I want to argue that intuition and simulation are not part of artistic practice but that when it comes to “rural” artists historians are only able to comprehend and talk about the work largely in those terms. It is in this regard that I have often cringed at writers who evoke either tradition or ethnicity in analysing the works of artists like Jackson Hlungwani because these terms suggest that the artist achieves their skill and expression by merely following on a particular tradition; in other words simulation.
Of course there are many artists who conspire with these misrepresentations. These are often of the type that seek to explain the artist’s motivation for art-making as divine inspiration and intuition to the exclusion of rational thought.
Like Noria Mabasa who claims that it was her ancestors that bid her to make art, Hlungwani often explained his creative output as an instruction from God. I am not going to dispute that even for one minute. Whether one believes in Christianity or not the issue of divine inspiration is irrelevant to how art professionals view and discuss the work of an artist.
One of the obvious conundrums when trying to come to grips with the work of Jackson Hlungwani is that it belongs to a form of art that is not necessarily meant for the art world although it does not exclude it either. The fact is that Jackson Hlungwani’s work presents a provocation and a challenge to the mainstream art world. It requires multiple points of reading.
As I argued in the Dungamanzi text, to the extent that Hlungwani’s work was originally intended means that we do not necessarily have access to the discursive universe of the congregants at new Jerusalem. So in order to fully appreciate the scope of Hlungwani’s work this is an indespensable part of critical appraisal of his work. However, here I also want to argue that since entering the mainstream art market his work has taken on an added dimension and intruded on our discursive universe and ought to be treated as such.
This brings me again to the problem of language and knowledge. Do terms such as “rural artist”, “traditional artist”, “self-taught” artist or “Venda/Tshonga artist” tend to exclude and marginalise artists? Perhaps the knowledge of the Other becomes a regime through which one’s own position is guaranteed and to keep the native in his place.
Hassan, S. 2003. ‘Hassan Musa’s ArtAfricanism. The Artist as Critic’ in Farrell. L.A. (ed.), Looking Both Ways: Art of the Contemporary African Diaspora. Gent: Snoeck Publishers.
Klaaste, A.1989. An Intriguing Encounter from Jekisemi Hlungwani Shangani: An Exhibition, published by the Communication Department BMW (South Africa) Johannesburg.
Rankin, E.1989. Images of Wood: Aspects of the History of Sculpture in 20th Century South Africa. Johannesburg, Johannesburg Art Gallery.
Dederen, J. Black artist, white critic, ideological mindscapes of otherness, from http://galerie-inter.de/kimmerle/frameText7.htm, accessed 11 October 2011.
 See Mamdani, M., African Intellectuals and identity: overcoming the political legacy of Colonialism (122-142) in Dikeni, S. and Gumede, W. (eds.), The Poverty of Ideas: South African democracy and the retreat of Intellectuals, Jacana Media Pty (Ltd), (2009)
 Jackson Hlungwani passed away in 2010. At the time of the publication of Dungamanzi, Hlungwani was still alive.