What’s in a Name
(This text first appeared in the Dungamanzi catalogue published by the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 2007) – A follow-up essay was written in 2012 (as yet unpublished) also on Jackson Hlungwani. It is also published here under the title: Appropriating Hlungwani
In this essay I would like to point to some inconsistencies in the way we describe certain works of art and, to do this, I will enlist the works of Limpopo-based artist Jackson Hlungwani. There is a tendency to write about works of rural artists in anthropological terms, downplaying the aesthetic and formal dimensions. For example, Hlungwani’s work has frequently been described in terms of his Shangaan origins and religious beliefs. Yet the two approaches – aesthetic/formal and ethnic/spiritual – in discussing the work of Hlungwani are indeed necessary and neither can be completely dispensed with.
Hlungwani describes himself as a Shangaan artist and his work was originally intended for worship. However, emphasising these aspects to the exclusion of others is problematic. But I also think there are two legitimate reasons why one ought to be cautious about appraising Hlungwani’s work according to the orthodoxy of ‘mainstream’[i] aesthetics. The first is that the gallery-going public is not the intended audience for this artist’s work. The other, which follows from the first, is that we may lack the critical vocabulary and the critical awareness to do justice to his work. However, as art professionals, we are required to explain in language what is visually conveyed, that is, what exactly it is aesthetically that draws us to the work of this artist.
African works of art have often been difficult to decipher through the lens of orthodox art history. One tempting avenue has been to simply analyse African art using the canons of western aesthetics and, within these parameters, African art had been found wanting. However, in the late twentieth century, this has given way to a more contextual reading of the art within its own framework of use and meaning. These challenges have often led reviewers down certain paths of interpretation that tend to generalise and to group artists and practices that do not necessarily belong together.
Even more concerning is the fact that, in recent times, one still finds unashamedly racist and ill-informed perspectives in critiques of African art. Take for instance British critic Brian Sewell’s (2005) tirade against Africa Remix, in which he states among other things that:
This wretched assembly of posttribal artefacts, exhausted materials reused, and what would easily pass for the apprentice rubbish of the European art school, has about it the air of a state-run trade fair.
Some of the more common tendencies among reviewers of African art have been to highlight regional and ethnic affiliations. There are quite a number of factors that contribute to the persistence of these tendencies. In the case of South Africa, ethnic affiliations and their complex origins have been reduced to static identities. Furthermore, the administrative demands of the apartheid regime required that everyone in South Africa conform to some ethnic identity. These identities were then allocated to, and confined within, certain geographical areas or homelands. These forced identities became self-fulfilling prophecies. Even in cases where an artist’s production does not in any way conform to what may be referred to as ‘traditional art’, the ethnic label has stuck.
The idea of ethnic identities is one so deeply entrenched in the South African psyche that it is next to impossible to think outside of it. This is exacerbated by the claim to ethnic affiliation, often made by individual artists themselves, who locate what they produce within a kind of continuation of traditional practices, instead of within contemporary practice.
In various parts of the country, among them KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo Province, much of the production of rural artists has been closely associated with tourism. This is manifested in some cases with the emergence of art centres which serve the dual purpose of providing the tourist with idealised pictures about the region/culture being visited, while on the other being the primary outlets for artists in that region to show their art. While these types of art centres provide a worthwhile economic service, they often corral artists into exoticised spaces, free of rigorous reflection and critique. In such cases, explaining the work in terms of tradition and, in the case of religion, in terms of spirituality and mysticism, effectively explains away the artist’s choice of material and the technical accomplishment or lack thereof.
This is not to say that the artist is the unwitting victim of the omnipotent art market but that there are real restrictions on how art is read, imposed by the context in which the exchange takes place. In these circumstances restrictions are brought about by the access, or lack of access, that an artist has to mainstream art discourse and publications.
In trying to formulate a way in which African artists can navigate the treacherous waters between ‘authenticity’[ii] and reliance on the mainstream art market, a way in which the two are not seen as irreconcilable poles, I will use Hassan Musa’s idea of ‘ArtAfricanism’ as art practice where ‘certain authorities find an ethical or political, indeed economic interest in African art’ (Hassan 2003: 116). He continues:
The enterprise of ArtAfricaninsm seems to function efficiently, not only in America but also equally well in Africa, since there are numerous African or African-diaspora artists who find aesthetic interest in the project that the European ethno-estheticism machine proposes to them.
Hassan Musa, quoted in Hassan 2003: 116
Perhaps the difficulty has been to find a vocabulary within art writing for describing the works of Hlungwani, and others such as Johannes Maswanganyi, in terms other than ethnic or religious. Ideally an approach should trace the peculiar evolutionary path of each artwork in its own space and time.
The continuing proclivity towards certain outdated categories within the museum and, I would argue, the academy as well, continue to furnish material that locks the subjectivity of the artist within those categories even though individual curators and critics have moved on. In these terms it would seem that even though ideologies change and individuals change, the structure remains impervious to it. If much of what is termed ‘traditional African art’ comes from the nineteenth century, and has been shown to be strongly influenced by contemporary trends, what meaning can there remain for such a category to exist within the museum?
There are several incidents, not only in our recent history, that suggest that images, in spite of the intentions of their author, reproduce and provoke prevailing social and power relations. Steve Hilton-Barber’s photographs of male initiates are such an example. Whatever their intentions, artists are not the ultimate authority over the images they produce. In fact, in a manner of speaking, images can assume a life of their own.
This in no way removes the value of research nor of scholarly insight nor the rigour of analysis of the artist’s life. Rather, it highlights the fact that, unless critical methods are challenged, they can lead one to privilege biography over the artwork itself, and thus down the slippery slope to essentialism. Equally, by locating certain art practices within the realm of ethnicity or regionalism, one easily neglects those unique circumstances through which the artistic practice evolves. It also obscures shifts in an artist’s own specific production.
Another tempting tendency is to focus on the religious beliefs of the artists. Clearly these do matter especially in the works of Hlungwani. Merle Huntley (1992: 94-5) explains Hlungwani’s work as inspired by Christian iconography and Pat Hopkins (2003), in an article on the Mukondeni website, gives an interesting account of Hlungwani’s visions and the religious beliefs that inspire his art. However, there is no reflection on what it is visually that makes his art iconographic. Rankin (1989: 50), who distinguishes between Hlungwani’s iconography and Christian iconography, also does not account for what it is aesthetically that sets Hlungwani’s work apart from Christian imagery and ‘traditional’ Tsonga woodcarving.
In recent decades analysing artworks has tended to summon cultural theory, gender studies and literary criticism in order to find a relevant vocabulary to describe art. In this form of analysis context has become an essential element in how works are read. This approach has also been instrumental in revising some of the prevailing misconceptions about African art. The side effect of this kind of reading, however, has been to subordinate the object to the context and aesthetics to biography. In this regard, Hlungwani’s New Jerusalem has lost some of its agency and has been enlisted by curators and historians towards the illustration of an idea. Other than snippets of Hlungwani’s own words and those of a host of critics and historians, there is very little that one understands about how its intended recipients, that is the devotees at New Jerusalem, received it.
Given my earlier assertion that many of the works produced by Jackson Hlungwani are not primarily intended for the gallery-going public, we might also have to take into account that much of our critical skills are inadequate for reading these works. This is particularly so because we subscribe to a different set of values than the congregation at New Jerusalem. This does not invalidate our visual experience of his work but, if we take it for granted that Hlungwani’s art was intended for his devotees, it follows that the privileged and educated, those with critical skills, are now placed at a disadvantage because we are confronted by something that resembles art but is not of art.
Often, when it comes to African artists and in particular those that are said to be autodidacts and those that live far away from the centres of art and commerce, allusion to their traditional practices or to their geographical location becomes standard. The same does not apply to (especially) white artists or tertiary-educated black artists for whom there is no assumption that their immediate community has any bearing on the work they produce. The implication is that some artists are worldly and others are parochial and local.
Most literature on Hlungwani avoids mentioning technical aspects of his work or aesthetic considerations. Despite many people’s genuine admiration of Hlungwani’s work, I often suspect that what propelled him into the art world is largely the novelty aspect [iii] where ‘untutored’ artists from the rural areas are ‘discovered’ by urban-based dealers and galleries.
In my estimation several key concepts regarding Hlunwani’s work are eschewed in favour of the contextual approach. One aspect is the choice of materials. It has been argued by, among others, Lesley Spiro Cohen (1993), curator of the Jackson Hlungwani installation at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, that there is a long history of woodcarving in the area of former Gazankulu (now Limpopo Province). While this may be true, it does not explain what, for example, the type of wood gives or takes away from Hlungwani’s work. Furthermore, why is it that the specific type of wood is not consistently mentioned in the labels next to his work – whether he uses hard or soft wood, dark or light?
One cannot escape the conclusion that, with black rural artists, it is much more permissible to disregard basic documentary information relating to the artwork. There is also very little information on how Christian iconography influences Hlungwani’s work. How much do his depictions of God or Jesus differ from most images found in Christian church buildings? How has Hlungwani’s work evolved, and why does the Crucifix that is part if the Altar of God look different from other crucifixes in his repertoire? There is also often an easy reliance on Hlungwani’s mysticism to explain the iconography, without really engaging with it.
The terms which we use to talk about Jackson Hlungwani’s works are inadequate, even within the narrow confines of western aesthetics. This does not stop us from appreciating them, but we need to give a convincing account as to what makes them exceptional. Works of ‘traditional African art’, as well as the works of contemporary African artists such as Hlungwani, have to be looked at with new eyes and mediated through a new vocabulary.
[i] I have used mainstream not as a binary opposite to other forms of art with the mainstream being the normative and others being marginal and deficient. Rather, I have used it in the historical sense in which the academy and the museum are defined as the centre.
[ii] The term authenticity, as it has been used here, denotes the capacity of the artist to produce art free from the demands of the art market, the ability to be true to oneself.
[iii] In Klaaste (1989), Hlungwani’s explanation of his work is described in what the author interprets as condescending terms that preclude intellectual and critical awareness. Among such terms are ‘innocence’ and ‘quaint’.