South Africa is a country with a rich and diverse cultural heritage so it is most appropriate for Norval Foundation to celebrate the reopening of the museum during heritage month with an exhibition by one of our legendary artists.
“Alt and Omega: Jackson Hlungwani”, offers a broad survey of Hlungwani’s remarkable artistic practice from the 1960s to his death in 2010. Bringing together key works from his career, the exhibition includes Hlungwani’s two altars from his New Jerusalem site at Mbhokota in Limpopo province as well as four of his early crucifixes.
The son of a Shangaan migrant worker, Jackson Mbhazima Hlungwani was born in Nkanyani Village, in the former Gazankulu, in 1923. He was ordained in the African Zionist Church in 1946, and later became an independent preacher and founded his own church called ‘YesuGeleiya One Apostle in Sayoni Alt and Omega’ where he began creating his New Jerusalem site at Mbhokota.
He embraced an independent African-based Christianity that looked back to early Christian antecedents in Ethiopia. At this place of worship, on top of a hill near his home, Hlungwani placed his large wooden sculptures of animals, fish and characters from the bible, on and between the walls.
In 1978, Hlungwani experienced a vision while in a deeply abject and suicidal state brought about by painful lesions that had affected his right leg for some time. In the vision, Christ and two figures appeared to him and made three promises – that he would be healed, that he would see God and that he would become a preacher.
This vision was the defining moment of his life, and of his career as an artist. Hlungwani’s creative output and the complexity of his practice radically increased after this event. He developed an artistic genre that was inextricably linked to his spiritual practices, creating an innovative visual language that integrated popular culture with traditions of Tsonga-Shangaan wood carving, and biblical narratives with African spirituality.
Hlungwani’s work only became widely known when he was in his sixties, after the art collector Ricky Burnett arranged for his sculptures to be included in two major exhibitions in 1985 and 1989. He exhibited in the “Tributaries” exhibition held in Johannesburg in 1985 and in 1989 his work was exhibited in “The Neglected Tradition”, a retrospective curated by Steven Sack, which was held in Newtown, Johannesburg, making Hlungwani a recognised name in the South African art scene. In 1995, his work was shown at the first Johannesburg Biennale.
Karel Nel, co-curator of the Norval exhibition together with Nessa Leibhammer and Amos Letsoalo, says that while Hlungwani received some critical recognition during his lifetime, his prolific, innovative and spiritually-informed output deserves to be much more widely known, here in South Africa, on the continent and globally.
“Alt and Omega: Jackson Hlungwani” received commendation from international auction house, Sotheby’s, making Norval Foundation the first visual art institution in Africa, and one of five globally to be commended by Sotheby’s for curatorial excellence. The late Okwui Enwezor, renowned curator, and one of the adjudicators of the Sotheby’s Prize committee, was a passionate advocate that Hlungwani’s legacy should be honoured with this exhibition.
The exhibition can be viewed at Norval Foundation, Cape Town till 26 July 2021.
Images courtesy of Mike Hall, Peter Rich Collection, Johannesburg Art Gallery and Standard Bank African Art Collection (WAM)