African Artist and the Muse II

Hlungwani’s sculptural altar ensemble makes for fascinating analysis. These sculptures were functional in that they served as iconography in his ‘church’ just like sculpture would in classical Roman cathedrals. They were invested in meanings and served the purpose of creating an ambience similar to that of holy lands. When these works are taken out of their rural context and placed in an urban and gallery/museum space, the works become installation in the way it is curated, with the stones at the bottom and the altar hanging from the ceiling, as can be currently seen at the Johannesburg gallery. The use of mixed media, that is, stones, rocks and wood, puts this work within the aesthetics of modern art. This piece of a collective was not made for art or consumption purposes, was made by an artist formally untrained and one who does not consciously follow aesthetic conventions of art. Nevertheless this art exists healthily within the modern context and has a lot of international art theme features. The western idea that African artists do not need training in art but have an innate ability to produce art is arbitrary and ignorant of the fact that sculpture have always been made as long as trees were available to the artists. And the idea of contemporary rural sculpture as transitional because it is a ‘cross fertilisation of cultures’ is also problematic because the process of making sculpture is ultimately common, that is carving, and the final product depends on the artist’s uniqueness and influences. So sculpture will ultimately be recognized as sculpture, whether modern or rural.

Noria Mabasa, in works like The floods and Carnage II, showed this notion of sculpture not being dependent on environment or gender, but relying on the artist’s skill and influence. She used her traditional bases to create works that are meaningful to her community. In Losha Woman, she sculpted a woman who is lying on her side as a traditional way of greeting elders. To ‘losha’ is to greet in Tsonga and Sepedi. This woman has beads embellishing her body. This work is highly aesthetic and representational of a people. Her immediate community can relate to this work from the title, the pose of the woman and her attire. Carnage II also makes sense to her community because she makes depictions of the floods that wrecked Venda in the mid nineteen hundreds. These floods were also believed to represent those in then Natal that influenced Mabasa through television footage. This clearly shows us that as late as the 1980’s, even rural artist must have had an experience of the modern world somehow. Hlungwani worked in Johannesburg before returning home to venture into fulltime sculpting. Besides this point, even his religious and Christian influence could be traced back to the missionaries, if we are to be technical. Mabasa also based Carnage II on television footage. Ultimately it is how these works are conceived and executed that puts them on international level. The fact that these sculptures seem to embody the African spirit or essence simply has to do with the fact that they are made in Africa by Africans depicting their African experience.

Johannes Maswanganye’s Nyamisoro dolls made a big impact on the art scence. These are sculptures made in the form of a kneeling person and have the body as a container and the head as a stopper. Maswanganye was commissioned by a sangoma from Johannesburg to make objects for his medicines. He used his traditional bases, of the Tsonga nhunghuvana, as a model to the sangoma’s needs. The nhunghuvana is a representation of a Tsonga female healer or diviner and Maswanganye used the Nyamisoro dolls as medicine containers or gourds. These containers are stylised and unique, and can be said to belong in a larger contemporary world. This would prove to be true when they later made their way to the Goodman gallery where they sold very fast. But it should be kept in mind that there dolls were not made for this purpose but were originally functional and invested with inherent meaning. They were part of divination. With these dolls Maswanganye used his traditional bases and influences to create works that are meaningful to his people.

Through the works discussed above, we can see that these artists created works that were functional to themselves and a larger community. These works were invested with meaning and captured the essence of that particular meaning. Hlungwani’s religious sculptures reflected his strong views and belief in religion, at the same time creating visual cues for his ‘church’ and congregation. They created a sense of a holy site in his community. At the same time the same works are preserved as installations in a contemporary context. Mabasa and Maswanganye used their traditional bases to put their communities on the map. They expressed their own sense of modernity in their art’s aesthetical values. Through sculpting all these artists used traditional materials to execute their skills, whether innate or taught. Ultimately these artists are artists, rural, contemporary or not; and they have skills, influences and material to execute their art. Whether their art is transitional or not is besides the case, it is the artistic merit and aesthetics that should be critiqued.


  1. Kasfir, S.L. African Arts. 1992




  1. The essay on Hlungwani was prepared for a History of Art class at Wits School of Arts.Somewhere in this publication of the essay there should be an acknowledgement of this. It also does not list all the sources used in its preparation.

  2. Thank you for visiting Kasiekulture Broer, as you might be aware Uhuru Mahlodi is Portia Phalafala, the Wits student who prepared the piece and who submitted it to this blog for publication. Below, on the Bibliography is an acknowledgement of some of the sources she deployed to compile the essay. I don't know if you stated from Part I where she acknowledges the sources of her analysis. Well, here at Kasie we are not aware of all the sources she used which she had to acknowledge but we can reliably confirm that it was not the essay used at Wits - period, it was the essay used at Wits as submitted by the author herself


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