The African Artist and the Muse

After a Sabattical Soul-Sista Uhuru is back with her interrogation of art

African artists in rural areas create forms that express their own senses of modernity and belonging to a larger contemporary world. In this essay I will be looking at Jackson Hlungawani's sculptures and how he uses his traditional bases to create works that are meaningful to his community. This will often include a discussion of other works from sculptors like Noria Mabasa and Johannes Maswanganye. I will also analyse how these artists keep an eye on the international art theme. Firstly it is important to make a discussion of these issues around modern, modernist, traditional and contemporary against a bigger backdrop of a western understanding of art coming out of rural areas in Africa. By western understanding I do not only refer to the international market but also critics, art historians and writers from an urban South African context.

It has always been problematic trying to classify and distinguish rural art in relation to other forms of art coming out of South Africa and Africa as a whole, especially when determining which art is modern or contemporary, and which one is ‘untainted’. Whenever the word rural comes out in relation to Africa, other words like primitive and traditional are conjured. In this way, when one speaks of rural art, which in turn suggests primitive and traditional, it becomes problematic to see such art as modern because modernity creates a binary of rural. Moreover, traditional also has connotations of historical which could also create a disjuncture when one wants to understand the contemporary in relation to rural artists because rural suggests of a historical background that is in binary opposition with contemporary. So what is it that makes rural artists contemporary and what is it that makes these artists exclusively rural?

The problems around this discussion arise from the dominant ideology that that which is African cannot be modern, which was perpetuated by the colonial viewing of Africa as a dark continent. This directs us to the question: do the primitive have an ability to make art? Art, from a western point of view, was hailed, as early as the Renaissance era, as an intellectual pursuit. Artists gained a notch up from artisans because patrons and critics alike started seeing, in art, an extension of the artists’ genius, skill and uniqueness. The colonial way of viewing Africa, that Africans are men of action not of thought, negates this notion of an artist as a genius. Instead, the west have a Romantic view of African art by thinking that African artists, especially rural artists, do not need training in art, that they have an innate ability to produce art. This art is expected to embody the African spirit and essence. It should be done for functional purposes not decorative. These artists were imagined to make works of art that have a lot of belief and meaning invested in them, works that were ritualistic and invested with inherent meanings by the community as a whole. Sidney Kasfir wrote extensively on African art and the western way of viewing it. He puts this idea so aptly when he writes that the west believed that “the ‘primitive’ artist…is controlled by forces larger than himself and consequently knows not the subjective feeling of aesthetic choice” (Kasfir, 1992: 44-45). Hence the African rural artist could be seen as one that is untrained in the intellectual tradition of art production and does not necessarily have an aesthetic understanding of avant garde. Kasfir also writes about “tribal style” where the west views an artist’s work as one that is representative of the community and its culture.

Who are the contemporary rural artists?

Contemporary rural artists are those that hail from the rural areas, and most continue to reside there in their production of art. They were trained by either family or community artists. They use traditional materials, like wood, clay and beads, and use traditional methods. Traditional African art was always associated with sculpture but in the twentieth century other forms and mediums arose. These rural artists are not modernist in that they are not conscious or consciously follow the conventions of avant garde. They are also not urban in that they do not produce art with the gallery and museum in mind, but with a sense of community. They are also not school trained but trained by their fathers or grandfathers or an immediate community member. During the 1980’s a lot of rural sculpture from the northern parts of South Africa, then known as the Northern Transvaal, received a lot of attention from galleries and academic researchers. These works were first viewed in an exhibition called the Tributaries in 1985 and were hailed as “… an art that was in no way mediated by the forces of the white market or white teachers[1]. This proclamation suggests that this is art that was untainted by the conventions of the art world, was not created for art or consumption purposes, and the artists untrained formally. The sculpture of the 1980’s can be seen to “…echo the conditions of art making in the 1930’s in terms of interaction between two art forms, and the needs of two distinct communities. Craft and fine art, countryside and city, these dualities have resulted in a creative rejuvenation of immense variety and have been enormously influential in the developments of South African art in the 1980’s[2].

The eminent rise of contemporary rural artists has led art historians, critics and academic researchers to see this art as transitional. By transitional, these works are seen as a transition from one cultural context to another, a cross fertilisation between western and African forms. The term ‘transitional’ becomes problematic, as many other words when African art is written about, because there are expectations of African art to be untainted and uninfluenced by other cultures, so these sculptures tend to have an international art theme and a sense of modernity. For instance when artists like Walter Battiss and Paul Gaugin started to make visual reference to other cultures like the Zulus and Tahiti, their works were not labelled transitional, but rather primitivist. This is problematic because in their case the spotlight is on the influences of their ‘new’ art forms whereas in the contemporary rural context the art works itself is seen as evolving and interbreeding. To put it clearer, Battiss and Gaugin were seen to paint new subjects whereas the contemporary rural artists were seen to have new subjects or influences evident in their works. This denies these rural artists any intellectual or creative pursuits.

I will now focus on the works of Jackson Hlungwani as an artist who has created forms that expressed his own sense of modernity and a belonging to a larger contemporary world. I will also look at how Hlungani, Noria Mabasa and Johannes Maswanganye created works that were meaningful to their communities while keeping an eye on the international theme. Hlungwani was ordained a minister in the African Zionist Church, leaving shortly afterwards to start his own sect, Jerusalem One Christ, in Mbhokota, near Elim in the then Northern Transvaal. His sculptures consist of religious and Christian metaphors. He eventually used his collection of religious sculptures to build a shrine-like altar, where he congregated with his new sect called New Jerusalem. Part sculptor, part shaman, he worked inside and for the community which he belonged to. He did not produce art for consumption or moneymaking purposes, but for reasons and pursuits known to him. He also has a range of sculptures with the theme of fish as a consistent influence. He believed that fish were the symbols of Christ and the people of the Northern province. Through Hlungwani’s sculptures one can witness an extension of the artist’s genius, skill and uniqueness. Works like Springbok, Bush devil and Rabbit are in modernist abstraction and have poetic titles, which invest these works with the artist’s own sense of modernity and belonging to a larger contemporary world. The works also have an international theme of Christianity and religion that is reminiscent of medieval forms. Aggrey Klaaste, in her essay titled ‘an Intriguing Encounter’, makes a comparison of Hlungwani’s art and themes to that of William Blake[3].

[1] http://www.sahistory.org.za/pages/library-resources/online%20books/neglected-tradition/the%20new%20generation%20sculpture.htm

[2] ibid

No comments:

Post a Comment

Dear Commentator

Kasiekulture encourages you to leave a comment and sensitize others about it. However due to spammers filling this box with useless rhetoric that has nothing to do with our posts we have now decided that to comment you have to go to our Facebook Page titled THE Kasiekulture BLOG. We will not authorise any comments. Apologies for the inconvenience.