Shaping visions inspired by the rich, red soil and soul of Limpopo
Artist, puppeteer and teacher Jill Joubert never met Tsonga sculptor and healer, the late Jackson Hlungwani. They might have enjoyed chewing the fat given the spiritual impetus of both sculptors’ subject matter and their outcomes.
Both are from Limpopo — Hlungwani from Mbhokota near Louis Trichardt and Joubert from Tzaneen. She believes "a strong connection with one’s birth place" has a powerful influence in shaping people. With its rich, red soil, dark, lush vegetation and dramatic thunderstorms, Tzaneen is a potent place to have begun her life.
Hlungwani was well into his 60s before he exhibited, as was Joubert when she held her first solo exhibition. Titled An Abandoned Saint and Other Forgotten Stories, it was held at Smith gallery in Cape Town in June.
It comprised four stories: Adam and Eve; St Wilgefortis — or strong virgin — the abandoned, bearded 14th-century saint; Jacob’s Ladder as an interpretation of the crucifix; and St Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology.
Like Hlungwani’s, her sculptures are assembled from collected and pared wood. The wooden stick figures appear slender, even delicate, but also possess a material robustness. It is like meeting a presence.
Some are made mobile either through suspension or wheels. Unusual for exhibition work, viewers were encouraged to handle the objects. They narrated Joubert’s interest in death and resurrection; gender and cultural convergence.
The turquoise beads of the initiated igqirha (traditional healer) were placed in the company of the Greek goddess, Euronyme. Although Joubert’s and Hlungwani’s pieces deal with serious issues, both sculptors possess a quirky, sometimes sly humour reflecting passion and, in Joubert’s case, critical questioning.
Take Hlungwani’s Christ Playing Football or God’s Legs with Eggs and Joubert’s female figure with a vulva fashioned from a cowrie shell. Joubert’s work is created by a crone or wise woman who, like Hlungwani, says what she wants with little concern for the dictates or mores of the galleries.
Joubert and Hlungwani fashioned their sculptures from found wood, and in Joubert’s case additional found objects such as wheels. Both fuse traditional African symbolism and Christian religious motifs. They put a spin on traditional Christian iconography and borrow from indigenous traditions.
Hlungwani’s thrones become ancestor chairs in Joubert’s iconography — or seating for those who have reached a certain age. Hlungwani’s crucifixion sculpture shows a bird above the head of Christ, which has been interpreted as a rain bird or the shamanic symbol of transcendence, just as Joubert’s crucifixes are not crosses but ladders connecting heaven and earth — the living and dead and suggestive of transcendence.
Unlike Joubert, who has a master’s degree in art, Hlungwani was self-taught and learnt from his father how to sculpt and create adapted tools.
His wooden carvings of biblical figures, bowls, walking sticks to chase away Satan, fish, eggs, vessels and thrones were conceived primarily as teaching and healing tools in the Christian tradition. As was his homestead installation, which was 30 years in the making.
In the 1980s his work was termed transitional art. The term — now considered pejorative — described work made in the developed world but following a traditional format. In 1993 he was awarded the Helgaard Steyn Award for sculpture.
Hlungwani spoke about his wife as his brother, as did the mystic William Blake, which is suggestive of equality between the genders.
A similar approach is found in Joubert’s writing, in which she posits that the genders are constructed boundaries. "We are all interconnected. What we call male and female are boundaries that we’ve constructed. My figures are cast in a state that is pre-identity, pre-labelling."
Joubert’s sculptures of saints, spirits, ladders, ancestors’ chairs and androgyny also examine spirituality. In particular it is a re-examination of her Catholic upbringing in terms of the feminine wounding by the patriarchy, rejected female saints, a re-examination of crucifixions. She was schooled by enlightened nuns from whom she says "came a deep sense of spirituality beyond dogma".
Her work with the outreach Bhabhathane Programme took her back to Tzaneen, where she made contact with artists Amos Letsoalo, Phillip Rikhotso and Lucky Makamu, all of whom had known or were taught by Hlungwani. She says she feels indebted to these artists.
Joubert drew Hlungwani’s sculptures for a teaching project and says there is no better way to get to know an artist’s work than to draw their work in the tradition of copying master works. Although she never got to visit Hlungwani’s healing installation New Jerusalem and New Canaan, which had been built on an iron-age settlement, she saw parts of it in a 1985 retrospective in Johannesburg. Seeing them out of context upset her so much that "I just wanted to weep", she says.
She recalls Hlungwani saying "this lovely thing about fish". He said that "after the apocalypse, man will acquire the freedom and ease of fishes". She explains that particular fish are deeply embedded in the traditional cultures of Limpopo. "He talked about the fish as the feminine, which is very beautiful and also phallic," she adds.
This duality is also found in Joubert’s work. "A lot of my stuff is about the androgynous, bearded saints and Christ with breasts, early androgyny, with which I resonate."
Hlungwani had an epiphany after a bout of septicaemia, which resulted in his dedication to do God’s work. When Joubert turned 55, she knew she should "either stop working and do my master’s or simply go chugging along until I reached 65, retire and never know" whether she could make a career as an artist.
She talks about her sculptures as "coming through her".
"I go to the exhibition and I look at the work and I wonder where it came from," she says.
The highlight and offshoot from her current exhibition was an invitation by a church to place her Francis of Assisi sculpture on its altar.
A man who saw the sculpture paid her a compliment that moved her: he said he had never before seen a sculpture that spoke of beatification, one worthy of public veneration.
Hlungwani was clear that his work was not made for churches. Joubert is not as prescriptive and would like to see her sculptures in nonbinary and nonhierarchical spiritual spaces, places where people can sit and contemplate them and interact with whatever arises.
She would like her work to serve as carriers of joy.