Artist and prophet
Jackson Hlungwani was born in 1923 in Kanana (“Canaan”) in Limpopo Province, to a Tsonga family. As a child he herded cattle during the day, and in the evenings his father taught him to make useful objects from wood and metal. He was a deeply spiritual person, even as a child: he told of seeing his grandfather appearing to him before he was born, announcing that he, Jackson, would be a prophet.
Hlungwani became a “visionary” artist. He was inspired by his own unique belief-system, which came from a mix of Christianity, indigenous African religion, and his own spiritual interpretation of the contemporary world. He first became a minister of the African Zionist Church, but soon afterwards he formed his own religious sect that he called “Jerusalem One Christ”. He began to call himself Xidonkani – little donkey – in honour of the animal who had transported the Virgin Mary to Bethlehem.
Creating the New Jerusalem
Hlungwani lived on a hilltop in Mbhokota, Limpopo, the hill being the site of an early iron mine, where the ruins of an ancient stone-walled settlement still remained. Such ancient remains are taken to represent a sacred place, a “place of ancestors”. In Venda and Tsonga areas, early stone structures are, even now, reserved for chiefs, kings and leaders.
And so when Hlungwani began building a large shrine and a place of worship there, he was deliberately bringing together powerful ancestral spirits and Christian beliefs. He named the place “New Jerusalem”.
From 1980, continuing for over five years, Hlungwani reworked the ancient stone ruins, and carved the surrounding trees into huge sculptural figures. These included depictions (sometimes several versions) of Christ, God, the angel Gabriel, Cain, the Virgin Mary and other Christian imagery, like fish and the cross. He also created two ancestral Shangaan warrior figures.
The spiritual and physical journey
Hlungwani called the plans for his structure at New Jerusalem “the map of life”, and at the site he included relief carvings of “maps” depicting his view of the houses of God and Christ, the solar arc, and of Good and Evil. The entire physical space was a labyrinth through which his congregants and visitors would walk, as if on a spiritual journey. Included along this journey were living spaces, raised platforms and what he called “Christ’s Office”, which visitors would pass on the way to the central Chapel.
This Chapel was where the two main altars were situated. His most important sculptures were placed on these two altars, the Altar of God, and the Altar of Christ. At the Chapel’s centre was the “Antenna of God” – an immensely tall “aerial” constructed from a telephone pole, with a number of carvings and metal additions at different heights adorning it. It was through this aerial that Hlungwani said he could communicate with God, and God with him.
Hlungwani also excavated a deep path at the site (in the process causing an ancient wall to collapse), which he explained was to symbolise the way to Satan and Hell.
The carvings: Jackson Hlungwani’s iconography
Some of Hlungwani’s figures seem as if they are from Jackson’s own world: one of the two carved figures of the Angel Gabriel, for example, is wearing an African style short skirt-cloth, sandals and a bag, carved to look as if it is hanging from Gabriel’s shoulder – all of these details being familiar elements of Tsonga-Shangaan men’s clothing.
Some figures are carved making use of the natural branching of the tree, such as the Angel Gabriel’s legs. The sense of energy and movement in these legs is already there in the natural lines of the tree.
The Christ figure, on the Altar of Christ, seems to wear a large cloak, providing him with a heightened sense of size and majesty. He is further adorned with a metal plate-like halo attached to his head.
Hlungwani’s iconography was beyond the ordinary, revealing his highly personal, complex religion. In his imagery, he not only brought together African and Christian biblical iconography, but also conveyed elements of his, and our, modern world. The idea of an aerial (the Antenna of God), for example, is, of course, a feature of the radio age. And then there is the figure of Christ Playing Football – a very contemporary image indeed. The figure of Cain, on the Altar of God, is given an aeroplane, perhaps providing him with the power of flight, or access to God?
Dismantling New Jerusalem: where the sculptures went
Hlungwani intended his carvings to be permanently part of his New Jerusalem. But among the many visitors to his site were also art-lovers and art dealers from the cities. Some of them began to persuade Hlungwani to sell these sculptures, and to permit them be taken to galleries in Johannesburg and even abroad. He eventually agreed, and most of these large iconic pieces were bought from him and scattered to different museums and private collections.
Painful as it must surely have been to dismantle his New Jerusalem, Hlungwani allowed this, because he became convinced that the sculptures would preach his religious message more widely and reach far more people from their new locations. The art experts and art dealers, for their part, argued that the works would be better protected in the museums and galleries than in the open air where eventually they would have decayed and rotted.
Hlungwani himself helped to install the Altar of God in its new site at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, with some of the original Mbkhoto stones around it. The Altar of Christ went to the University of the Witwatersrand.
The result was that the New Jerusalem, in its original form, no longer exists. The pieces were taken to different destinations and ceased to function together in their primary spiritual place of worship.
Talk About This
Compare the two photographs of Jackson Hlungwani’s Altar of God – as it was at its original site of New Jerusalem, and as it exists now, installed at the Johannesburg Art Gallery.
Here are some important words to get to know and that should feature in your discussion. Look them up if they are unfamiliar to you, and in each case relate their meaning to the comparison of these two images.