When it comes to blogging, there are things you can do, and things you cannot. Writing a review on an exhibition that ended a few weeks ago surely falls into the latter category. But as long as it allows me to share a few pics and some interesting facts I learnt in the process, I guess it’s finally worth it! So here it is: I decided to pay a visit to the Wits Arts Museum (WAM) during Easter, with no expectations whatsoever and ended up walking through an exhibition called the Stars of North, celebrating sculptures from Limpopo. The WAM is quite an interesting museum per se. Marketed as the “home to the largest and most significant holdings of African arts in southern Africa” according to the Museum’s webiste, it is actually a rather small museum, spread over 3 tiny floors, one of which was closed for maintenance during my visit. This led me to reflect on how misunderstood the African Art market might be….
But this is another story, and I’m not here to complain: I definitely prefer smaller museums, as long as the quality of the pieces exhibited is good. And damn yes, they were! Sculptures of Johannes Maswanganyi, Paul Thavhana, Noria Mabasa, Nelson Mukhuba, Jackson Hlungwani, Johannes Segogela, and other artists absolutely unknown to me were shown to the visitors, and I greatly enjoyed my (rather quick) walk through the museum. The purpose of the exhibition was to revisit the work of some major artists from the Limpopo province who, after being acclaimed in the 80s for their delicate combination of traditional & contemporary use of materials and techniques – which led them to tour nationally and internationally – fell from grace when they surrendered to the sweet sirens of the art market, and started to produce numerous series of their work.
The curator of the museum had taken a rather bold stance by placing at the entrance of the exhibition a Tokoloshe , modeled Azwifarwi Ragimana. Quite an interesting way to greet the visitors, when you know that in the Zulu mythology, the Tokoloshe is a widget-type evil spirit, “called upon by malevolent people to cause trouble for others“, whose main duties start from scaring the children away to causing illness and death. Tokoloshes are so common in the African cultures, and so much feared, that they are the reasons why many traditional African beds are built so high (more than 1m high), so that the Tokoloshes cannot reach the nuptial bed while everyone is asleep. When I started to look up for information about the different sculptors, I found out that their stories were quite similar. All of them were country boys, most often shepherds, who had been taught the art of carving wood by their father as a mean to create functional items, such as utensils and headrests. None of them had formal artistic training, but they all were deeply influenced by the Bible stories they had been read profusely and that became one of the major sources of inspiration, together with the daily life of the villages in Limpopo.
One of them, Jackson Hlungwani, an eccentric in all senses of the term, had an interesting story. He migrated to Johannesburg in the middle of the 20th century, but soon had to come back to Limpopo when he lost a finger in an industrial accident. One day, when he was about to commit suicide, Christ appeared to him and told him to start his own church, make carvings and use them in his teaching. He did all these three things, and his church, Yesu Galeliya One Aposto in Sayoni Alt and Omega is now very well established in the northern province. He decorated the church with his own figurative sculptures, acted as a spiritual leader, an artist and a healer, and lived happily until the day he died, in 2010, at the age of 87.
So yes, the “Stars of the North” exhibition might be over, but next time you go to Braamfontein, don’t hesitate to stop at the WAM: who knows, you might have the pleasant surprise to be greeted by another Tokoloshe yourself!