Art and Design

Interrogating the lingering shadow of faith

Sean O’Toole

Works of art that concern themselves with various aspects of religion have proved to be popular with people who do not normally visit art galleries.

The African way: Photographer Andrew Tshabangu documents local religious rituals. (Andrew Tshabangu)

In the same year that Cetshwayo, a giant of a man, visited London to argue for his restoration as Zulu king and Édouard Manet produced his expressionless portrait of a Parisian barmaid with golden blonde hair at the Folies Bergère nightclub, God died. You would have thought it headline news, but the only account of this momentous event in 1882 was in a philosophical tract by an opulently moustached German philosopher.

“God is dead,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche in The Gay Science, immediately adding, “but given the way people are, there may still for millennia be caves in which they show his shadow.” He was speaking metaphorically about humankind’s will to see and figure faith in the aftermath of rationalism, although even a cursory look at the work of Johannesburg photographer Santu Mofokeng has a way of lending his pronouncement an uncanny literalness.

Noted for his stark chiaroscuro lighting, Mofokeng has often travelled to caves to photograph the delicate filigree of faith in this country. One of 14 South African artists selected to participate in this year’s Venice Biennale, where he will show work alongside Chinese artist Ai Weiwei in the German national pavilion, Mofokeng’s biography is indelibly linked to caves.

In 2004 he produced one of his most important works, a portrait of his dying older brother, Ishmael. It was made in Motouleng Cave, an immense sandstone overhang in the southeastern Free State near Clarens. The cave, whose Sotho name means “place where the drums keep on beating”, is widely known for its healing powers and is a popular destination for worshippers, healers and clerics.

Reduced to an “incontinent wraith” by tuberculosis, an opportunistic infection that is the leading cause of death among persons with HIV, Ishmael, a sangoma, asked his younger brother to drive him to Motouleng. The last part of the journey is done on foot. Ishmael collapsed andhad to be carted in a wheelbarrow.

“They gave him water and holy ash,” recalled Mofokeng during a walkthrough of his exhibition at Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg, in 2007. He was addressing a group of mostly adolescents standing in front of Ishmael’s portrait. “He walked back to the car without being helped. It didn’t take him long and he died.”

Four years later, when Mofokeng’s remarkable opus was on display in Paris’s Jeu de Paume museum of contemporary art, he again included Ishmael’s portrait. It appeared with a dozen or so photographs of caves, next to an equal-sized photo of a white horse photographed at a Buddhist monastery near Pietermaritzburg.

A bizarre cocktail of beliefs
“I grew up on the threshing floor of faith,” stated Mofokeng in an explanatory text accompanying his photos. “A faith that is both ritual and spiritual — a bizarre cocktail of beliefs that completely embraces pagan rituals as well as Christian beliefs. And while I am reluctant to partake in this gossamer world, I can identify with it.”

Andrew Tshabangu, who grew up in a Catholic household, shares with his former mentor a similar, albeit less caustic interest in faith. He is particularly intrigued by the hybridised form of African religions and has been documenting local religious rituals and ceremonies since 1997. Examples of his black-and-white photos are on display at Gallery Momo until April 8.

“While there has been a major Christianisation of Africans by the West, so too has there been a major Africanisation of Christianity by Africans,” Tshabangu has said.

Zwelethu Mthethwa’s recent colour photographs radiantly demonstrates this cross-pollination.

In 2011 Mthethwa photographed some of the richly costumed adolescent boys who every January journey to Nhlangakazi, a holy mount north of Durban. According to legend, Isaiah Shembe, an itinerant Zulu evangelist, was struck by lightning here in 1910. Shortly afterwards he founded the Nazareth Baptist Church, the largest independent religious movement among the Zulu people.

Mthethwa, who was born in KwaZulu-Natal but now lives in Cape Town, was uninterested in the ritual and social organisation of the church. “What fascinates me is how and why people clothe themselves in these different ways,” he told the curator Tamar Garb. The reconceptualised garments include pith helmets, bow ties and tartan kilts.

If Mthethwa is the model of a dispassionate onlooker, twin brothers Hasan and Husain Essop could be construed as activists. The pair ­garnered early attention for their photos of serialised role-playing in Cape Town’s Muslim neighbourhoods. They have since developed a more austere and worldly view, recently showing immense descriptive panoramas of Mecca. Underlying their practice is a desire to show “the beauty of Islam” and “combat the negative stereotypes attached to it,” as Husain put it to me in 2010.

Despite the apparent secularisation of image-making in the 20th century, many local artists continue to deal with faith in their work — sometimes reverentially, as believers, but just as frequently as dispassionate onlookers. Take Wim Botha, a bashful Cape Town sculptor whose increasingly formless, light-infused work has expanded the tired grammar of local sculpture.

In 2001, Botha was invited to participate in the Klein Karoo Arts Festival. He was given carte blanche to do whatever he pleased. At the time he was trying to establish symmetry between image and material. “I was totally convinced that each work has its perfect material companion, the perfect medium to manifest in,” explained Botha, who is one of the 13 local artists selected by curator Brenton Maart to appear in the South African national pavilion at Venice.

He decided to carve a likeness of the crucifixion scene, using stacked and compressed biblical texts representing all 11 official languages. Although mostly composed of surplus biblical texts, his finished work — Commune: Suspension of Disbelief — also includes strategically placed bound bibles. They are visible in the hands, feet and chest area of the work, the red edging of the books suggesting the wounds where Christ’s body was pierced.

“A crucifix signifies a similar thing to everyone, whether you’re into Christianity or not,” added Botha, whose early sculptures also depicted culturally resonant icons such as the pieta and Madonna. “I was really interested in how you can shift that knowledge, or that assumption of knowledge.”

Holy cows
It is not a new idea. In 1987, American artist Andres Serrano photographed a small plastic crucifix floating in a container filled with his urine. The photograph does not tell you this: the radiant cross floats in a fog of burnt orange. Unlike Serrano, or Maurizio Cattelan, who in 1999 created a sculpture depicting Pope John Paul II felled by a meteorite, Botha had no ambition to be an iconoclast.

“You can fuck around with holy cows, which is much more antagonistic, but also much easier for people [of faith] to dismiss.”

Botha’s finished work, which includes obliquely placed surveillance equipment relaying degraded black-and-white images of the carved figure to a CCTV screen, prompted no death threats, as Serano received, just intrigued spectatorship.

“It was interesting to see how people tried to assimilate the work, how they didn’t dismiss it out of hand,” said Botha. “There really was a sense of a re-evaluation of a symbol.”

Antoinette Murdoch, the director and chief curator of the Johannesburg Art Gallery, does not entirely agree with his conclusion. Botha’s work forms part of her institution’s permanent collection — it was acquired for R50 000.

“There is no doubt that people absolutely love his work,” she said. “They come to the gallery and expressly ask for it. It is by far one of the most popular works in the gallery.”

But, emphasised Murdoch, such encounters rarely shift religious views. In many instances they merely bolster religious conformity. She is speaking from personal experience. In 1991, after finishing school, Murdoch joined MES-aksie, an evangelical ministry based in Hillbrow, working in outreach programmes.

Murdoch’s early biography is not unusual. Her predecessor, Clive Kellner — now a consultant to collector Gordon Schachat — briefly ministered in Harrismith before returning to Johannesburg in 2004 to head up the gallery.

Artist Willem Boshoff similarly did penance on the streets of Hillbrow. In 1971, during his second year at the Johannesburg College of Art, he hooked up with a group of lay preachers in Hillbrow and encountered “many hippies and a lot of other weird people” on the streets.

He eventually dropped out of art school and became an itinerant preacher, wandering the country with a bag containing only a change of clothing. He even preached in Joubert Park, opposite the museum that studiously ignored his remarkable early wood sculptures. Notable among these is Hot Crossed Bowl I (1983), a cedar and imbuia receptacle fashioned from the splinters of a destroyed cross.

Boshoff has often been likened to a druid, a distinguished position he inherited from Jackson Hlungwani. Born in 1923, Hlungwani was well into middle age when, in 1978, he had a transformative vision while sleeping. The church of the founder of Yesu Galeliya One Aposto in Sayoni Alt and Omega, an independent faith with Pentecostal leanings, is based at Mbhokota, a rural village near Elim in Limpopo. New Jerusalem, as it was known, included two stone altars decorated with Hlungwani’s sinuous woodcarvings.

The Johannesburg Art Gallery has a permanent display devoted to the artist. Key among the works on show is a crucifixion scene. Made in 1972, this rather orthodox composition of a bearded Christ figure tells the story of how Hlungwani came to be celebrated — at age 62, and not without complication — as a contemporary artist.

In the mid-1980s, Ricky Burnett, a Johannesburg artist and curator, was looking for work to put on a group exhibition he was organising in Johannesburg. An encounter in the Pretoria Art Museum suggested he travel further north. Together with Anne Collins, a development researcher familiar with the co-operative producer groups in the Northern Transvaal, Burnett travelled to New Jerusalem.

“It was an extraordinary thing,” Burnett told me in 2010. “The crucifix which is now in [the Johannesburg Art Gallery] was nailed to a tree. He spent a lot of time talking to us around and about that crucifix.”

At the time, Burnett expressed his interest in purchasing some of Hlungwani’s elaborate walking sticks. These functional items served as a bridgehead into the stolid white tourist market for capable sculptors such as Hlungwani and Johannes Maswanganyi. On a subsequent visit, Hlungwani insisted Burnett take the Christ sculpture.

“He chose his own work because he wanted Christ to go and teach his message,” said Burnett, who built a dedicated space for the Tsonga sculptor in the abandoned interiors of what is now MuseumAfrica, in Newtown. Hlungwani’s appearance on Tributaries, as Burnett’s exhibition was called, made him a star.

Nearly three decades on his work remains immensely popular with visitors.

“In the past four years we have more than once considered taking his work down — and have met with considerable resistance,” said Murdoch.

Lingering shadow of faith
It is not just Hlungwani and Botha who have transformed Johannesburg’s ragged inner-city public art museum into a mesmerising Nietzschean cave devoted to the lingering shadow of faith. Last year when Murdoch invited Cape Town artist James Webb to show at the gallery, he installed his work Prayer in the grand old Phillips Room. The work may just be his magnum opus.

Conceived in 1999, Prayer aims to document the polyphonic voice of faith in whatever city the work happens to be shown in. It achieves its punch by functioning without visual aid. Webb ventures out into communities and records worshippers from diverse faiths singing and praying. In the gallery they are sequenced and replayed simultaneously from 12 floor-mounted speakers installed on a red carpet. Viewers typically stoop to listen. The shift from eye to ear is crucial.

“I very consciously chose to not label the speakers or have the prayers introduced in any way,” said Webb. “The idea being that the listener — provided they can understand the language spoken — can concentrate on the content of the prayer.” For those who cannot understand the words, the experience becomes one of accent, melody, tone and intensity.

Webb, who studied drama and comparative religion, views Prayer as a kind of invisible portrait of the city in which it is made. To date he has recorded city-specific versions in Cape Town, the English cities of Huddersfield, Nottingham and Birmingham, as well as Bergen and Copenhagen in Europe. The work’s spare appearance is designed to avoid the visual prejudices that particular faiths engender.

From July to October last year, during the run of Webb’s solo show MMXII, it proved something of a destination piece.

“People came to the gallery just to see that work. On the opening night, there were Muslim visitors, Indian ladies with their doeks. You never get those people in the gallery.” Murdoch, now a committed agnostic, paused on this point. “It is strange that all of these religious works are such crowd-pullers.” Strange, but given the way people are, also not.

To view  a walkabout of Andrew Tshabangu’s exhibition Bridges, on at Gallery MOMO, go to mg.co.za/bridges

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