/ 13 June 2006

In the garden of Eden

A group of Swazi sculptors has introduced an element of play to the serious worlds of fine art and religion in their latest exhibition, Ezulwinini — The Valley of Heaven. The warm-hearted humanity behind the quirky wooden pieces sets fire to conventional notions of sin in a way that leaves the spectator lighter for the experience. This is the second South African exhibition by the House on Fire collaborative that comprises Jiggs Thorne, Shadrack Masugu, Boy Mdzinisa and Phuzo Mtshali, aims to place Eden in an African context while exploring “the basic truisms” of religious parable.

“We are taking a look at the humorous side of sin,” says Thorne of the quirky wooden gods, divas, Madonnas and other characters from the Biblical caste. “Playing with the idea that reap what you sow … you have the choice to be constructive or destructive in what you choose.”

An important point of departure for many of the works is a play on words. So a work comprising a two-headed figure towering over a dog is titled Paradogs. Another, Eden Towers, places one of Vodacom’s fake palm-tree towers in the Garden of Eden. There is also a Madonna Water Divaner and large, beautifully carved lamps entitled Shedding Light Madonnas.

Personal favourites include After Hours Eve and Medical Adam. The former shows the original mom quizzically studying a hand of cards, the serpent entwined around her arm. She is “working with her misfortunes”, says Thorne. The latter comprises three ethereal female night nurses — one with a Star Trek type beam in hand — hovering over a roughly hewn Adam as they prepare to conduct rib surgery.

The show also includes functional items, such as a headboard depicting the board game snakes and ladders — “the game started in the East as a way of teaching kids about morality” — and a series of thrones with the Apple Macintosh logo used as a play on the apple on the tree of knowledge that tempted Eve.

“It is the nature of the work to have fun. We aren’t trying to make any statements and definitely not poking fun at religion,” says Thorne. “We are looking at the context of what the stories are trying to say and then making a playful take on these stories and putting them into our context.”

“Collaboration is an important aspect of the work. It is difficult to explain. People ask, ‘Who comes up with the ideas?’, but we are all the artist,” says Thorne.

“The work is a special adaptation of the meeting of different people. You meet someone out of context and start embarking on a project and what will come out of that is unknown to start off with. The themes come together in a mystical, spiritual, feeling space.

“So much art these days is heavy-handed in expressing opinions. We are filling the negative space in between.”

Ezulwinini — The Valley of Heaven opened at antanna, 44 Stanley Avenue, Millpark, Johannesburg on June 14 and runs for five weeks. For more information visit: www.antanna.co.za