/ 5 February 2010

Art from the heart

Some time in the early 1990s Jackson Hlungwani and I were walking along a very crowded and hot Regent Street in London. “Look! Ricky, look, angels and devil. Look, look there’s woman for Jacob.”

This was not the Regent Street I was used to. Instead of shops and people we were looking at gargoyles, friezes and bits of architectural decoration. Jackson was looking up and seeing buildings rich with images. We were in a city street animated with stories — and I’d not seen this before.

As you might imagine all this stopping, exclaiming and looking up was at odds with the inherent rhythm of a London summer street crowd. He was prone, too, to follow a thought or impulse as it happened, sometimes lagging behind, sometimes darting ahead or, worse still, darting across the traffic.

I was terrified of losing him. And then, of course, I did. The excited pointing finger was nowhere to be seen. The large cake-like mound of woolly hat, in his signature green and scarlet, was gone. There were many Germans, Poles, Spaniards, even the occasional Brit, but no Gazankulu Prophet. And then I heard a tiny voice, as though from a deep metallic well, call my name. “Ricky, Ricky, come look, Ricky.”

I don’t know how long it took for me to register the skip of builders’ rubble a few metres off because, of course, that’s where he was, foraging for “sticks”. Sticks and “stuff” that we lugged back through Hyde Park and took with us on the train to Peckham Rye.

The trip to London and the Edinburgh Festival was, well, not to put too fine a point on it, intense. It was Jackson: intense, eccentric, engaging, tireless, adventurous, charismatic, charming, difficult, stubborn and, above all, passionate. He was a believer, a passionate believer, not only in his wayward and Christian-derived metaphysics, but also a believer in himself and the redemptive power of his work.

Many will remember seeing the retrospective held in Newtown in 1989. As I recall, about 15 000 people saw the show (a big number in those days, perhaps still today). You will recall the monumental fish, the altars, the whimsical thrones, the sticks, bowls and spoons, the birds, dogs and lions. Many will recall his range of scale, from the minute and tender to the grand and monumental. Many will recall the wonderful sculptural lyricism, the cubist volumes, the gouged edges and improbable conjunctions and balances. Many will also remember being awed by the sheer fecundity of the man.

If you don’t recall any of this, or if you never saw it, then it’s time to make a trip to the Johannesburg Art Gallery to see the installation there — a huge Adam, several metres tall, an altar, a monumental fish and an absolutely superb crucifix that first featured in the Tributaries exhibition of 1985.

A few days after his recent death I was asked what I thought his legacy would be. I answered that I had no idea, as it depended on how he will be considered and by whom he will be considered in time to come. But, I did, I said, have an idea of what I would like his legacy to be.

A contemporary and somewhat successful avant-garde South African artist once described Jackson’s work as “driftwood”, implying, I suspect, that the work is closer to an act of unconscious nature, that some sufficient and necessary ingredient of art was missing, that the work was not, perhaps, sufficiently intellectually formed or that it lacked sufficient irony, or ironic self-knowingness to assert itself on the world as comment or critique. If that is what he meant, then “bollocks” is a word that comes to mind.

Jackson did nothing if not shape his world by his lights, with will and intentionality. If you visit the Johannesburg Art Gallery installation you will see that there is little of unconscious nature there. That a consciousness of nature was at work I have no doubt. And for a man who wished for us and for himself that we should be in the world “like a fish in water” to be accused of behaving as water acts on wood, may not, ultimately, be the put-down our avant-gardist might have wished.

As with all artists, Jackson’s output was uneven and there will be, I suspect, a body of work that will surface in time as major or classical Hlungwani. This work will be valued and, of course, will form the core of his legacy. This is what we will refer back to time and again. And the more we refer back to it the more we will come to know this: that art happens anywhere it will.

The success and power of an image is not predicated on book learning, on theory, on anxieties of contemporaneity, on novelties of medium or method. Jackson’s legacy will be, I hope, that reference in our culture that tells us that passion, conviction and intensity of purpose — in short, compulsive vision — are ultimately those values we celebrate. And they can take up residence anywhere, anytime and with anybody. — Jackson Mbhazima Hlungwani: born 1923, date unknown; died January 20 2010

Artist, curator and teacher Ricky Burnett first exhibited the work of Jackson Hlungwani in an exhibition called Tributaries in 1985 and in a major retrospective in 1989. He has a teaching studio in Johannesburg