Ashraf Jamal Column

We are not humans on a spiritual path, but spirits on a human path. My late wife’s words have remained with me these seventeen years. Words sometimes stay, flood black, as these did on a glorious Saturday afternoon.
I was seated in the Norval Sculpture Park, beside Nandipha Mntambo’s work, Ophelia, a figure of a bronze woman in a bronze vat filled with bronze lotuses, accompanied by the hiss and gurgle of water. I’d seen it years before at the Stevenson Gallery, thought it absurd, never knew that a different iteration would alter me. The park is in a wetland. Earlier, I watched a duck glide elegantly by, pads paddling furiously in the hidden deep. Slumped on a bench, in a landscape perfectly crafted, indigenous plants all about, backed by mountains, a flawless blue sky overhead, along with warnings to look out for snakes, my wife’s words returned.

It is humanity, or lack of it, that requires attention. Spirit is given. In three astonishing exhibitions at the Norval Foundation it is humanity we are asked to ponder – what it is, why it fails us, how it can be regained. The atrium separating the galleries potently brought to the fore a commanding work, in vinyl, by Athi-Patra Ruga. ii NyangaZonyaka, echoing church glass paintings. The wall text explains that the artist’s response ‘to contested histories as well as the contemporary context’. As is the case in all Ruga’s works, his luminous frieze asks us ‘to view the traumas of colonial history without the obstruction of personalised grief and subjective defensiveness’. This caveat is huge. We are too glibly, nastily, exercised by rage, the core of oppression, at the expense of grace. Ruga’s frieze counters predictive rage, ‘soulless and unrooted’, that thrives on an Azanian vision that is utopian, a ‘sacred revolution’, where ‘God is listening’.

The art museum as temple is a familiar notion too easily scorned in a cynical turn against grace. But surely, now, in acute despair, confusion and fear, it is the consolatory power of art which we must hold fast? As John Armstrong and Alain de Botton remind us, art is therapy. ‘Art reminds us of the legitimate place of sorrow in a good life, so that we panic less about our difficulties and recognise them as parts of a noble existence’. This is Ruga’s view too. He commemorates, gives hope, echoes and dignifies suffering, rebalances and guides, expands horizons and inspires appreciation. One cannot but stand in awe before Ruga’s frieze. The scale is magisterial, the colours psychotropic. One plunges into mysterious depths, buoyed by romance. The human and elemental worlds converge.

Muholi does cast and recast gender. She is never neutral, despite claims to the contrary. In two photographs the artist – ‘they’ – is cast as housemaid. In the one Muholi scrubs the floor while gazing at us through the pale calves of a passing madam. In the other the artist is seated on a freshly made bed, clutching a white pillow with one hand, the other pressed to the chest, gaze inward, bathed in a beneficent light pouring through the bedroom window. In that moment, it is the inner life of a being, far removed from slavery, that endures.

In another series Muholi poses as a beauty contender. Three images reconstruct the objectification of women. In none of them, however, is the artist contritely subjected to the male gaze. Muholi owns the space, sets up the condition of enslavement, and its refusal, never unconcerned by persistent inequality on the basis of race, gender, elective association. It is Muholi’s ability to reframe unthinking power, shift its narrow optic, that allows for a liberatory vision. On the opposing wall the artist presents a strident counter to the faux beauty pageant, with fists raised, muscles pumped, gaze unflinching.

It is not the idea of transformation and empowerment that dominates, but the artist’s ability to hold us within the complexity of a photograph – what it says, inflects, disturbs. For me, the most potent is a series of two
women, white and black, in a tender embrace. It is their softness and gentleness that consoles, love one senses, mutual care. In a remarkable triptych the artist’s braided hair is being played with is carried along, the mood calm, intoxicating.

If Ruga’s frieze is elegiac, Muholi’s clinically effective, the next body by work by Jackson Hlungwani, Alt and Omega, was equally masterful. I cannot recall when last I’d seen such consummate combinations of creative expression. Months of isolation may have contributed to my enthusiasm, but I think not. The credit should go to the Norval Foundation. They orchestrated a threefold event that would be uniquely inspiring anywhere in the world.

Given that we are all asking the same question – What next? What must art do and become in a world split from its axis? – Norval’s answer is genius, for what they have foregrounded is art’s consolatory power. If, as Armstrong and de Botton remind us in Art as Therapy, ‘the main point of engaging with art is to help us
lead better lives – to access better versions of ourselves’, then the Norval Foundation has answered this need. ‘A great artist knows how to draw our attention to the most tender, inspiring and enigmatic aspects of the world’, Armstrong and de Botton note, and this is precisely the goal which Norval aspires to. They hold fast to
‘the lessons of love at the front of our minds’.

The Hlungwani retrospective is restorative. Curated by Amos Letsoalo, Nessa Leibhammer, and Karel Nel, it returns us to what we sorely require – humanity. Infused with an ‘African based Christianity’ whose roots lie in Ethiopia, Hlungwani’s wooden sculptures explore the agony and ecstasy that afflicts and transfigures all life. Wooden panels, thrones, staffs, fish, images of God and Christ, return us to the power of theology, or, more loosely, faith, without which life is unsustainable.

Roughly hewn, makeshift and calculated, Hlungwani’s sculptures reveal the indissoluble connection between the natural and spiritual worlds. Ruga’s frieze echoes this vision. In Hlungwani’s case, however, the dialogue
between nature and God is more immersive and enigmatic. For him, art is a conversation with God, and, as is the case in deeply private dialogues, mystery engulfs the works hewn out of that dialogue. ‘God’s leg with Eggs’ echoes the artist’s personal affliction – the lesions in his own leg which he suffered – but the pain is also generative, ennobling, empowering. Transfiguration is the key to all that Hlungwani creates. His crucifixes – Christ on the cross replete with wings and serpent – convey the span of earth and sky, this world and the next.
But it is our place between worlds that is most forcefully conveyed. It is this betweenness, caught at a strait, which expresses the mortal coil that binds Hlungwani’s sculptures. Grace and suffering are consorts.

‘It is a longstanding problem of the human condition that we find it hard to form an accurate and bearable view of ourselves. We are beset by narcissism and self-loathing. Ameliorating this psychological frailty is one of the most important undertakings, and one in which we need the help of our contemporaries and our culture’. This view, Armstrong and de Botton, is a fitting reply to my experience at the Norval Foundation, for what Hlungwani, Ruga, and Muholi have given us, in differing ways, is an answer to frailty.

Alarmed and inspired by all that I saw and felt, I quit this chapel and ventured outward into the garden and wetland, past a scuppering duck, to resettle myself and recuperate in God’s greater chapel of earth and sky. There, my wife’s words returned to me. There, I reflected on what it means to be human, and how important our artists are in helping us in this pursuit.