Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The vanGogh of South Africa: Phillemon Hlungwani

Phillemon Hlungwani was born in 1975, in Giyani, Thomo Village, in Limpopo and now lives and works in Johannesburg, South Africa. He comes from a family of artists, and says that ‘art chose him’. He works in a variety of printmaking mediums, and also draws with charcoal. He attributes his mother as the impetus for his career, because she gave him charcoal from the hearth in their home. He says of his female subjects: ‘In my art I used to depict women that symbolized my mother. She is the one who encouraged me to make art. The women in my art are shown working because they are equal’.

Hlungwani work expresses his Christian and cultural beliefs. He feels a strong spiritual connection towards trees as a place for prayer and worshipping them, so trees are often represented in his work. His work often depicts the Tsengelendotwe tree found in his environment. It bears a fruit which they would mix with the fresh milk from the herd and drink as a milkshake. His landscape images refer to self, family and his cultural history.

Utilizing his upbringing to inform his work via traditional customs and cultural practices of his community, Hlungwani draws images of himself as a young herdboy tending the family goats. He understands the bushveld landscape intimately from his early years and he depicts scenes of small town life and a hard work ethic as few artists can or want to experience it for themselves. 

As a point of comparison, the ‘plein aire’ painters of the Barbizon School, and the French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists understood suffering and toiling under the sun to paint their pictures. Yet, theirs was a point of observation –something not a part of their own experience. Hlungwani, very much in the same vein as Vincent vanGogh did with his drawings of the miners and potato farmers, shows us a way of life for the people from his village. He shows us the quiet moments crossing town with one’s good for the market, or a child following its mother to and from town. He shows us the family working together , tilling their fields and trying to raise a decent crop to feed the clan. 

Hlungwani’s depictions of the living conditions of his people - ramshackled clapboard homes in a hot, dry country, sting with a sense of poverty, and cultural awareness, for we understand that the artist describes a current situation in South Africa, not some quaint historical telling of a time long past. These renditions of South African life are are minder that the world hasn’t entirely caught up to a 21st century standard of high-tech living. The town may be poor, but they are unified in their existence and look to be at peace and accept their existence as being what God intended for them. There is a quiet working of the land and one feels as if we were looking at one of Paul Gauguin’s rural Normandy-inspired pictures.

Still the curious thing in Hlungwani’s work isn’t the subject as much as what’s going on around the subject. He fills his skies and compositions with swirling dotted lines and circular arcs that surround the people walking to work; creating a dance of lines that equally encircle a tree in a field and a woman carrying a basket on her head. The abstractions of these lines activate his compositions in a way we are not used to seeing. It’s as though the marks could be a preliminary method the artist uses to begin drawing his subjects, but they are left in the picture, not erased or cut out of it, so they must have more significance than originally thought.

They could be trails of flies or bugs surrounding the subjects or maybe they have something to do with the state of chaos that surrounds us all. They could be that and more, but they would appear to be something ‘other’ than what one sees in this earthly realm. They would appear to be  traceries of some human presence or spirit, some soul that surrounds the subject – letting us know , as we see in Tintoretto’s ‘Last Supper’, that there is more in our daily realm if we but look for it.

His work effortlessly segues between media showing a mature vision. His work is deceptively simple and drawn with tenderness, still there is a sinewy strength to his line which so perfectly suits his subject and the results are astoundingly direct and sensitive.

Hlungwani is a young artist well on his way to becoming a promising star  as he gains critical attention. South Africa has a notable printmaking tradition, and has produced many fine artists that mainly show within the country, but Hlungwani’s work speaks about his roots and beyond his cultural borders with his life-sized prints. They are accomplished,  impressive and ambitious. Hlungwani has started to exhibit his work outside of South Africa and one senses that this artist will make as fine a mark as vanGogh did with his drawing s and the spiritual component present in his Starry Night. Hlungwani is generous with his time and teaches and encourages younger artists to pursue their dreams. He is a printmaking gem that will grow more brilliant with time and prestige.

            Johannesburg Art Foundation, 2000
            Artist Proof Studio printmaking certificate, 2000.
            WITS School of Art, 2004
            Murals for the Johannesburg Development Agency,  South African Governmental            
            offices, MTN,The Standard Bank Art Gallery, Bell Dewar and Hall.
            King Korn competition winner, 2000-2001
            Finalist for the Absa Gallery competition
            Ampersand Fellowship, 2009
Professional Experience: 
            Coordinator and facilitator of APS professional artists program
            Teacher of papermaking
            Facilitator of Paper Prayers workshops
            Coordinator of NOAH’s arks art teaching project

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