Shangaan village life in rural Limpopo has changed very little over the past half century or so. And at the centre of this traditional lifestyle are the women. It is they who fetch the water from the river and firewood from the bush, who plant the seeds and hoe the fields and who cook and clean, wash the clothes and care for the children. It is a hard life. Artist Phillemon Hlungwani knows this very well; it is how and where he grew up.

The headline artist at this year’s FynArts Festival, Phillemon’s exhibition, which is presented in association with Knysna Fine Arts, pays tribute to the strong women in his own and neighbouring villages in the Giyani district of Limpopo Province. Now in his early forties, Phillemon has lived in Johannesburg since he matriculated and has exhibited all over this country and abroad, but his ties with his cultural heritage and xiTsonga, his mother tongue, remain the well-spring of his creativity.

From primary to high school he was educated in Thomo, his home village and it is quite extraordinary under these circumstances that he was able to take Art for matric, obtaining an A. He is filled with gratitude for the people who played a pivotal role in this achievement: his single, hard-working mother, his art teacher, motivator and friend, Muxe Moses Mthombeni, and Queen Mtileni. Why this remote part of the country should have produced such an inordinately high percentage of South Africa’s top artists and fine-crafts practitioners, including his family-member Jackson Hhlungwani, is an interesting matter of conjecture.

Two of the large etchings which will be on show at Phillemon Hlungwani’s exhibition, ‘A strong woman never gives up’, during the Hermanus FynArts Festival from 7 – 17 June.

With his Art distinction in hand, Phillemon was able to obtain a place at the Johannesburg Art Foundation, before studying printmaking under the mentorship of Kim Berman, the late Nhlahla Xaba and Osiah Masukameng at the Artist Proof Studio. He later completed an Art teacher’s training course at the Wits School of Art. During his years as a student, he says he used to wash taxis for food money and sometimes do sketches at malls for R50 or R100, which he used to send to his mother.

After he qualified, he joined the Artist Proof Studio where he has performed a number of roles, from papermaking, to teaching, to community outreach. He was selected by the prestigious Ampersand Foundation to undertake an extensive study tour of printmaking studios in the United States.

Phillemon has had a relationship of over a decade with the Read family and has exhibited on numerous occasions at the Everard Read Galleries in Johannesburg, Cape Town and London, as well as at Trent Read’s Knysna Fine Arts and Grande Provence Galleries. In addition, he has mounted solo exhibitions at other prestigious galleries all over South Africa, including Soweto, and participated in group exhibitions as far afield as London, Belgium, India and Quatar. The titles of many of his exhibitions, including the upcoming showing in Hermanus, are based on xiTsonga parables which highlight some virtue or value espoused by the community.

Not only does he specialise in astonishingly large etchings and charcoal and pastel drawings, but he has painted even bigger murals on commission for a variety of prestigious corporate clients. Trent Read says he is in awe of Phillemon’s phenomenal talent. “He is just so good as an artist, but his etching and print-making skills are quite extraordinary. Not many people realise what a difficult and complex technique this is and yet his engraving, application of aquatints and print-making abilities are all quite outstanding. He has told me that whereas a drawing, even a large one, will probably take him a couple of days to complete, an etching will require weeks of hard work and trial and error, before an artist’s proof is produced which satisfies him.”

His family background has had a profound effect on the recurring themes in his work. As he told Trent, “My mother was a widow with young children. She had to go to work for a farmer and sometimes would not be able to come back for a while. I was the oldest and had to get up at 4 o’clock to cook for the day, before school. We ate pap and marogo – no meat. Sometimes my brother and I could catch a fish. I learnt to do ‘woman’s work’ like cooking, collecting the spinach, washing clothes, collecting cow dung for the floor. You have to live.”

In Phillemon’s world, everything is connected. The people – mainly women – full of motion and life, are at the heart of their environment and they are bursting with thoughts and opinions and yearnings. The colour he adds to their clothing helps them stand out in the vibrancy of their humanity, while arcs and lines connect and draw them together. The protagonists are interwoven with their environment, the animals and the trees and the mythology that envelops them. His aim is to show that “people who live in the simplest places with few possessions can still lead good, dignified lives and remain happy – they know where they have come from and where they are going.”

Phillemon Hlungwani’s exhibition, curated by Trent Read, promises to be a highlight of this year’s FynArts Festival. Entitled ‘A strong woman never gives up’, the exhibition will be opened on Saturday 8 June at 14:00 at the FynArts Gallery in The Courtyard, Harbour Road.

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