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DUNGAMANZI/STIRRING WATERS (article first published : 2007-08-6)

The book Dungamanzi / Stirring Waters features Tsonga and Shangaan art, culture and heritage, and accompanies an exhibition of the same name at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. It tracks the history of these cultural groups through essays and a wealth of images of material culture and art.

Divided into four sections, the catalogue’s first section highlights the histories of the Tsonga and Shangaan, the second explores the magnificent beading tradition and the third, the very complex legacy of woodcarving from the late 19th century to contemporary times. The historical trajectory, as well as the spectacular attire and equipment of sangomas, also known as traditional healers and diviners, are the subject of the fourth section.

Dungamanzi / Stirring Waters is a jointly published book by Wits University Press and the Johannesburg Art Gallery in an edition of 3,000.The selection of material and compilation is by anthropologist/art historian Nessa Leibhammer. In her introduction she tracks the genealogy of the terms Tsonga and Shangaan and explores the nuances of these names and histories during the 19th and 20th century.

Originally put together as an exhibition, the research and personal observations by the writers is gripping. For example Nessa Liebhammer explains that it was vital to document the ‘living’ memory of the Makhubele family.

As readers, we meet Billy Makhubele and many of his family members. Makhubele writes: “I am a Shangaan and I am proud to be one. But I heard on the radio we should be called Tsanga. That’s not right. We come from Shangane.” In the book he describes his early history and he traces his family going back to his great grandfather who was a chief and of his father who was a warrior.

Natalie Knight helped him to write down the story of his life and art. He had his first exhibition at the Market Gallery in 1977 and was chosen for Valparaiso Biennale in Chile in 1985. “I want the children of the future to know their history,” he writes. And through their artworks this history has been recorded and will be preserved for future generations. They are the material record of a complex period in South Africa’s past. Originating largely in Mozambique, and coming to this country to work in the mines and consolidating themselves in response to the homeland policy of the apartheid government, Tsonga and Shangaan people came together during difficult political, economic and social circumstances to form their own identity.

The authors of the different chapters are mostly dedicated academics, who have contributed valuable information and insight.

Tradition is followed by generation after generation. The ancestors are ever-present and form part of the culture. The chapters on beadwork are fascinating and very detailed describing traditional wear, gala dress, and the meaning of the different patterns and colours to be seen in beaded panels, head gear, necklaces and belts.

The chapter on woodcarving is equally detailed but concentrates on certain stylistic characteristics and the artistic superiority of Jackson Hlungwani. Shangaan headrests, sculptures of staffs, faces, hands and feet are some of the finest heritage objects/art works this country has to offer. Dangamanzi, the texts as well as the imagery – is proof of living tradition. One cannot believe in art if one does not believe in some kind of changing attitude towards what is beautiful, what is important, and what is essential in life.

The last chapter in the book deals with traditional healers in a contemporary world. Written by Natalie Knight she explains that even though modern cellphones and motorcars are very much part of life today, the ancestors will always play an important role. Traditional healers and diviners are chosen by the ancestors through dreams and are almost forced to follow a long apprenticeship to become a healer. There are many interviews with healers. Each has his/her own divine solutions and equipment - bones, shells, gourds, drums, home made medicines etc.

What all the contributors have in common is a very deep respect for the people and the art works they created - whether this a beautiful sculpture by Jackson Hlungwani, a beaded waistcoat, a medicinal horn, a beaded skirt, a shield, or a decorated skirt - they all contribute to this well-researched publication.

Dungamanzi/Stirring Waters belongs in public libraries, as well as high school and university libraries, so that future generations can enjoy and treasure their rightful heritage. – Marianne Meijer




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