Writing Art History Since 2002

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Everard Read | Cape Town

Through the centuries, the doctrines, images and icons of European-based Christian churches have had a profound influence on the spiritual beliefs and rituals of indigenous African cultures. In his exhibition On Sacred Ground, Andrew Tshabangu portrays Christian practise from an African perspective, expressing the power and passion of a brand of faith born in the African independent churches and rooted deep in the heart of African communities.The essence of Tshabangu’s theme is most richly expressed in a series of photographs shot at a pilgrimage site in Ngome, KwaZulu Natal. The images are soft, lyrical and drenched in the mysterious aura of sacred places. In scenes reminiscent of biblical tales describing Christ’s crucifixion, Tshabangu has created a fresh and uniquely African iconography of Christian faith.A heavy morning mist lends atmosphere to his Ngome images. In Women Before Crucifix 1 a thick haze hangs in the centre of the frame. To the far right, in profile, a woman stands before a life-size crucifix. With her head tilted upward in supplication, she clutches the legs of the contorted Christ figure. Far left in the frame, two women look on, one standing passively with folded hands, the other leaning forward in a pose of anticipation. In Women Praying Before Crucifix 2 the grouping of figures is much tighter. The vertical framing of the shot and the direct profile perspective of the crucifix accentuates the angular body of the highly stylised Christ figure gazing down at the worshiper. At a respectful distance, a woman stands in repose waiting her turn to pray. A jug of water at her feet, presumably for her own refreshment, lends an uncanny symbolism to the scene.In Prayer Before Light Crucifix a group of woman cloaked in blankets cluster in a tight queue before a towering, lighted cross. The figures in the foreground are dwarfed by the cross, their bodies angled in gestures suggesting curiosity, or, perhaps, eagerness to move closer to the holy symbol. The work is fluid in style and emotionally charged, conveying the power of the place, and the conviction of the pilgrims.On Sacred Ground is a highly evocative portrayal of personal faith, public ritual and the potent force of the African church community.

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