Praise song to my mother’s skirts


GLORYING in the magic of the skirt: ‘Ku Saseka Ka Swona Mbuya 2’, a work in charcoal on paper by Phillemon Hlungwani, at the Everard Read Gallery in Johannesburg. Photograph courtesy Everard Read Gallery.

THERE IS ALWAYS something completely seductive about the appearance of a queue of people. One after the other, each with their idiosyncrasies: it’s an understanding of humanity that honours their uniqueness but empathises with their common plight. And the logic and structure of a line of people is deeply satisfying from a visual as well as a rhythmic perspective. The rows of women in Phillemon Hlungwani’s current exhibition of drawings will grab you by all of these values, as well as that of dance. It’s like a religious experience. A celebration of being human.

But these are not just one woman arbitrarily following another, or women waiting in a queue. They’re dancers. They’re mothers. They’re wives. They’re victors and heroes. They’re queens and goddesses even if you think the blankets around some of their shoulders may indicate that they haven’t wealth.

Hlungwani is unapologetic in bringing his audiences a slice of the tradition from which he has grown: the common element in each of their works is the xibelani, the thickly crafted dancing skirt worn by women in the Tsonga community from which Hlungwani originates. According to a gallery press release, the body of work was inspired by a life-long discomfort.

When Hlungwani was a small child, he was witness to his mother being mocked for wearing such a garment. She was deemed ‘uncivilised’ by Hlungwani’s young peers, and laughed at. It’s a heavy burden to carry; in addressing it with such forthrightness and dignity, Hlungwani the man brings his mother and her traditional regalia out into the public domain, like delightful royalty.

And indeed, while these are not portraits of Hlungwani’s mum, and while many of these women are not from contexts of privilege, it is their poses and their postures; their facial expressions and the cast of their hips that makes you want to sing songs of praise to them, even if you know nothing about them.

Hlungwani’s line work is bold but not pedantic: these drawings are about movement and stasis simultaneously as they are contemporary and iconic in the same breath. And the reasoning is completely pragmatic. If you are not a part of the Xitsonga community, you may not ever see these skirts being used traditionally. You may occasionally spot a woman wearing one. You could go to the Standard Bank Collection of African Art housed at Wits Art Museum and ask to see the xibelani housed there, but these are objects removed from the body, placed behind protective glass.

What Hlungwani is doing in this body of work is opening a small door to something completely sacred. When you stand in front of the works, you get an urge to dance, but also to weep: the presence of these women, the hugeness of the gesture, the rich detail of the garments are collectively deliciously overwhelming.




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