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The original mural at Christ the King was whitewashed in the 1970s. But now a mosaic of reconciliation has been created on the wall.
THE Christ the King Anglican Church in Sophiatown lost its beautiful mural in the 1970s, but it now has a new mural, created in mosaic.

Christ stands above the muralA new mural has been created, replacing the old paintingArtist Bon Chandiyamba was commissioned in late 2009 to produce a mural for the church’s apse. Together with fellow artists David Arenz and Thabo Dube, they took a month to complete the mural.

The church was made famous in the 1940s and 50s when Archbishop Trevor Huddleston preached there. It was his church for most of his 12 years in the country. The original mural, forming an arch over the apse, was painted by the Anglican nun, Sister Margaret, between 1938 and 1941. But it was whitewashed in the 1970s.

The mosaic mural is about three metres wide and three metres high, dissolving into a painted backdrop of rocky mountains and sky stretching over the entire ceiling of the apse. A large wooden cross hangs above the mural.

The mosaic figures are in muted shades of browns, white and black, with an odd splash of blue. The artists have captured fine detail in the mosaic – a strip around a hat, a look of amusement on a man’s face, shadow lines on a robe, a look of distress on a mother’s face.

Two stories
“The mural tells two stories – the biblical one and one of reconciliation, of the previous community and the current one,” says Chandiyamba.

Its central figure is Christ, looking straight ahead, with a slight smile and generous outstretched arms, in a gesture of reconciliation. A crown and a bright white, yellow and orange halo leave no doubt as to who he is. A painted dove carrying an olive branch, a symbol of peace, hovers above his head.

“We wouldn’t have reconciliation without Jesus Christ,” says Chandiyamba, who attends services at the Sophiatown church.

Up to 15 figures appear on either side of Christ – reflecting the modern South Africa, but also the traditional, he says. One figure is blowing on a vuvuzela; another shows a man with his cap on backwards. A woman in a Zulu headdress is holding a child, a toddler stands next to her. Several appear in biblical robes.

Several figures show reconciliation. The warring biblical twin brothers, Jacob and Esau, are locked in an embrace. One of them has a sword hanging from his waist. Another figure, a black man, has his arms around a white man, in a gesture of togetherness.

Father Neo Motlabane, the current minister at the church, says of the mural: “It is a masterpiece.”

A donation
The mural was funded by a donation received from a British businessman, Stephen Hargrave, according to The Guardian newspaper.

“I’m very fond of Johannesburg – it’s one of the world’s great underrated cities,” he told the paper. “I’d heard of the church and went to see it two or three years ago. I heard about what happened to the mural so I thought this would be a nice gesture of friendship between England and Sophiatown.”

Chandiyamba says his art is represented at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, Oliver Tambo House in Pretoria, the deputy president’s house, South African embassies around the world, and at the new protocol lounge at OR Tambo International Airport. He is doing more public murals in Cape Town, he says.

Sister Margaret
Sister Margaret had been painting for about 15 years by the time she was asked to paint the mural in Sophiatown. She worked on it for three years, doing preliminary drawings and using local people as models for the children, men, women and angels who looked up at the figure of Jesus on the cross in the large, central section of the mural, which reached to the apex of the roof.

Many of the biblical figures were black, giving special significance to the congregation of their meaning. It was an uplifting mural completed in beautiful colours, and gave the simple church with its wooden-beamed ceiling a grandness that was greatly enjoyed and admired by its congregation.

Sister Margaret’s murals are to be seen in Grahamstown, Port Elizabeth, Nqutu in Zululand, and in Zimbabwe.

The church
The church in Sophiatown was built in 1935 and became famous because of Huddleston and his tough stance against apartheid. His views were epitomised in his fight for the rights of the Sophiatown community, which he did until he was recalled to England in 1955.

Residents were finally removed from the suburb by the end of 1963, in forced removals, a process that began in 1955. The suburb was then flattened and rebuilt as Triomf – which is Afrikaans for “triumph”. It was settled by working class whites, as it largely remains today. In 2006, the name Sophiatown was restored to the suburb.

The mural was still visible in 1967. The altar was deconsecrated in 1964, and the rest of the church in 1967. It was sold by the Anglicans to the Department of Community Development in the same year. Pictures were taken of the mural in 1967, the only evidence now of what the walls looked like.

In the 1970s, the Nederduits Hervormde Kerk bought the badly vandalised church, but sold it to the Pinkster Protestante Kerk in 1983, when it underwent major structural changes.

In 1997, the Anglicans bought it back and re-dedicated it in the same year. It has now been largely restored to what it looked like when Huddleston preached there, except for one detail: the beautiful mural.

The Guardian reports that when the new mural was unveiled in May 2010 by the bishop of Johannesburg, Brian Germond, he said: “The original mural … shaped a whole generation of believers in that community. My hope and prayer is that this new mural with its emphasis on reconciliation may shape the lives of this new generation in a way that brings lasting peace.”

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