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LARA DE MATOS
Art. Art for art’s sake. Art conceived purely as an expression of beauty. Art as a vehicle of political commentary.
The power of the mighty paintbrush has occupied many a media watcher’s thoughts of late, following the revelation of yet another work with our president’s one-eyed snake standing front and centre (in a manner of speaking).
Suggestions that this latest piece by Ayanda Mabulu in the Zuma Penis Chronicles is little more than a cheap and unimaginative imitation of Brett Murray’s The Spear are to be expected, considering it comes a matter of months after Murray’s.
That one artist happens to be white and the other black means that the appearance of the dog-eared race card in the mix was also to be expected. Albeit disappointingly so.
Granted, Mabulu’s 2010 piece depicting JZ’s manhood on crutches, Ngcono Ihlwempu Kunesibhanxo Sesityebi (Better a Fool than a Rich Man’s Nonsense) went largely unnoticed, while Murray’s adaptation of a famous Lenin painting two years later very nearly led to open revolt.
But such is the nature of creative pursuits, particularly those of a controversial tilt – and particularly when an idea first conceived by one individual quietly slips under the radar, only to have someone else receive recognition for the same concept some time later.
Just ask the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail: first published in 1982, the title’s mind-blowing assertion that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and fathered children went mostly unnoticed within mainstream circles, until Dan Brown came along two decades later and poached the idea for a wee book-turned-Hollywood blockbuster, The Da Vinci Code.
As such, assertions by some that the reason Murray’s The Spear made local and international headlines while Mabulu’s earlier offering in a similar vein “didn’t cause ripples” is because “as far as art is concerned a black artist is intellectually incapable of producing complex work – until they are verified by their white counterparts…” are exceedingly shortsighted. And boring. Not to mention insulting to Mabulu and the message he is attempting to convey through Umshini Wam (the title of his current work), which has jack diddly to do with the tired issues of race.
By his own admission, Mabulu’s rationale behind the painting was that of art as protest. As he put it to The Daily Maverick: “[I painted the penis] as a symbol that I am talking to a circumcised man, not a boy. If he were still a boy, he would still need to grow and understand leadership, but he is a man, not a boy. I am trying to address the current situation in South Africa, including what happened at Lonmin, and question our leader: how can he allow such things to happen in a democracy?”
It’s a perspective shared by the two artists whose works have sparked intense debate. In an affidavit to police, Murray said his painting was a piece of “resistance art”, highlighting what has become the “power, greed and patriarchy” of Zuma and his leading party in what’s now a (supposedly) free and fair South Africa. Pity, then (or perhaps “pathetic” would be more appropriate) that the chip-on-the-shoulder brigade choose to focus on Mabulu and Murray’s skin colour, rather than realise that if anything, theirs is a unifying agenda representing the pervading question throughout every sector of our society: Eighteen years after democracy, have we simply replaced one dictatorship with another, under the guise of “equality”?