The Puppeteer, by Richard Mudariki. Picture: Supplied
When viewing Richard Mudariki’s work, it is hard to imagine the conditions under which he once made art or tried to in his native Zimbabwe.

Sitting in his Woodstock studio, he lists a lack of resources: oil paints, canvases, access to education and the absence of a studio - he painted outside. Adding to the limitations, there were few places to exhibit.

Yet he has arrived. A retrospective of his art, drawn from private and corporate collections, opened at Sanlam Art Lounge in Joburg last month.

Titled Mutara Wenguva (Timeline), the exhibition showcases his art over 18 years. The earliest work dates from 1999, when Mudariki was 14 years old and attending Saturday workshops at Gallery Delta, one of only two commercial galleries in Zimbabwe.

“A canvas is an opportunity to do something great,” said Mudariki at his studio in Greatmore Street Studios. Greatmore supports and nurtures upcoming artists, providing more than just mentorship, accommodation and studio space. It’s a transition space for emerging artists, helping them to hone their skills during the vulnerable stages of their career.

Mudariki’s studio is modest, befitting the artist. Mismatched, tattered floral furniture, paint-soaked cloth rags, a mirror and a clunky old heater are overshadowed by the artworks on the walls. Here Mudariki becomes the magician, conjuring up paintings that reflect the state of contemporary society in South Africa.

The scale of his art has grown. Late last year, he landed a prestigious residency at The Fountainhead in Miami, where he was exposed to larger-than-life works and encouraged to create art on a scale he was not used to, coming from Chitungwiza, a village outside Harare.

A piece, aptly titled The Puppeteer, covers the wall and depicts President Jacob Zuma as the titular character, appearing centre stage and donning the traditional circus apparel. A naked audience looks on in awe while the protagonist weaves his fingers to manipulate his string puppets. Broken puppets lay strewn in the foreground, their purpose fulfilled and their presence no longer needed at the circus.

Shakespeare said all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. Mudariki plays on the notion by reinventing traditional circus characters and using them to comment on injustices.

To call his work controversial would be an understatement. Yet the artist is soft-spoken and unassuming, far removed from the dark subject matter his work parodies.

Mudariki’s work is issue-driven, highlighting the violations of human rights, stereotypes, inequality, corporate greed and misogyny. He is constantly appropriating the defining aspects of classical works by the likes of Goya and Manet, without imitating or replicating them. The interpretations are beautifully crafted paintings and, despite their references to grim narratives, each provides the viewer with the opportunity to revel in his ability to recreate such dark subject matter in a way that is beautifully engaging.

Mudariki’s first solo exhibition, My Reality, at the Johans Borman Fine Art Gallery in Cape Town in 2012, was a reflection of the economic and social crises that uprooted Zimbabwe. Despite the title, his work makes no effort to portray actual events; they are fabrications projected into new frames of reference, where their meanings are ultimately transformed. Robert Mugabe’s reign and impropriety is highlighted, while also shedding light on injustices.

“The political situation affected everyone. As an artist, you always respond to your environment and communicate that through your work.”

Since moving to Cape Town in 2011 the subject-matter in his art shifted from narratives of greed and inequality that haunt his native land to issues that were Cape Town-specific. The passion gap among the Cape Coloured community, the innovation in townships and Helen Zille have all featured. His shrewd portrayals of issues are gritty, forcing the viewers to accept that the revamped snippets in history have become our lived reality.

“I want to be part of the narrative of art history,” said Mudariki. “I want to contribute to the history of Zimbabwe and the continent.”

Art historian Lloyd Pollack has described Mudariki’s work as “Brueghelesque pageants of infamy and transgression”. Given that he had no formal art training (he studied archaeology at university), the scenes he create are surprisingly reminiscent of the “Old Classics”.

“My idea was to remix Old Masters and European painting to grab people’s attention and communicate this concept. I wanted to inform people about what was happening in the country, the suffering and torture. In a sense, without knowing that, I was actually doing art history.”

Although Mudariki uses artistic devices and motifs that recall the art of Stanley Pinker (the aloe plants) and Brueghel the Elder (medieval figurines), when viewing the art, that fact becomes irrelevant.

His use of colour and theatre tropes convey the urgency of the subject. In The Trick (2016) the magician’s trick of sawing a person in half is revealed to us. The audience though cannot see they are being deceived; their faces express shock and disbelief.

Mudariki loves drawing his viewers into his work and once we become part of the audiences that he depicts in his art, the work takes on a different meaning. The viewer transitions from onlooker to participant and there is a sense of being let in on the big secret that the characters are unaware of.

Mudariki dares to reveal the cruel tricks of the trade used by government officials, politicians and lawmakers, calling us to action. In this way, the responsibility shifts to the viewer to either watch on in silence as these atrocities are committed, or reveal the dirty tricks that have plagued our society for far too long.

* The exhibition can be viewed at Sanlam Art Lounge, 11 Alice Lane, Sandton, Johannesburg, until September 9.