As the fates would have it, this Friday is the day I chose to have a sit-down conversation with two artists who are currently displaying some of the most politically charged and equally controversial work this year, Vusi Beauchamp and Ayanda Mabulu, in an exhibition titled 'Freedom of eech' at the Kalashnikov Gallery in Braamfontein.
Mabulu has been a staunch anti-Zuma artist in the last couple of years.
When we arrive at Kalashnikov, I am struck by how unassuming the gallery is. I almost thought I was in the wrong place, till I saw what can be described as a self-portrait in the window of a bloody-handed Mabulu standing over a figure representing the ANC - a figure that had clearly suffered a couple of blows and was on the ground cold. I knew then we’d found the right place.
Besides the obvious differences in style and the media that each artist uses to make their work, the two differ vastly in demeanour and approach. Where Beauchamp is calm, calculating and deliberate, Mabulu is energetic, outspoken and passionate about expressing his beliefs.
They share, however, an important thing in common: the will to conscientise and mobilise the masses of previously disadvantaged South Africans towards persisting against inequalities that exist in a democracy that was supposed to be for us all.
Titled 'Freedom of eech', the work is a collaboration of sorts between Beauchamp and Mabulu, where their newest works are paired together to create “a type of dual vision where a single narrative is translated from two separate viewpoints”, the gallery’s notes read.
The work explores the increasing trend where the right enshrined in the constitution and bill of rights, freedom of speech, is both literally and figuratively infringed upon in the country. It’s also a bold move on the part of the artists, who in all fairness have never been known to toe the line when it comes to the themes their works explore.
The two men are not interested in what seems to be the current wave that art in the country follows, but more with awakening people to their daily realities through their art.
Ayanda Mabulu and Vusi Beauchamp. Picture: Nhlanhla Phillips
In Beauchamp’s work, influences from racist caricatures and cartoons such as Tintin in the Congo and Memí* Pinguí* (a cartoon character from Mexico) that have been used to depict black people over the years make an appearance. The combination of this and messages such as ‘Free Blacks’ make for a heady combination that’s bound to have you deep in thought.
Mabulu’s work is equally jarring, with one particular piece destined to raise eyebrows.
It features Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma with her legs splayed wide open and “Vote ANC” pamphlets rolled and partially protruding out of her bleeding vagina. Some staunch supporters of Mabulu’s art have made their displeasure with this artwork clear, because of its seemingly anti-women sentiment.
The works are displayed on opposite walls in the gallery, one side displaying Mabulu’s work and the other Beauchamps. And the conversation happens from there.
The thought behind the art
For Beauchamp, the naming of the exhibition was important because it brings together their vastly different styles into one conversation.
“When it came up, I was shocked at how the works talk to each other. The one voice is loud, while the other is slightly toned down, which creates a circus,” he explained. The idea behind working together, Beauchamp said, came from a meeting of the two artists about three years ago at the FNB Joburg Art Fair, where people frequently mistook him for Mabulu. And there, the birth of this exhibition took place.
He explains that at the heart of this exhibition is the desire to raise alarm at the glossed-up country we’re in. “The context of South Africa, especially now, things are glossed-up but underneath things are burning. People aren’t happy. And we all know why,” he said.
“The utopian view of how we should be, the exotic imaging of black people at the moment - in the arts scene that’s the in thing. All you need to do is pose there ka lepona (naked) next to flowers. These galleries are pushing these types of work. That’s why this exhibition is important: it’s about time that we cut this thing of glossing over truth,” he said.
For Mabulu, making these political statements in his art is part of his activism. He considers himself not an artist, but an institution, whose primary aim is to conscientise the masses. Explaining the artwork he said:
“We have here a pimp (Jacob Zuma), a prostitute (Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma) and a whorehouse. The whorehouse is Luthuli House. It’s b#lls*it. We can’t beat about the bush. It takes a certain eye to see a whorehouse, a pimp and a prostitute because they put up certain facades that make them seem like us.
“We had that wolf (Zuma) and now he’s bringing in his alpha female from the pack to do his dirty work. Bear in mind these f*#kers understand the power of feminism and femininity. They are capitalising on this.They understand that right now what we need because patriarchy has done the biggest b*%llsh8t ever in the politics of the land, we need a female leader, but not her. Not a prostitute like that.”
One of Ayanda Mabulu's installations. Picture: Nhlanhla Phillips
“With all her accolades, there’s one thing that makes her who she is, she is the ex-wife of this bastard (Zuma). We have on this ballot box someone who is using her femininity as a flag.”
While Mabulu’s work maybe uncomfortable to deal with, having voices so bold and unapologetic through the exhibition may just be what the country requires at the moment to have an honest conversation.
* 'Freedom of eech' is on at the Kalashnikovv Gallery until October 22.