Controversy boosts Zuma artwork
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Johannesburg - It is likely that Ayanda Mabulu’s controversial painting Yakhal'inkomo might have been the most talked about artwork at the FNB Joburg Art Fair (JAF) even if it had not spent the first two days of the fair leaning face down against a wall in a back room at the Sandton Convention Centre.
Ironically, this is what partly motivated Ross Douglas, the director of ArtLogic, the firm behind the fair, to request Mabulu’s gallerists, Greg Dale and Leigh-Anne Niehaus of the Cape Town-based Commune1, to remove the artwork from display.
“We didn’t want it to get all the attention and to be the focus of the fair and derail press attention.
“Controversy is a big seller in this country,” observed Douglas at the press conference at the fair yesterday when he made a joint announcement with David Goldblatt and Dale that Mabulu’s artwork could be permitted to go on display.
Of course, Douglas’s decree to ban the work had the reverse impact than he had intended. The press were quick to report on its censorship and Goldblatt came forward in protest, removing his exhibition, The Frock and other Pictures, from display at the fair.
Nevertheless, Mabulu’s painting would have more than likely been fodder for the chattering classes and the media even if it had gone on display from the beginning of the event. The scale of the painting goes a long way to establishing the impact of its content; for the figures of President Jacob Zuma, who is pictured crushing the head of a striking miner under his foot, and Julius Malema, in his red beret, who appears almost saintly in a white robe, appear life size, thus establishing the tableaux as true to life.
Nevertheless, Commune1 gallery owners, Dale and Niehaus, were surprised when Douglas requested that the expansive painting be removed from their stand on Thursday morning. Superficially, Yakhal'inkomo, is much less salacious than some of his previous works, such as Ngcono ihlwempu kunesibhanxa sesityebi (Better poor than a rich puppet), which depicted half-naked figures of Zuma and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu with their penises on display.
While Mabulu was working on the new painting, his gallerists encouraged him to fully clothe Zuma, according to Dale. This was tantamount to censorship, claimed Douglas in defence of his own actions. Dale and Niehaus nevertheless believed that potentially subversive elements in the work had been avoided.
“As far as we were concerned the work had been toned down and was very tame,” said Dale.
Dale concedes that the painting makes a strong political statement about Marikana but believes it is open to several readings and that Douglas had “misread” the painting.
“In making the work Ayanda spoke about tracing or tracking a soldier’s bullet, discovering the layers of blame that it cuts through. In this image “the bullet” doesn’t end with the government, but with the observers too, the public and even the media that are depicted in the forefront. The work was censored before it was even properly read.”
Commune1 were keen to show Mabulu’s new work in Joburg, as the Cape Town-based artist's work hasn’t been seen on a large platform by a Joburg audience. Some of his other works, such as the Eve triptych, a mixed media work depicting a woman in traditional garb holding a gun, were permitted to be shown at the stand, even though in one of those works boasts the phrase “revolution will not be televised” , ironically pointing at the kind of government censorship that has indirectly impacted on the row at the art fair.
Niehaus and Dale disagreed with Douglas’s position but they acquiesced with his request to remove Yakhal’inkomo from their stand.
“Initially, Douglas said that we should take it down for the opening night, when certain guests would be here and then we could discuss putting it up again. In our next discussion he said we shouldn't show it at the fair at all,” said Dale.
“I'm not sure the art fair is the right place for a work like that,” said Douglas, describing the decision to remove the work as a “combined decision” between himself and Commune1.
“I did not want to compromise our relationship with the government. I have to balance all the interests of the various parties at the art fair,” he added, alluding to the DTI, who occupy the largest stand at JAF, where they display craft objects that seem out of place at the event, given its art slant.
Other art fairs around the world are also subject to censorship and “we have enjoyed an amazing sense of freedom of speech so far,” said Douglas this week, before he rescinded his decision to ban Mabulu’s work. The Goodman Gallery, who represent Goldblatt and supported his protest action, disagreed with Douglas’s view stating that “Many international fairs – also commercially driven – (yet they) go out of their way to show works which have previously been censored.
“A significant example is the exhibition Sensor Ship at Art Basel Hong Kong this year, which presented previously censored works or their documentation together with artist interviews detailing personal opinions on why the works had been censored.”
In the JAF’s six year history only one work has been censored by the organisers. It was a Barend de Wet performance at a Blank Projects's stand, which involved the artist knitting naked.
“When someone pointed out to us that it was next door to a children’s painting space we had to ask Barend to leave. If we had known in advance what he had planned on doing, we could have built a low wall around him,” said Douglas.
Goldblatt wasn’t the only artist to take a stand against the censorship of Mabulu’s work. Nelisiwe Xaba and Mocke J Van Vuuren, the winners of this year’s FNB Joburg Art Fair Award, also threatened to remove their filmic installation from the fair.
Ironically, it seems that the censorship of Mabulu’s controversial painting has cemented its place in the history books and will be seen by an even wider audience than those who frequent the fair. Yet Mabulu maintains that “censorship can't ever be helpful. The truth about the country must be seen,” he said. – The Sunday Independent