Life, etc

Representing Mandela

By Michael Smith 14 February 2014

The image of Nelson Mandela is arguably one of the most reproduced, painted, muralled and t-shirted in the world. As numerous commentators have said recently in the wake of his illness and death, in an increasingly secular local society, Mandela has undergone a kind of apotheosis, passing into contemporary sainthood, with all that that station implies. Yet, despite Mandela’s history as a challenger of hegemonies, and despite South Africa’s own rich history of resistance and protest art, the art world has participated in a process of dismantling critical debate around his history, career and legacy. Despite their talk, it would seem the local art scene and the people in it have a very different walk. By MICHAEL SMITH.

Reverence and idolatry are two sides of the same coin, and idolatry is the very definition of a disengaged cerebral cortex. The irony of the great Judeo-Christian antecedent of idol worship, the Golden Calf from Exodus, is that the worship of one idol angered another idol, the latter proclaiming himself ‘a jealous God’ (Exodus 34:14) when his subjects made a golden calf while Moses was up Mount Sinai receiving stone tablets. Berated and shamed, the tribes of Israelites scurried back from Baal to Yahweh, and the idol was ground down to dust and fed to them with water, just before they were slaughtered en masse.

As a species, it seems, or at least as a collective consciousness, we are capable of having only one idol at a time. Whether it’s Martin Luther King Jnr, David Koresh, Kurt Cobain or Tupac Shakur, we seem to have space for only one poster on our wall, one name etched into our pencil case.

This is never more true than when considering the dichotomous representations of Mandela and his apparent polar opposite, current president Jacob Zuma, in local art and popular culture. Mandela, or rather a declawed, munificent and avuncular version of the freedom fighter, politician and statesman that he was, has (pre)occupied the South African popular imagination for as long as many can remember. This attention gathered a critical mass when he emerged from prison late in the twentieth century: the details of this require no embellishment, such is their ubiquity in the global media. But repetition and ubiquity are not the same as fact; nor is frequent reproduction the same as scrutiny or critical assessment.

Zuma, on the other hand, has fared rather worse: artistic representations denigrating his person, his abilities and his rather clumsy public profile have, over the last few years, bloomed like mosquito bites on an expat’s rump. Not without merit or just cause, the images of artists like Brett Murray, Ayanda Mabulu and Zapiro (the pen-name of stalwart satirical cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro) have done their part to systematically undermine the authority of a widely-panned leader.

By contrast, Mandela’s position as something of a latter-day saint has mostly been bolstered by local artists. Grinning, smiling, pensive, even moody, the images chosen for re-presentation in local art have seldom done much more than fulfil a voracious desire for devotional talismans.

Yet, as far back as Sue Williamson’s work for the 1997 show ‘Thirty Minutes’, held in the prison on Robben Island, our better artists have offered an alternative strategy to simply mining the famous image for easy money and reflected glory. Williamson’s installation in one of the visiting booths had a screen which played not the image of Mandela or any of the other famous incarcerated inhabitants of the island: instead, the viewer’s own image was looped back to them, at once spreading ownership of and responsibility for the notion of illegitimate imprisonment.

But such nuanced fare was to be short-lived. For the popular imagination, Shapiro has instead made much of Mandela’s likeness, casting him in many cartoons alternately as a gentle giant dispensing ‘Madiba Magic’, or as a saddened witness to the post-2000 follies of the African National Congress. Largely without critique of the leader’s process and policies, or the reality of his administration (Mandela received a free pass when he pretty much handed over the reins of running the country to his deputy, Thabo Mbeki, from 1996; some remember Mbeki as the executive face of the government from 1994, the very beginning of Mandela’s years in office. Mandela’s position became, for all intents and purposes, that of a goodwill ambassador, attending to ceremony and marketing of the ‘rainbow nation’ ideal while the real locus of power lay elsewhere), Shapiro’s cartoons became a cornerstone of a white, liberal conceptualisation of Mandela that claimed him, rather embarrassingly, as a totem for the post-Apartheid turnaround. One could almost hear the whole thing soundtracked by Vicky Sampson’s My African Dream.

Instead of rendering a deeper understanding of the contradictions inherent in this man (UKZN Centre for Civil Society director Patrick Bond has written at length about how Mandela’s post-incarceration economic policy of Growth, Employment and Redistribution [GEAR] departed so significantly from the Marxist Communism espoused by ‘50s and ‘60s ANC comrades as to be completely unrecognisable), SA art seems to have become content with simply rehearsing and valorising the heroic moment of capture, and the trials of a lengthy prison sentence.

In this vein, Marco Cianfanelli’s public sculpture Release, installed outside Howick, KZN (the site of Mandela’s eventual capture after being on the run for 17 months), is possibly the most interesting monument to a public figure to grace our shores. Not to diminish Cianfanelli’s achievement, but he hardly had stiff competition from the likes of the Madiba bronze in Sandton Square, which seems intended to reassure happy shoppers in the ‘richest square mile in Africa’ that this erstwhile Communist fully endorses their credit card swipes; or from Coert Steynberg, whose depiction of JG Strijdom in Strijdom Square in the then-Pretoria art historian Brenda Schmahmann writes about in Picturing Change: Curating visual culture at post-apartheid universities. As Schmahmann notes, the whole arrangement toppled over into a carpark below in 2001. One could be forgiven for thinking the statue imploded under its own ridiculous, stern gravitas.

Cianfanelli’s work comprises 50 steel columns with small lateral protrusions which, when viewed from a certain angle, accumulate into the photographic likeness of Mandela in profile. The work resonates visually with prison bars, but also suggests the conceptual fragmentation of the image and story of Mandela for the 27 years of his imprisonment: he existed in snippets of narrative, in illegally-published and -circulated photographs in the underground, essentially in the valences of legend.

It is neither with Williamson, then, nor Cianfanelli, that we should take issue. The former’s work functioned at a higher level than most artists could muster, before or since; the latter at least gave us a monument of which we can be justifiably proud. (In 2013, ClassicFeel magazine wrote of it, ‘Here, the steel rods suggest incarceration; conversely, as one moves around the sculpture, the distance between the columns appears to grow, and the image breaks apart, giving a sense of space and freedom: a release. The 50 columns, while marking the 50th anniversary of Mandela’s capture, also signify solidarity, the coming together of many to form one’). Instead, it is with the proliferation of tepid paintings and drawings of Nelson Mandela that have crept into the critical gallery circuit; most bespeak a kind of craven opportunism, their authors knowing they are guaranteed face-time with an audience otherwise unwilling to engage with anything beyond the visage-as-brand.

Artists like Paul Blomkamp and Paul Emsley have both made works that simply re-present photo-generated portraits in paint and chalk respectively. Emsley’s at least looks like it is taken from his own photo, and has an oddly compelling translucency, but it ultimately remains tame and unchallenging in its statement, stopping short of any real reflection of its elderly sitter’s psychology. Blomkamp’s, on the other hand, is entirely without merit, about as predictable an image as you could dream up if you’d spent the day shopping at Mr Price while listening to 94.7 and sipping a Mugg & Bean latté: challenge-free, obsequiously aggrandising and completely happy to reflect this victim of systematic racism as a smiling, chipper grandfather of the nation – an Uncle Tom of an artwork, if ever there was one.

But as much as these works sidestep the reality of Mandela’s life and incarceration, there also seems to be a collective unwillingness to consider the failures of his years at the helm. This despite the numerous instances where Mandela’s leadership fell short, or completely failed the nation. The closure of 100 of the 150 teacher training colleges in SA from 1994 to 1998 left the country with a teacher deficit of some 8,000 teachers per year. The very current debate over the credibility of the matric results, and the massive dropout rate of pupils who never reach matric (a University of Johannesburg education specialist, Professor Shireen Motala, last year estimated that fewer than 50% of learners who started school in 2000 completed matric in 2012) suggest that the fallout from this catastrophic decision is far-reaching. Other factors come into play here, such as poverty, histories of deprivation, infrastructural and logistical failures; but the loss of a steady stream of well-trained educators must surely rank as one of the biggest contributors to the crisis in education.

Also, while the transaction of the infamous arms deal was finalised in 1998, towards the end of Mandela’s years in power, it must be remembered that he was, officially at least, still running the country until 1999. The manoeuvering around the deal (the about-turn in 1997 from rejecting British Aerospace’s proposals of the Hawk fighter jet and the JAS-Gripen in March to Mbeki announcing in October that the tender process was to be reopened, which ultimately enabled the purchase of Gripens in 1999) would not, or should not, have gone unnoticed by the bearer of the highest office in the land. It is interesting that Mandela’s legacy emerged from what could reasonably be called a patchy term of office smelling like roses, and that fine art participates completely in the fabrication of a new mythology, one to replace the precious, discredited narratives.

But back to the art: the most strident censure must surely be reserved for SA-born, New York-based artist-slash-socialite Connor McCreedy, whose god-awful neo-Expressionist daubing of Mandela reportedly netted R100,000 on the primary market but was stolen from storage before it could be delivered. Newspapers were quick to report it as a ‘priceless’ work, an elision of the truth stemming from the fact that Interpol seems to declare pricey stolen art ‘priceless’ until it is returned to its owner. Priceless indeed; how to put a price on a badly-cropped blue grisaille with childishly-rendered, rounded shoulders and a sense of line that, if one were given to politeness, would best be described as ‘uncertain’? A cock-eyed Mandela gazes into the distance, his back to a setting sun rendered in dilute cerise; the whole is completed by a single flick of dilute phthalo blue, which lands uncomfortably across the statesman’s face, an unresolved attempt at inserting content into what is otherwise a nastily reductive piece of painting.

A footnote here should be devoted to Beezy Bailey, in whose work the critical eye can seldom find much of value. His 2010 body of work, which made use of images sourced from the ‘Bailey and Benny Gool archive’ (according to the artist’s website), was made for an exhibition at the Nelson Mandela Museum in Mthatha, and later travelled to the Everard Read Gallery in Johannesburg. Bailey’s print/paint combos did nothing to upset the notion of Mandela as a grinning saint, so popular amongst white South Africans: here he hugs Bizos at his homecoming; there he warmly embraces a white child for a photo-op; further on, he sternly instructs a black child. All works are rendered in a method of repetitious silkscreen that should, by rights, have the Andy Warhol Foundation sitting up and taking litigious notice. The amnesia of it all, the erasure of both Mandela’s pain and his shortcomings as a leader, is insulting. With McCreedy’s image, Bailey’s works must surely mark a new low in white liberal art: mawkish, saccharine and heartless. Conflated with Warhol’s copy-as-commodity ethos, they do, however, create a frighteningly accurate depiction of the resultant commodification of the Mandela image and legacy, however inadvertently so.

Contemporary art in SA, it seems, is no place for pointing out the muddy feet of deities, or their human complications: not even-handedly, at least. It is the place to prop up the consensus, to give form to the most nebulous and unscrutinised of jingoisms and, at all costs, to maintain the neo-liberal status quo. DM

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