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Exhibition: Taking the Mickey – the famous mouse is g...

South Africa

Exhibition

Taking the Mickey – the famous mouse is given an African look

Cassius Khumalo puts the final touches on his Mickey he represented as a tree to symbolise nature and his concerns around climate change.

As part of his global 90th birthday celebrations, Disney Africa brought 10 “naked” six-foot carbon fibre Mickeys to Art Eye Gallery in New Doornfontein, Johannesburg, to be re-imagined as artworks with a South African flavour. The collaboration with Art Eye, saw 10 South African artists interpret the Mickeys with their personal stamp, but also to stick to parameters: keeping to the Disney brand ideals of wholesome, family-oriented fun and the birthday theme of Mickey – the True Original.

He’s essentially three circles with a snout and a squeaky voice – Mickey Mouse at 90 has endured as icon of fun, happiness and fantasy. He’s also a symbol of creative genius, enterprise, Americanisation, corporate muscle and sugar-coating.

The rodent that started life as Steamboat Willie, put creator Walt Disney on the map and helped turn Disney into a global brand that last year was worth $55.1-billion. It makes Mickey, who celebrates his birthday on 18 November, a loaded mouse in dollar value and in statement.

As part of his global 90th birthday celebrations, Disney Africa brought 10 “naked” six-foot carbon fibre Mickeys to Art Eye Gallery in New Doornfontein, Johannesburg, to be re-imagined as artworks with a South African flavour. The collaboration with Art Eye, saw 10 South African artists interpret the Mickeys with their personal stamp, but also to stick to parameters: keeping to the Disney brand ideals of wholesome, family-oriented fun and the birthday theme of Mickey – the True Original.

Ten six-foot carbon fibre Mickey Mouse characters arrived in Johannesburg to be reimagined as Mickeys with a South African flavour this spring.

Artists Trevor Coleman and Colbert Mashile and eight others gathered at the gallery in September for a week-long creation session. Their finished artworks were revealed last week. By shape and size they are identical Mickeys. The beaming smile, the eyes and of course the ears and the gloved hands are instantly recognisable. The colours are vibrant and the motifs are celebratory South Africa. There are shweshwe patterns and rhinos, leopard, soccer and pantsula motifs. The artists delivered on the brief and now their Mickeys are destined for a road show to malls across the country.

Their part is done, but the deep reach of Disney as American pop culture emblem means Mickey can’t help but continue to spark other conversations, also commentaries and even censure. They are questions about cultural assimilation and stereotypes, also about art as livelihood and when art is statement and when it sells out.

German industrial metal band Rammstein threw Mickey Mouse into the lyrics of their 2004 track Amerika as satirical commentary on cultural imperialism. The makers of The Simpsons spoofed the first incarnation of Mickey in Steamboat Willie with their character Steamboat Itchy. This mouse machine guns the knees of Scratchy, the cat that is his arch enemy, before shoving him into a furnace. Street artist Banksy in 2015 created his pop-up art exhibition Dismaland, as a “bemusement park”. It wasn’t taking a swipe directly at Disney, Banksy’s press release insisted at time, but his collaboration with around 50 other artists for his dystopian theme park was satirical upending of fairy tales to make a point about wealth inequalities, rampant consumerism, the shallowness, apathy and distraction that is human affliction.

The likes of Diego Rivera, Saul Steinberg, Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst and even fashion designer Vivienne Westwood have all leaned on Mickey for their work. It’s recognition of Disney’s artistic and creative genius, as well as the deep influence embodied in this rodent in shorts. As Garry Apgar, a former editorial cartoonist and author of Mickey Mouse: Emblem of the American Spirit said in a Wired article in March 2016, “(I have always) been alert to the ways Disney and his signature creation have affected or intersected with our lives”.

Louis van den Heever, one of the 10 South Africans artists involved in the collaboration, says he created his Mickey with “shallow” motifs of South Africa – Ndebele-patterned shorts, giraffe skin and two glorious sunflowers to decorate their ears. He says it was about a fun, soft-landing to make his Mickey undeniably South African. He added a necklace for his Mickey of a cut-out of Africa. There’s an arrow with an inscription “You are here” on it. It’s a place-marker, but also a subtle play on how continent outsiders often need help to locate South Africa.

Three of the 10 artists who were involved in the Disney Africa and Art Eye Gallery collaboration, from left are Louis van den Heever, Phumzile Buthelezi and Cassius Khumalo.

I did not want my Mickey to end up in a warehouse somewhere because he was considered too controversial. For me this collaboration was about fun, about entertaining our intended audience who will be families and kids at malls.

The opportunity to work on this Mickey is great for me as an emerging artist – it puts me in good company of the likes of Damian Hirst and Andy Warhol. Mickey Mouse is also artistically a brave design that has evolved and survived for 90 years now,” says Van den Heever.

Like Van Den Heever, artist Cassius Khumalo says the collaboration was an “ideal bridge” to expose emerging South African artists to a global market. Khumalo makes no excuse about the need for artists to make a living and need for exposure, branding and marketing. His Mickey represents Mickey as a tree, with tribal face paint and flowers and foliage.

Khumalo says: “My Mickey in the vibrant colours that they wanted but I wanted him to be about thinking about nature, climate change and our African roots.

We were given rules in the brief, which isn’t always easy for artists, but we were inspired by each other – we were laughing, joking and we learnt from each other as we created our Mickeys. Being able to create a ‘one of one’ Mickey, is also great for collectors,” says Khumalo.

Phumzile Buthelezi intended for her Mickey to represent her Nguni culture.

For Phumzile Buthelezi, she says she didn’t want to miss out on taking part despite the “boxes” they were asked to work within. She says she did have some conflicting thoughts about how to balance a representation of her culture with something cartoonish. She gave her Mickey a leopard skin and dressed him in traditional Nguni umbhlaselo. 
“I did ask what I was saying about my culture putting it on a Mickey that maybe is not serious. Then I thought about how a toy like a Barbie Doll has revolutionised to include a black Barbie. That’s when I knew I did want to represent my culture on my Mickey,” she says.

The finished Mickeys are part of the global celebrations for Disney’s 90-year-old icon.

Ultimately the three say the collaboration – that saw all 10 artists work side by side – was about fun, about inspiring and entertaining each other and connecting over an icon that they’ve known all their lives – kind of exactly how Disney designs a Mickey Mouse experience to be. DM

The Mickey – The True Original exhibition is on show at Sandton City till 14 October before moving to Gateway Mall between 19 October and 11 November and at Canal Walk between 18 November and 26 November

Gallery

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