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The Gqeberha artist, Martin Luther King and Spike Lee — and the ‘New Yorker’ cover that links them

The Gqeberha artist, Martin Luther King and Spike Lee — and the ‘New Yorker’ cover that links them
Gqeberha artist Pola Maneli. (Photo: Supplied)

Pola Maneli explains what made his cover art for ‘The New Yorker’ so special and memorable.

When he designed a front page for The New Yorker magazine in 2023, Gqeberha artist Pola Maneli (33) never thought that it would lead to renowned American film director Spike Lee buying the original artwork and adding it to an exhibit celebrating his life in the Brooklyn Museum in New York City.

Maneli had come a long way since he first started drawing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles at nursery school while growing up in Zwide.

“I think drawing the ninja turtles was my earliest exact memory of drawing, but it has always been a part of my life,” he said.

A high school teacher encouraged Maneli to study graphic design, which led to an undergraduate degree in applied design and employment at Boomtown advertising agency in Gqeberha and later at Ogilvy in Cape Town. But eventually he decided to leave advertising and pursue fine art full-time.

“I have a huge appreciation for the advertising industry and all I learnt, but in the end I don’t think I had the personality for it,” Maneli said. “I did not want my art to be associated with work for the alcohol industry. I lived in Zwide and I know what having a tavern around every corner does to a community. I didn’t want to be part of that.”

In 2020, he was commissioned by an art editor at The New Yorker to do a drawing as a response to the murder of George Floyd by the police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He had started posting his work on Instagram, where it caught the eye of the magazine’s art editor, among others.

It also landed him a Google Doodle in 2022 to celebrate the birth of Charlotte Maxeke, a social and political activist and icon of the struggle for South African women’s rights.

“The timing of it [the George Floyd drawing] was great. I had just submitted my final dissertation and had my first exhibition. I had done my master’s degree [in fine art] and completed it. I was also thinking of going into editorial illustrations, but sadly there is not a huge market for these in South Africa. So I thought, let me go into fine art,” Maneli said.

My commission was to do a portrait of Martin Luther King, the person, not the activist.

The New Yorker is constantly inundated with submissions. I was one of those people as well. I pitched them a few ideas. There were people in the art department who had a working relationship with me.”

When he landed the commission for the front page of the magazine’s 16 January 2023 edition, it was “enormous”, Maneli said.

“I think my approach to it was a lot different than when I did the piece on George Floyd. I just wanted to put everything I had – probably too much – into that piece. It was a tiny drawing. I didn’t allow it to breathe, just to be. So for this one I thought, let me just approach it calmly and then freak out after I have submitted it.

“My thoughts around it were linked to my master’s degree – how we often depict black activists in a way that might be recognisable to a majority white audience, especially when it comes to these huge, larger-than-life characters like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.

“They are seen through a very reductive lens – they are either saviours, peace advocates – almost to a cartoonish extent. It robs them of some nuance.

“My commission was to do a portrait of Martin Luther King, the person, not the activist. So I thought to show him as a father. There was something very political about it. The majority of us will never have that kind of effect on society around us, but the work that we can actually do is in our immediate relationships. That was my thinking.”

Pola Maneli

Pola Maneli’s ‘New Yorker’ cover drawing of Martin Luther King and family.

Art of analysis

Maneli believes art has a responsibility to comment on what is happening in the world at any given moment. His dissertation for his master’s degree analysed how what it means to be black is expressed by South African visual artists.

The topic was spurred by seeing “a lot of really interesting and exciting work by young black visual artists talking about what it means to be black. I couldn’t shake the feeling that a lot of the work was being made in response to whiteness, and I found out that this is a phenomenon within the visual art space,” he explained.

“There are financial factors and incentives for black visual artists to make work in that way because the people with money to buy it predominantly have been white. My thesis posed the question of whether or not it was possible for a black artist to somehow disentangle themselves from that. It’s a structural thing, so my answer is no – there is a limit to what an individual can do in their capacity against structural white supremacy and racism.

“However, the important thing is that the effort is there – that you’re mindful, trying to break away a little bit.”

And when he thought his work on King was finished, he got another phone call.

“Someone from The New Yorker phoned to say the film director Spike Lee had called the magazine and he wanted to purchase my artwork of Martin Luther King,” Maneli said.

We spoke about his friendship with the King family. Then he sent me an email and said he wanted to buy the piece – ‘just let me know how much’.

“I have a hard time processing things like that. I just wanted to make art that I like and I am proud of – the other things are just a bonus. I wanted my art to affect people the way that Spike Lee’s work affects people.”

Although he had agreed to sell the artwork to Lee, he was surprised to get a phone call from the man himself soon afterwards.

“It was 2am on his side and he was still sounding fresh. He is not the youngest filmmaker, you know. We spoke for a while about what we are working on. Then he said he had a question about my art. He asked why I didn’t include the mother.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Fridge wrapping becomes a giraffe… and other visions — artist Lwazi Hlophe on his ‘automatic’ inspiration

“I thought that is a fair question, but I said, for me this was also a picture of fatherhood. There wasn’t enough art of fathers being gentle around their children. He said he understood.

“We spoke about his friendship with the King family. Then he sent me an email and said he wanted to buy the piece – ‘just let me know how much’. I sent a reply.

“For me this was a lovely memory. But then I had a call earlier this year from a friend who said Spike Lee had added my picture to an exhibition on his life in the Brooklyn Museum. That was genuinely surprising.” DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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