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African art: Divergent views

Kalim Rajab is a director of the New National Assurance Company, SA's largest empowered insurance company. He previously worked in the diamond industry, and was educated at UCT and Oxford. He writes in his personal capacity about SA, current events, film appreciation and culture. Catch him on twitter at @kalimrajab

On the furthest tips of the African continent, artistic expression has found utterance this month, but with vastly different outcomes. In South Africa, the only issue our society currently seems to be grappling with is the incendiary work by Brett Murray. Then there’s the work of the renowned Egyptian artist Mohamed Abla, which has been causing waves in the Middle East, Dubai and now London with his latest exhibition, My Family. 

Abla’s oeuvre is coded imagery. His latest acrylic and oil scenes are colonial-era family and social portraits in which the subjects stiffly sit facing the camera, their uniforms and dress as much a subject as their faces. One almost expects a sepia tint to them, and at first glance they seem to evoke the innocence and wistfulness of the 1940s Empire, just before the first revolution.

Indeed, he paints and is inspired by many old family photos collected and handed down through his extended family. Yet at the same time his work has also become a symbol of the latest Egyptian revolution, and respected by his people.

“It is a work placed in the past,” he tells the art critic Peter Aspden. “It recalls the hope of that time – our first parliament, the beginnings of democratic life.”

Yet on the fringes of the painting are often the ubiquitous, looming military and secret police, passing a cold hand over society.

“If anyone stopped to think why I was producing those images, it was clear that it reflected a dissatisfaction with the reality before Mubarak’s downfall.”

As an additional layer, he has also added a further political aspect – several paintings communicate the pressing social and political issues of 2012, with depictions of Salafis, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian army.

Abla and Murray’s work are reminders of the power of artistry in reflecting but also shaping societal perspectives. For decades, both Abla and Murray’s art have consistently commented on their respective Egyptian and South African realities, from the social to the political changes of both countries.

Art in these regions is both a clarion call as well as a harbinger. And in this, both artists are seen as rebels. Why then, are the reactions these artists have elicited now so divergent, and why has only Murray’s work profoundly polarised his society? After all, Egyptian society has arguably had as repressed a history as ours for quite a long time.

Perhaps it is because Murray’s work has been so much more provocative. It’s pretty hard to ignore his pigs at the trough, or his shocking perversion of Solomon Mahlangu’s last words before he was hanged, or his “ANC Sold” stamp – or indeed, The Spear.

Personally, I think it’s because Murray hasn’t appreciated context as well. South African public reaction and civil society are pretty much united in their angst over the trajectory in which our society is headed, and the seemingly wanton way in which our political leaders have discarded their moral compass. Many parts of Murray’s exhibition feed into this profound sense of societal torment. But in other parts, he strays into a callous insensitivity towards our past, which is fatal.

In the Times this week, S’Thembiso Msomi wrote quite brilliantly about the trauma which black people go through, given our history of racial humiliation and oppression, when viewing pictures depicting a black person with exposed genitals. I think this article should become standard reading for all South Africans, black and white, for it articulates what many blacks have been burdened with for far too long, and what far too many whites haven’t appreciated for equally as long.

Too easily have we repressed the intense pain the majority of our people suffered, the loss of  dignity, the emasculation of a sense of worth. Such bouts of insensitivity unfortunately only serve to reopen these still-fresh wounds.

In all the furore about The Spear, I found other pieces, bronze statues called One Party State and The Party vs The People, actually more worthy of scorn and opprobrium. In the former, a hulking gorilla-like beast flatly squats sinisterly, engulfing everything in its torpid, teeming mass. In the latter, the gorilla is teamed up with a smaller mate whom it proceeds to grotesquely shag. In and of themselves, the statues have a lot to say about the rise of authoritarianism in the country, and are highly important artistic creations.

But they are not in and of themselves, burdened as they are by the weight of history. Emerging from a society in which a naked Saartjie Baartman was paraded throughout Europe as an ape offspring, and in which naked black miners were routinely treated like animals during medical examinations, such depictions are highly insensitive and it is not surprising that they polarise society.

In May, as two different African exhibitions get underway in different parts of the world, the reach of their respective canvases couldn’t be more divergent. For while Mohamed Abla is an Egyptian artist in all respects, Brett Murray’s latest exhibition isn’t that of a South African artist – not in the fullest sense of the word.

Ultimately, Abla doesn’t seem to be at war with his own people. Unfortunately, for Murray, the same cannot be said. And so, as much as he should be allowed to air his work and not have his pieces denied public viewing, so too should we be critical of his lack of empathy for our past. For in life as in art, context is everything. DM


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