SA painter’s brush with VerSaatchi

At 28, South African Carla Busuttil is one of the youngest artists showing in the Saatchi Gallery’s current exhibition, Newspeak: British Art Now — Part 2.

This exhibition, arranged in two parts and featuring the work of 60 artists, ‘is a museum-scale survey of contemporary current art in this country”, says Rebecca Wilson of the Saatchi Gallery.

Much of the work is outstanding and thought-provoking, like Alexander Hoda’s giant vulcanised sculptures, with heads, bones and fingers protruding in an alien-like manner from a latex cocoon, and Tessa Farmer’s Swarm, which consists of desiccated bees and other flying insects with minute skeletal figures riding on their backs, suspended in a glass display case.

The reason that a Berlin-based Wits graduate is categorised as British is that the show encompasses artists who have worked and trained in the United Kingdom. Busuttil was exhibiting at the Royal Academy show in 2008 when Charles Saatchi bought all 13 of her paintings.

Saatchi has a reputation for discovering young talent, having championed the work of the YBAs (young British artists) from the start, and his backing is an excellent endorsement for an emerging artist. The question is whether Saatchi decides what will be the next big thing — or if he just has a knack for spotting artists long before everyone else.

Busuttil has never met him. ‘As far as I can tell, he simply has a genuine love of viewing art and spends most of his time moving around London’s galleries and student shows,” she says. ‘He seems to be more interested in the art than the artists. I find it quite refreshing.”

Like the best of Charles Saatchi’s young prodigies from the past, Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, Busuttil’s work is controversial. It is different and not everyone will like it. Busuttil has been unfairly compared to Stella Vine, another of Saatchi’s artists. Vine’s portraiture has been labelled naive and ‘child-like”. However, as Wilson points out, Busuttil is more interesting.

Busuttil grew up in Edenvale, with a British mother and an Armenian-Greek father, who now proudly tells people his daughter sold her work to Versace.

Her abstract contemporary satire draws you in, with subjects ranging from the execution of Saddam Hussein to Margaret Thatcher’s shoulder pads. She paints soldiers of a bygone age, in full military regalia, standing pompous and proud, wearing monocles, moustaches, medals and gold braid.

The political landscape of a vibrantly coloured South Africa is another theme running through her work, like her depiction of Winnie Mandela in Matchboxes and Necklaces and Rooi Gevaar, featuring a menacing-looking Soviet gnashing his teeth.

One painting, Mr Showerhead, is an ode to Zapiro, and portrays Zuma as a ‘combination of preacher, ­magician and clown”.

‘Hopefully, the image captures some exaggerated version of the truth,” says Busuttil.

The president features in a number of her works, but she tends to ‘masquerade likeness to varying degrees. I never aim to portray a specific ­statement or opinion of the characters I paint.”

Don’t Tell Marley, which depicts Mugabe being sworn in, refers to Bob Marley’s concert at Zimbabwe’s independence celebrations. Busuttil believes Marley ‘would disapprove of what has become of the country he baptised with reggae”.

But I wonder.

As for her interest in ‘images of historic atrocities”, such as heads on sticks and executions, she says this probably ‘stems from some morbid curiosity that is present in all of us, like slowing down to peer at the site of a car crash. I would like to think it stems from something nobler.”

Busuttil says her outlook is shaped by her grandmother’s escape from the genocide in Turkey and growing up under apartheid, which ‘provide the anchor beneath much of my recent work”. These events have ‘both enlightened and darkened my perception of the world. Somehow, it has all resulted in me finding jolting imagery more appealing than aesthetically pleasing work.”
Despite this, and her love of melancholic music, she still considers herself to be a happy, easy-going person. ‘In England less emphasis is placed on political content. In fact, overtly political work is usually treated with suspicion and cynicism,” she says.

Nevertheless, her work is not didactic, says Wilson. ‘She is not beating a drum, telling you what to think.”

Busuttil is simply following the tradition of much of South African art, commenting on the political.

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