/ 25 July 2011

Seriously funny

Seriously Funny

The South African Jewish Museum has pulled out all the stops and spared no expense to host a superbly curated exhibition of work by internationally celebrated cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro, better known as Zapiro.

His relationship with what is by and large a religiously liberal but politically rearguard diaspora (when it comes to Zionism and the state of Israel) has been stormy, to say the least. Who can forget him depicting Israel as “the skunk of the world”, or putting Ariel Sharon in a Nazi Schutzstaffel (SS) uniform?

See our archive of Zapiro’s work here.

As Shapiro put it during the opening night of Zapiro — Jiving with Madiba: “I’m one of those in the Jewish community who is … has been and will be at odds with the ­mainstream Jewish thought in this country … And I really appreciate the fact that I have been asked to have this exhibition here.”

Shapiro is clearly thrilled by the showcase: “I have never seen that amount of care or finesse in any other exhibition [of my work] I’ve been involved in.”

Greeting one on entry is a ZA News life-size puppet of Madiba resting on a chaise longue with Zapiro’s book, The Mandela Files, in its lap. One can pose here for a photo.

The exhibition, curated by Roger van Wyk, includes interactive touch screens, LED monitors, nine specially recorded videos (including a 45-minute video on Shapiro’s Jewish roots), an audio guide, 136 framed cartoons (one on loan from Nelson ­Mandela) and, in a display case, 32 original sketch books and a reproduction of Zapiro’s studio desk.

Among the early material is a card for Mandela’s 70th birthday, which Shapiro drew while he was detained by the apartheid state in 1988.

Drawing monsters

Another curiosity is a clunky fake rifle made from a piece of lead pipe and a wooden block, which Shapiro was made to carry during his military conscription, having refused to pick up a real gun. Marching about with the thing made him feel a bit like a cartoon, he said.

From an early age, we learn, ­Shapiro has been drawing monsters — first taken from his nightmares and later from reality.

Shapiro told the audience, which included Western Cape Premier Helen Zille and Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille: “Cartoons have ramifications that you will not believe.” Such as being sued by one no less than the president of the country, Jacob Zuma, the apparent guardian of the Constitution.

Shapiro narrated several anecdotes about his personal interactions with Mandela, the most telling of which was a phone call. Mandela may have noticed, he told the great statesman, that “the cartoons are getting more and more critical of the ANC”. ­(Shapiro joined the party in 1988 in New York and the United Democratic Front in 1983.) Madiba replied: “That is your job.” Shapiro said it was the single most powerful moment as a cartoonist he has experienced.

As the country celebrated Mandela’s 93rd birthday this week, the nation clearly pined for “a leader of Nelson Mandela’s stature, who understood the importance of ­criticism, of satire, of remaining ­critical of society, of not just being praise singers”.

The greatest threats we face as a country

The opening address, titled “Renewing Citizenship”, was given by Professor Njabulo S Ndebele, who received a standing ovation.

Referring to the government’s proposed media tribunal and the Protection of Information Bill, Ndebele said “the current intention to conceal and the concomitant concealment of intention” might be “the greatest threats we face as a country” and might not be fundamentally “about poverty, unemployment, crime or corruption. All societies have these to various degrees.”

Ndebele added: “In a Zapiro ­cartoon the objective societal big ­picture is always locked in intimate conversation with the detail of subjectivity. This is the genius. Our salvation might lie precisely in our subjectivity, the elemental site of our conscience, our moral ­sensitivity, ethical awareness and our self-esteem. This may have become the most precious source of our future citizenship.”

The Jewish Museum, by hosting Zapiro’s work, and Zapiro’s work itself demonstratively serve as an example to the nation. It cannot be said too often: without diverse views and freedom of speech and information, society will ultimately collapse under the weight of its own lies and ignorance.

Zapiro — Jiving with Madiba is at the South African Jewish Museum, 88 Hatfield Street, Gardens, Cape Town, until November 18