/ 31 August 2012

Zuma artwork ‘exposes issues’

Ayanda Mabulu with Umshini Wam.
Ayanda Mabulu with Umshini Wam.

Artist Ayanda Mabulu wants everyone to know he is not being disrespectful of ­President Jacob Zuma simply because he has stripped him of his suit and depicted "his father" dancing in traditional gear with his genitals exposed.

"I grew up when the ANC was there for our people and united our people. I understand what the ANC is all about, but I can see that there is something wrong. For sure, there is something wrong," the 29-year old Mabulu said.

"The ANC represents the masses. The ANC fought against apartheid for our people. It is not meant to be a Zulu or one person. The reason why I painted him like that is to say to him: 'I'm stripping you of the suit, of the shirt or tuxedo that is a status symbol in the food chain. I'm dressing you in your own fashion. I'm talking to you with a native tongue. I'm talking to you in our dialogue, in a language you understand. Come back to the people. Put away the uniform that makes you the president and serve the people that you are supposed to serve.' He is leading the people and they are so poor. Being rich is not the thing we want. There is a certain standard of living that we all have to acquire."

Mabulu lives and works in Du Noon, a sprawling informal settlement situated near the upmarket Table View suburb of Cape Town. Known as a place of severe hardship, poverty and crime, most people who live in the area stay in backyard dwellings and shacks.

The question of the poverty around him keeps Mabulu awake at night.

He is aware that not everyone will be happy about his work and sometimes feels claustrophobic at the thought that people may recognise him in a crowd.

Concentration camps
The dreadlocked Mabulu says his work questions, just as a young boy would question his father: "Why is it that I am starving?"

"As an artist, I have decided to talk about it. There is no chance that I can sit quietly. We are living in concentration camps. That is the reason behind the painting; there is no disrespect. It is in my own language, using the metaphors of my language.  

"We are exposing something that is hidden. People assume that because they are wearing a suit, they are more civilised than the people they are supposed to serve. And it should stop."

His concern about the poverty and political upheavals in South Africa are reflected in his painting titled uMshini Wam (Weapon of Mass Destruction), which is part of an exhibition called Our Fathers at the non-profit AVA Gallery in Cape Town. The giant work has a price tag of R75 000.

In the painting, Mabulu has written "Dancing Puppet" in one corner of the work, pasted an old newspaper clipping headlining an uprising in the other and raised the question "How can you dance when people are dying of starvation" in small writing at the top.

"I am from a background where there is no orphan. Every child is mothered and fathered by every member of society. Hence I'm standing here and I'm talking not about me," Mabulu said.

Questioning capitalism
"I'm representing people who are being affected most by the current situation in this country.

"What I have witnessed where I am from is that people are whispering. The things they are supposed to be talking about they share only in private, behind closed doors. As an artist, it is my duty to use this tool to open up and talk about these things. That is not to say there is any element of disrespect, but rather a desire to open up discussion and debate and question the father, our leader."

"You see how people are living in the squatter camps today. You see tourists going to the townships to take photos because they know that this is not something that is normal. So I'm questioning capitalism."

Rejecting criticism of his moral fibre in painting Zuma in this way, Mabulu countered he was not "born from the belly of a cow".

"I was born from a belly of a human. I do have moral values. Even though I do have a father, I was raised by every father. Hence I regard Jacob Zuma as my father and I am having a conversation with him."

The ANC has condemned the painting, saying it did not rule out mass action to protest against it. The ANC Women's League and Cosatu have also condemned the artwork.

"Any portrayal of President Jacob Zuma in this way is disrespectful," ANC spokesperson Keith Khoza told the Mail & Guardian earlier this week. "It makes a mockery of the president's office, his status as a father and husband and is an absolute abuse of the arts."

The exhibition features works from 24 artists, including earlier works by Brett Murray, whose painting, The Spear, was defaced after it caused protests outside Johannesburg's Goodman Gallery in May. The Spear depicted Zuma in a pose reminiscent of Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, with his genitals exposed.

For almost four years, Mabulu's works have made symbolic use of the penis and exhibition curators Kirsty Cockerill, an arts graduate,  and Chantelle Lowe, an art historian, insist that he cannot be accused of capitalising on Murray's experience. For them, he is a true artistic find.