‘Mandela is a human being,” says artist Ayanda Mabulu, a mere 48 hours after yet another painting of the naked president — this time with the prez performing anal sex on a weeping Nelson Mandela.
“As a human being he has his own mistakes. He is not a saint. The very fact that we are drowning in this pile of shit right now, it started by him.”
The answer, in defence of touching the nation on its collective Mandela studio, has become something of a standard response for the painter, who routinely paints President Jacob Zuma either with his genitalia exposed or involved in a variety of sexual acts.
Mabulu’s latest work, leaked to the art website Culture Review, comes less than a year after a painting of Zuma rimming Atul Gupta in a flight cockpit was exhibited at Constitution Hill as part of a group show entitled Post Its. A walkabout for the exhibition descended into a circus last year, when media houses focused on Mabulu’s work, ignoring those of other participants.
In between the episodic presidential phalluses, Mabulu presumably toils away in obscurity, with the country forgetting about him until photos of a new penis unexpectedly turn up on our timelines. Not quite, says Mabulu, trying to go incognito in a hooded army jacket while sitting on a suburban park bench. He tells me that his life has been upended in unimaginable ways since that exhibition.
“It was heavy. It was blind,” he says. “I had to leave Johannesburg and stay in Bloemfontein for some time. My car was being broken and beaten and stuff was written on the windows.”
One of the messages apparently read: “If you continue to do this then uzonya [you will shit]. We know where you are.”
Seemingly on edge, with his phone ringing constantly (at one frustrating point he tosses it several metres on to the park lawn and it continues ringing from afar), Mabulu seems to be riding a familiar storm. He is more annoyed and paranoid than scared, recounting how police are staking out his house, threatening to arrest him for trumped-up charges.
With all the mayhem around him, there is still something calculating about how Mabulu has captured the public discourse, this time mostly eliciting fatigue with Zuma’s penis and outrage for a “distasteful” (according to the Nelson Mandela Foundation) depiction of Mandela.
While Zuma wears the face of a man ecstatically consumed by the act, Mabulu’s Mandela, positioned on top of Zuma, weeps and bleeds from the anus, putting up no resistance. “Zuma’s rapes have taken their toll on him, to such an extent that it becomes normal,” says Mabulu.
The timing of the painting’s “release” comes a few days after Zapiro again caught flak for a cartoon depicting the rape of the South African Constitution, represented by a pinned-down black woman dressed in the colours of the national flag. This time Zuma, zipping up his pants, defers to his “boss”, a Gupta brother, to take his turn.
In the aftermath of the cartoon and the painting, South African social media users pointed out the similarities in Zapiro’s and Mabulu’s defences, which both referred to the ethical difficulties that creating the respective works elicited.
I ask Mabulu about the constant need to equate male-on-male sex and rape with corruption. “It is the Zapiros who can metaphoricise things,” says Mabulu, straddling the park bench. “If you think and look at that as a metaphor, then it is a direct one. IsiXhosa asitolikwa [you cannot translate isiXhosa]. There’s no beating around the bush when it comes to this.”
I ask Mabulu about his sensitivity to people who have suffered rape and how his painting can be perceived as lacking empathy for rape survivors. “Where I’m from you heal because you peel the wound,” he says. “We are circumcised, we are from the mountain. We are from houses of pain. We know that the only way to grieve is to let go. You need to go through a certain type of process and not blanket it with a smile. I’m happy when someone who has been raped feels a particular way about a painting that is depicting rape. By doing that, in our own language we say sithunuka islonda [agitate the wound]. The more you peel that wound the easier it is for you to heal.”
I counter that corruption cannot be as viscerally traumatic and as violating to the body as rape. Mabulu launches into a tirade. “Corruption is directly traumatising. I don’t know if you have ever felt what it is like to be shelterless. How it feels not to know what you are going to eat at the end of the day. Your child is asthmatic and crying. You call the ambulance, it doesn’t come. You walk there. You get to the hospital, the line is long, you are number 58. Your child is gasping for oxygen. He is suffocating every minute. They tell you to wait because there is no Asthavent. Because the money that was supposed to buy medication in the department was diverted somewhere and that person is living lavishly in Sandton, chowing that money.”
I agree to disagree with Mabula detecting too much bravado and something of a saviour complex in his demeanour. He speaks of his painting as “guerilla warfare”, with the enemy including the gallery system, which Mabulu views as complicit in creating mute, pliable artists. “You must beg as an artist,” he says. “And if you don’t beg that means you show a certain type of prowess and power and fuckers don’t want that thing. That is the strategy of how the industry works. I’ve studied it and I know how it operates.”
Mabulu, who is not represented by a gallery, claims to know the identity of each of the people who buy his work. He says operating outside of the gallery system has allowed him to build meaningful relationships with his customers, relationships that sustain him during lean times.
Of the demographics of his customer base he says: “They are black. They are black. They are black. Not that white people don’t buy my work but there are important works that can never be in the hands of white people.”
Mabulu says he had to “rebuy” the painting shown at the Post Its exhibition after a person tried to buy it with “dirty money”.
He promises to put me in touch with some of his patrons, to discuss the appeal of his work, but he doesn’t. In the following week Mabulu goes to ground and is unreachable.
Having first met Mabulu in 2015, when Spear Down My Throat (Pornography of Power) was lying unfinished in his studio, one can surmise that he is less financially stressed than two years ago.
In a display of Smuts Ngonyama logic, Mabulu says he did not go into art to be poor. Paradoxically, he adds that the effect of his presidential phalluses on his career has been negative.
“Well, right now I am the most hated artist in the country. I can show you my WhatsApps from a family friend, of things I was supposed to shoot. It’s not happening anymore. It’s all negative.”
I ask Mabulu whether, through the various episodes, he has physically feared for his life. “Angeke ndibethwe mna. Ndingayikhaba enye indoda [I’ll never be beaten up. I can kick another man]. But we’ll wrestle and see who is going to come out tops at the end of the day.”
The response sums up the tenor of Mabulu’s creations: hypermasculine, combative and kneejerk. Perhaps they are a perfect summation of the Zuma years.