/ 11 December 2020

The Portfolio: Percy Mabandu

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Making an icon: The Bull, Percy Mabandu’s portrait of jazz legend Winston Mankuku Ngozi has an energy — a life. (Photo: Paul Botes)

There’s a stream of studious searching in which all my interests flow. My work as a writer and as a visual artist has always been enthused by a fascination with prodigious creatives. I’m enamoured with the quality of their humanity as a force that shapes our communion with their work across time. As a painter, I work in figuration and portraiture. This is not too far from my interest in the journalistic profile and interview as a creative format. 

Among my recently finished works is an oil on board painting I’ve titled The Bull. I think it might be the only oil painting of its kind that memorialises the late great Bra Winston Mankunku Ngozi, yet. In a way I’m doing with painting what I could not do in writing. My book, Yakhal’inkomo: Portrait of a Jazz Classic, shored up, for me, the need to think and consider Bra Winston beyond the glare of his singular jazz masterwork. The book could not memorialise him as a person because it was preoccupied with the meaning and effects of his composition and album of 1968. The art of painting allowed me a chance to return to him with a fuller adoration, uninhibited by the legend of his specific work. 

In this painting, the viewer meets Bra Winston wearing his famously impish smile, and a gatsby cap, against a blue background. The painting is a result of a string of starts and stops spanning almost a year. There were periods when I did not touch it for months on end. I began working on it in October 2019 and finished it only this September, days before the 10th anniversary of his passing. I think it took this long because I was slowly struggling to find a satisfying balance between capturing a likeness, and “in-spiriting” the image with my own impressions and ideas of the man. This is the kind of struggle Janet Malcolm, as a writer, was contending with when she suggested that biography could never capture the true kernel of a man. Although I’m convinced each attempt is a necessary reach that may exceed what is ultimately grasped through the work.

The painted portrait, when it works well, allows us to iconise personhood into something symbolic and larger than the sum of a man’s biological and historical facts. This is what interests me. The resulting image, as an icon, has an energy — a life. I often think of how Byzantine believers thought of images or icons as the imprint of the depicted saint, angel or even Christ’s visible characteristics on a surface. In this way Byzantine portraiture is not just a painting created by brushstrokes, but an imprint or essence impressed on a surface. I wish to make icons, not simply pictures.