/ 31 March 2021

Reimagining Rasta, the father of Art Comedy

Rasta (2)
Evocative: Rasta (centre) at King Goodwill Zwelithini KaBhekuzulu’s funeral, with his portraits of the king. (Photo: Darren Stewart/Gallo Images)

In the humanities field, we are charged with the preoccupation of rethinking and reimagining everything. From rethinking law to reimagining black bodies and rethinking the archive, nothing is safe from some sort of “re-iring”.

So, here I am, laughing like everyone else, at the latest offering from Lebani Sirenje, aka Rasta, when my training immediately kicks in. I reimagine Rasta’s work.

I ask myself: Are there alternative ways of engaging with and thinking about this work? 

Of course, a little bit of critical race theory has to be involved: If Rasta were white, would he be received in the same way? I quickly drop this line of thinking, because Rasta’s trump card is how the audience receives him. 

However, one must also consider factors such as his annual earnings, his relationship with galleries (if ever he should have one), his reception in art spaces, and so on. On the other hand, this could just be hot air because Rasta might be, or is, a pioneer of an alternative discourse on art, art spaces, art reception and art exhibition.

One thing I am certain of: the man is involved in an ingenious creation of art discoursing.

It is this innovative element that I muse on in needing to theorise Rasta. What is it that he does in technique and reception? Does he deliberately set out to do this? 

Yeah, intention is important, I remind myself, recalling Professor Samuel Ravengai’s words that a framing document (intention) is important in assessing creative work. Of course, Ravengai is writing about creative research, but surely this should also be applicable here?

The debater in me then asks: Does all this matter? I am then reminded that when an artist publishes their  work, they are no longer in control: the audience decides. Meaning and significance lie with us.

I decide this is the prism I will use to think of Rasta, focusing not on his intention but on the empirical impact and reception of his work.

In trying to decipher this work, I check what Rasta does consistently. He is consistent in making people laugh, steadfast in sticking to portraiture and faithful to his funeral flair. 

The overarching quality of Rasta’s work is its humour. His process is unique in this offering. “Could it be the start of a new art movement?” I ask myself. Whatever Rasta is doing ticks all the boxes for establishment of one: it has a common philosophy, goal and it stretches far enough in terms of his back catalog.

I enter a different search, one for a name. What can I term this art movement? I decide to call it “Art Comedy”, identifying Rasta as the father.

Unlike the Dada Movement (which is the art of the absurd), Art Comedy’s basis is in realism and comedy. An art comedian sets out to distort an accurate representation of a subject to infuse laughter. The importance of reference to the original is paramount.

Hence, almost all of Rasta’s work is read alongside a picture of the intended subject and the jokes (paintings), as a result, must have enough attributes of the original to shore up the comedy. 

The importance of the reference in art comedy can be witnessed from another art form: music. 

Take comedian Nicole Pesce in the YouTube video, Happy Birthday, by Beethoven? Bach? Mozart? — Nicole Pesce on piano. Pesce travels through time and imagines how the Western composers would have played the song Happy Birthday

As with Rasta’s paintings, in Pesce’s rendition there are enough elements of the original in the joke for the comedy to be understood. She does this by holding the original up to the joke. She announces each composer’s name before she plays, so that the audience can identify who the joke is about.

Novelist Jerzy Kosiński affirms that “the principles of true art is not to portray, but to evoke”. That is what Rasta’s work does — evoke laughter from the audience — and it does so with much mastery. 

It is also pertinent to observe that, as people engage with Rasta’s work, the Art Comedy movement itself grows.

So, regardless of his intentions —because artists do not always know or intend to be part of something bigger than themselves — Rasta earns the title of the father of Art Comedy.