Politics of Art/Art of Politics

In recent years, the climate around political art in South Africa has come to epitomise some of the issues with the current ANC administration. Critical works by artists such as Brett Murray and Ayanda Mabulu have become the headlining acts for political expression and subsequent government interference. The way the ruling party has dealt with less than flattering depictions of President Jacob Zuma, in particular, tends to call to mind poorly handled national hiccups (and outright scandals) from the past year. One has to question why South Africa’s leaders feel the urge to react to these artworks; why they give them any attention when they have an entire country to govern. The answer is very likely related to the way the ANC of today operates and the general feeling of dissatisfaction with it among the media – despite what last week’s election results may indicate.

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Viva Political Expression

The recent spate of contested political artworks began most famously upon the unveiling of Brett Murray’s The Spear at the Goodman Gallery in early May of 2012. The painting in question was of Jacob Zuma in a Lenin-esque ‘looking to the future’ pose, with his fly open and genitals completely exposed. It was exhibited in a series of Murray’s works entitled, “Hail to the Thief”. Many of the artworks show clear criticism against the ruling party – quite notably, an ANC ‘get out of jail free’ card – but none of these seemed to offend their sensibilities.

Shortly after, the ANC made known their intentions in a media statement to sue Murray and the Goodman Gallery to have the painting taken down, labelling it racist and a violation of the president’s dignity. Soon, an ANC protest took place outside the gallery and the City Press were forced to remove an image of the painting from their website. The Spear was later vandalised by ANC supporters, taken down, and the ANC dropped their charges.

Later that year, in an exhibition titled “Our Fathers” at the AVA gallery in Cape Town, artist Ayanda Mabulu published his painting Umshini Wam (Weapon of Mass Destruction). It depicted Zuma in an even further state of undress. He is painted in traditional Zulu attire with his leg raised and detailed genitals on display. Mabulu was not labelled a racist, although the painting was considerably more unflattering than The Spear. Spokesperson for the ANC, Keith Khoza, said that the party could not rule out taking similar actions to those against The Spear, but this never happened.

When, late last year, Mabulu exhibited a painting portraying Zuma dancing on the backs Marikana workers, a similar reaction was experienced: outrage and “disgust”. Mabulu has, in the past, created many artworks that ‘disrespect’ South African leaders. Most significantly is a work entitled Ingw ayizidli Ngamabala Isakuluma ikaka Okwesihlunu Senyama (You Sold us out), in which Nelson Mandela is seen kissing F.W. de Klerk and clippings from newspapers frame them with resentment and anger.

As Chris Thurman highlighted in an article late last year, it seems “you can say what you like about anyone – as long as it is not Zuma”.

In a commentary on The Spear, playwright Mike van Graan asserts that the position of political artists is to “expose the vanity, the hypocrisy and the excesses ” of powerful politicians the way a child might. By all accounts, this is what artists such as Murray and Mabulu do. It is a medium that cannot harm anyone in the ways other forms of protest might, but the ANC seem to appropriate these artworks as physical attacks. But as Mabulu explains in an article for the Mail & Guardian, “I’m not attacking you; I’m respectfully asking a question”.

Van Graan makes a radical statement in suggesting that we should “learn from our political leadership and blame Apartheid”. It is difficult to phrase his argument as eloquently as he does himself, but he suggests that Apartheid is as least partly to blame for our leaders’ inability to recognise artistic expression as symbolic, rather than purely literal. He continues to suggest that this is what creates the “racist paradigm” in which Murray (and not Mabulu) is labelled a racist simply for being white, and becomes the excuse for ignoring the criticism of real issues within the party.

The evasive and accusatory manner in which politicians handle PR from artwork is strikingly similar to the way they handle legitimate national incidences. E-tolls require that citizens pay extra for what they are meant to have a right to, in the same way that artists are made to pay in court for utilising their right to free expression. The Nkandla scandal has been dealt with by Jacob Zuma with a frankly unrealistic level of obliviousness. The latest reason used for the 200 million rand homestead being upgraded has been (and arguably quite insultingly), the rape of his wife. Most recently however was the censorship of DA and EFF adverts by the ANC-funded national broadcaster, SABC. It is not a far stretch to assume that there was interference in banning the adverts of the two strongest opposition parties to the ANC. Censorship of adverts, like censorship of art, is not what one would expect from a supposedly free and democratic country.

Both President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, have been painted rather famously in the nude and either paid no attention or had wonderfully funny responses. If the ANC and Zuma learned how to react (or rather, not) from leaders such as these, we might end up with a more constitutional South Africa, and a political art scene that understands metaphor and can have a sense of humour.

 

Take a look at this video I compiled on the youth, art, politics, and the recent election in South Africa. I attempted to keep it casual and light as a compliment to the article. Enjoy.

You don’t have to be Picasso to use a paintbrush

When one thinks about artists, we tend to envision the greats: Da Vinci, Monet, Van Gogh. Beyond that, perhaps contemporary artists that have appealed to us, like those I have shared in previous posts. It makes sense that we do this; one doesn’t think of struggling plain Jane in Hollywood when the word actor is mentioned – (I think of Ryan Gosling, but maybe that’s just me).

Anyway, my point is that there are millions of artists out there who don’t get any of the recognition that professionals do. There are those who aspire to make art their career and struggle, but there are also those who make art purely for themselves. In some regards, I think that is even more admirable than those who turn art into jobs. I may be generalizing, but I think that a lot of people don’t do many things they don’t have to anymore. Hobbies have largely been replaced with social networking and browsing the internet. Making art is something that takes time, patience, determination and genuine interest. I know this from personal experience.

I thought I would interview someone who is not a professional artist, but has spent decades working on their skills nonetheless. I wondered for a while who to speak to, but it dawned on me that the choice was obvious: my mom.

She has been painting her afternoons away since before I can remember and long before I was even alive. It takes guts to dedicate half of your life to something, but I don’t think I would have developed the interest myself if I hadn’t watched her for years growing up. I may be more than a little biased, but I think she’s pretty amazing.

Jeannine Evans (my wonderful mother), began drawing when she was very young. She used to take my grandmother’s sketching pads and pencils, and draw what interested her that way. She says that she “never really decided to start [making art], it just evolved slowly”. However, she began getting more serious about it when she got her first job, and attended a series of short courses which eventually ended up in her experimenting with oil paints. She has been in love ever since.

She explains that painting is “a place that [she] can escape to… a way to achieve something”. One only has to watch her work and rework the same area ten times to understand the depth of her passion and determination. Having never had any formal training, Jeannine finds that watching DVDs of professional artists working, as well as reading art books and magazines help her in honing her skills.

I think it is really important to support non-professional artists. If you live in a small town as I do, I can guarantee that there are dozens of talented painters displaying their work in a nearby gallery. Owning a work with a name is nice, but owning one from an unknown artist does so much more good. Jeannine explains that she feels genuinely humbled when “anyone wants something that [she’s] created on their walls”. A day with a painting sale is a very good day indeed.

She exhibits all around the Grahamstown, Bathurst and Port Alfred areas alongside many other talented artists. If you ever happen to be at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, I highly recommend taking a look at the local artists’ exhibition and supporting them.

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One of her earlier works in pastel, made when I was still a toddler

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A portrait of my cousin Jared

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One of her many recent township scenes in black and white

As a side note, it is interesting that my mom’s love for art started by taking my gran’s art tools, because that’s exactly how it started for me. If anyone is interested, here are some things that I drew. Perhaps someone will interview me too someday. Wink, wink.

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Wonder-Lust

If you’re anything like me, travelling the world is rated very highly on your mental to-do list. I am endlessly amazed by the variety and beauty to be found in the landscape, culture and artworks of places I didn’t even know existed. The desire to see these things with my own eyes is immense. The term for this sensation is ‘wanderlust’ and it pretty accurately sums up what it represents. I’d like to share just a few people, places and phenomenon that have contributed to my personal sense of wonder at the beauty out there.

I have been lucky enough to travel a fair share in my young life. Just before my last trip, which was to London and Northern Europe in August of 2012, I was given a new camera by my wonderful parents: a Nikon P510. It’s no Canon 5D, but it afforded me hours of photographic fun while travelling around Scandinavia. My photos are by no means professional, but I would like to share the things I saw that interested me in my wanderings.

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Nyhavn, the historical channel in the centre of Copenhagen, Denmark

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A statue in the gardens of the great Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia

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Streetside artist in Tallinn, Estonia

I wasn’t able to travel far enough north to see the Northern Lights, which is something that I really regretted about my trip. In non-scientific terms, the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis are caused by gas particles from the earth and electrically charged particles from the sun colliding in the earth’s atmosphere. The colour of the lights is determined by what gaseous particles are involved and how far from the earth’s surface the collision occurs.

Yeah, I’m not a science buff either, but it is interesting to know the reason behind the mysterious and beautiful phenomenon. I would have loved the opportunity to see and capture it for myself, but for the mean time at least, the spectacular photographs of Tommy Eliassen will have to do.

Tommy is a landscape and astro-photographer from Mo i Rana, Norway. He has the privilege of living and working on the doorstep of the Northern Lights. The majority of his photographs involve long-exposure, which means keeping the shutter of the camera open for an extended period of time, thus allowing light in that may not even be visible to the naked eye. The results are extraordinary. This technique is often used to capture constellations in the night sky, and in conjunction with the Aurora Borealis, the photographs that one can take really are breathtaking.

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Laksejford – Tommy Eliassen (taken in Lebesby, Norway)

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Hogtuva – Tommy Eliassen (taken in Melfjellet, Norway)

Aspiring travellers of the world come in all shapes and sizes, as has recently been proven by photographer, Andrew Whyte, and his Legographer. He has completed a 365-day project, in which he travelled the world and took images with a Lego photographer in the foreground. It sounds arbitrary, but the end product is unique and quirky, framing predictable tourist shots in a fresh light. Follow my lead and check out every shot the duo took on their travels here:

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Day of Rest – Andrew Whyte

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Splash! – Andrew Whyte

It can quite easily be noticed that my conception of wanderlust is almost exclusively linked with landscape and the natural world. South Africa has some of the most varied natural life on the planet, but as a South African, the idea of my country being as mysterious and exciting to others as, say, Japan is to me sometimes escapes me as being a reality. However, if Hougaard Malan’s photographs are anything to go by, it isn’t hard to understand why South Africa – and the Western Cape in particular – is such a desirable spot to visit. Cape Town was recently chosen as being the top tourist destination in Africa and top ten in the world. Perhaps this fun (and frankly, just awesome) music video shot in the beautiful Mother City will shed light on why:

If you’re more interested in the man-made or manipulated side of artistic photography, look out for my post next week. It’s going to be epic.