Angry White Men Singing the Bluesby Sean O’Toole / 20.01.2011
If Mzwakhe Mbuli was once the “telex of culture”, what is the medium that best accounts for the contemporary statements of culture being produced by Anton Kannemeyer and Brett Murray? Both date from the era of fax; both continue to practice in the era of social media. “I am the Twitter of culture.” I dunno, it just doesn’t have the same ring as Mbuli describing himself as a clunky business machine with typewriter keys.
It was 1986 when the self-described poet of Soweto sang these words. A decade later Mbuli was arrested on charges of armed robbery. Since his conviction and imprisonment in 1999 Mbuli’s reputation has been in tailspin. Fred Khumalo’s now routine dismissals of his hectoring poetics and move the crowd verbosity haven’t helped Mbuli’s cause. In April, the Sunday Times columnist dismissed “die lang man”, as security police once described the tall poet, “tone deaf”.
Tonally, the recent work of Murray and Kannemeyer reminds me of early career Mbuli. It is brazenly political and unconditionally pissed off, particularly Murray’s. Like Mbuli’s early work, when Simba Morri tickled the guitar and Ian Herman handled the drumbeats, there is also melody. It’s what lends the rhetorical shtick underpinning their angry white man sings the blues routine levity.
Viva Viva, 2010, Metal, gold and silver leaf, 149 x 147 x 13 cm.
Not that Murray spoke much about feeling light-hearted during a recent walkabout of his new Goodman Gallery exhibition, Hail to the Thief. “The news is my favourite sitcom,” he said. “I can’t fucking believe what’s going on. Now check this out, now check this out. I laugh at it, but now it’s a bit more serious. For a while I couldn’t look at the news – it was too much.”
It is Murray’s sombre diagnosis of things that most recalls Mbuli. In his song “Triple M”, off the 1986 Shifty Records album Change is Pain, Mbuli crafted this bit of indelicate verse: “Now it’s a mess, Mhhh! Mmme! Ss. Matanzima – Mangope – Mphephu – Sebe. Mhhh! Mmme! Ss! It’s a mess. Yes, it is a mess.” Murray’s exhibition, which draws heavily on early Soviet propaganda graphics and lingers on political graft and corruption as thematic concerns, tries to make sense of the current mess in governance.
He is most coherent and adept when he does this visually, in particular with his large heraldic crests and two curvaceous bronze sculptures of cartoon monkeys. By contrast, his text works, of which there are many, are largely uninspiring. They are unambiguous and lack nuance. Sometimes they tell jokes without punchlines.
The Party vs. The People, 2010, Edition of 6 + 1 AP, Bronze, 59 x 54 x 81 cm.
In 1977 Solomon Mhlangu and two other Umkhonto we Sizwe cadres got into a tussle with police in Johannesburg. In the ensuing gunfight two white civilians were killed. Mahlangu did not pull the trigger but was charged with murder and hung two years later. “Tell my people that I love them and that they must continue the struggle,” he is reputed to have told his family before his execution. “My blood will nourish the tree that will bear the fruits of freedom.”
In Murray’s exhibition a silhouetted figure with AK47 forms the backdrop to the Mahlangu quote, which has been tweaked and now drolly reads: “Tell my people that I love them and that they must continue the struggle for Chivas Regal, Merc’s and kick-backs.” Many commentators have questioned the legitimacy of Murray refashioning the original statement without, at least, acknowledging his intervention. When asked about this at his walkabout Murray was nonplussed. That’s how he wanted it to be.
The Struggle, 2010, Edition of 22 + 1 AP, Silkscreen, 100 x 70 cm.
In his own way, Kannemeyer is equally unapologetic. Lots of public figures get pilloried in his new book of black ink drawings, Alphabet of Democracy (Jacana Media, 2010), including Jacob Zuma. Kannemeyer’s villains are no longer Bantustan kingpins but men with names like Malema, Mugabe and Mbeki. Whitey doesn’t come away lightly either.
Kannemeyer’s wideranging satire encompasses Hansie Cronje, pictured praying to “liewe Jesus”, and Pam Golding, fist clenched, face painted with the colours of the flag, celebrating the “unexpected growth in the property market”. His detailed portrait of Marthinus van Schalkwyk (“L is for Loser”) reminds us of Kannemeyer’s great skill as a draughtsman.
Alphabet of Democracy, 2010, Black ink and acrylic on paper, 21.5 x 20.5cm.
Started in 2005, the series moves between unbridled satire and something approaching a documentary acuity, especially in his two portraits of victims of vigilante justice. Kannemeyer’s tender drawing of a Jack Russell curled up against the lifeless body of a murdered farmer takes an emotive subject and turns down the heat.
Make no mistake these are politically heated times to be making satirical statements about fats cats and bigwigs in power. President Zuma has begun legal proceedings against cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro over his Rape of Justice cartoon.
As homework for the forthcoming telethon of opinion and fact, go see Murray’s exhibition, buy Kannemeyer’s book. While looking and reading, ask yourself this: At what point does satirical intent lapse into rhetorical anger and denude a visual statement of metaphor and nuance?
I is for Irony, 2010, Black ink, pencil and acrylic on paper, 25 x 32.5cm.
*Opening image credit: F is for Fatcat, 2010, Black ink and acrylic on paper, 151.5 x 157.5cm.