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Art, Culture, Reality
I Paint What I Like

I Paint What I Like

by Andy Davis / 16.07.2010

Let’s rewind a week. South Africa is preparing for the World Cup Final and FIFA president Sepp Blatter is busy applying metric tons of FIFA pressure on our ageing father of the nation, tata Mandela, to attend the World Cup closing ceremony. Madiba is in mourning for the death of his great-grand daughter, who died in a car accident returning from the opening match. He’s also almost 92 years old and deserves to just be left alone to do whatever he damn well pleases. But Sepp needs him to come and sprinkle some of that ol’ Madiba magic on the finale of his little footballing festival.

Across town, at one of Johannesburg’s most ostentatious shopping malls, Hyde Park, a little sideshow is about to be so badly mis-handled that it becomes an international shit storm. A sometimes artist by the name of Yuill Damaso has unveiled his unfinished, but most provocative piece of work to date. It’s a rip of the old Dutch master, Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Nicolaes Trulp” painted in 1632. And it shows a dead Nelson Mandela being dissected by the deceased child activist Nkosi Johnson in front of Jacob Zuma, FW De Klerk, Desmond Tutu, Cyril Rhamaphosa, Helen Zille and Thabo Mbeki.

The reaction to the painting has ranged from the emotive to the downright hysterical. With the ANC coming out with the harshest and most disturbing response. A response with far-reaching implications for freedom of expression in South Africa.

“The ANC is appalled and strongly condemns in the strongest possible terms the ‘Dead Mandela’ painting,” the party said in a statement. “It is in bad taste, disrespectful, and it is an insult and an affront to values of our society.”

OK so let’s unpack this a little bit. How can an artwork, a piece of visual communication “affront the values of our society” when the values of our society are enshrined in a constitution that holds Freedom of Speech as one of its central tenets? Yes this painting might disturb by confronting us with the inevitability of one our greatest fears. That Mandela is almost 92 and his infrequent public outings indicate that, perhaps, his health might be failing, and yes, one day, he will die. As will we all. To depict him as a corpse undergoing an autopsy is, at the very least insensitive to his family. It is disrespectful, ghoulish and attention seeking. It’s also a very facile artistic statement, that rests on the controversial nature of the image. And it’s hardly original, being a mash-up of a famous Dutch painting. While all these things, tacky and simplistic, it is not an affront on the values of our society. Quite the opposite, in fact. It is merely the tasteless expression of someone exercising their freedoms.

Damaso claims, in a Saturday Star interview, that his painting “shows Mandela’s flesh and bones, which shows that he was a man, just like every one of us. He achieved great things by working hard, and he has so much influence on the country and the world, but the painting shows that he is just an ordinary man.”

The right that Damaso is invoking, is the same right that Steve Biko, along with many others, struggled and died for. “I write what I like.” Well Damaso paints what he likes. And it is because of the sacrifice of leaders like Mandela, Tambo, Sisulu, Biko, Hani and countless others, that we are in the privileged position to exercise those rights freely. Even when they make us feel uncomfortable and are considered to be in bad taste. In fact, is that not the purpose of art and cultural production? To interrogate our contemporary selves and our way of being. To push society to confront itself and move forward?

The ANC, through spokesperson Jackson Mthembu, see things differently.

“We strongly condemn the practice and promotion of the freedom of expression and freedom of the arts which knows no bounds and only sees itself as the most supreme freedom that supersedes and tramples other people’s constitutional rights to dignity and privacy, and undermines our values.”

The ANC’s reaction, at once pompous and self serving, is in itself counter-revolutionary. It shows a sentimentality  that couches a hard swing to the right as they intimate a clampdown on our freedom. Here they make the mistake of equating vague concepts of “respect”, “decency” and “taste” with the limits of personal freedom. Democracies rest upon freedom of speech and association. However there is no requirement that anyone in a democratic society “respect” anything or anyone. “Good taste” is not a prerequisite for constitutional democracy. If the Mandela family feel that their dignity has been compromised by this artwork, they can seek recourse through our legal system.

The ANC press statement then throws in the spectre of witchcraft, vague cultural insensitivity and yes you guessed it, racism.

“In African society it is a foreign act of ubuthakathi (bewitch) to kill a living person and this so called work of art which is also racist.”

But if they had just done a bit of research, they would have discovered that Damaso is a two-bit showman of an artist. A huckster and a hobbyist. His painting is hardly worth a press statement from the National Spokesperson of the ANC. If you do a Google search on Damaso all you’ll uncover, apart from the string of “Dead Mandela Painting” articles, is that he decorated and painted a cow for the National Cow Parade in conjunction with a car hire company. No biographies. No major gallery representation. He’s more of a marketer than an artist. A few years back he had some portraits he had done of Mandela confiscated by the Department of Trade and Industry. Case in point, his previous Mandela works, which after the run-in he nonetheless had on sale in a Rosebank pizzeria, charging R40K for a paperclip, attached to which was a free Mandela painting. His Mandela stuff is cheap and expedient, generally. He may be a nice guy, but he is very far from a serious South African artist. In fact you might recognize him as the guy with the moustache from the Italtile TV Ads.

To use a timeous footballing analogy, the ANC scored a spectacular own goal in their response to this painting. A bicycle kick from the halfway line into the top corner of their own net. An absolute howler. Instead of letting it slip by as the kitsch trash art that it is, they came out guns blazing, threatening to clamp down on our hard won civil liberties and in so doing escalated the whole episode to the level of national importance. News agencies from around the world, already here for the World Cup, pick up on the macabre nature of the story and all of a sudden everyone wants to see what all the fuss is about. Damaso is immediately promoted to the level of “important, controversial artist” and the whole thing is thrust into the global spotlight. When the real story of the week is how a shadowy global footballing cartel trampled all over us for months and then guilt-tripped our beloved and aging icon into making a public appearance when by all indications he’d rather have been at home mourning the loss of his great-grand daughter.

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  1. Pauly says:

    intelligent well written view close to mine

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  2. KumKani Pantshwa says:

    Mother fucker who painted this must be trialled with treason! firstly for unoriginality and secondly for the disrespect shown to my grand father…the irreverence you free will creative wanna-be’s display is getting out of hand. “shit is cool!” keep it up and your satire will be the device by which your family is hanged.

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  3. truthsayer says:

    Re: the above idiotic comment. FUCK MANDELA. I write what I like and would love to see you try and stop me.

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  4. cuppa' says:

    Mandela is as much a factor in my life as whatever happened to that Eleanor Guest guy from the Pips. This painting does less harm to ‘our values’ as much as how it grows increasingly easier to drive passed homeless kids every morning to our ‘artsy’ jobs to give opinions on paintings on pop sites – and that – is the real reflective ‘value’ of people. Declaring the artist and his artistry as unworthy with your own subjective measures shows that ‘freedom’ is still just an idea, and even the most ‘liberal’ are whipped by their ‘comforting’ views on how it should be expressed.

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  5. Roger Young. says:

    I’m interested in your use of the word “whipped”

    Surely you are just as “whipped” by your expressed view? Isn’t it your basic human right to be so?

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  6. Lizzy says:

    the painting is dog-ugly, the message not particularly interesting and some of the comments above completely incoherent. yawn, i say.

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  7. Lizzy says:

    no really, i’d be embarrassed if i’d painted that. yoh!

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  8. Andy says:

    cuppa that was almost coherent… but what do you mean? Can’t we get someone up here who supports the ANC’s “call for an independent arbiter in the form of a Media Appeals Tribunal to monitor, regulate and chastise this kind of gutter, soulless and disrespectful communication”

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  9. khan's eyeline pencil says:

    maybe in the painting he’s not dead. maybe he’s having surgery because his left hand is poorly

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  10. Sean says:

    To quote Francis Bacon, this piece of writing is like one continuous accident mounting on top of another. You are aware of the irony in your moralistic rant and its buttressing effect in relation to the “national” debate. The work at issue is trite and freighted with pretension. It’s no more complicated than that really. More simply stated, and drawing from Mahala’s wonderful repertoire of words, the painting is kak. But like so many issue-led debates, the thing – this kak painting – is not really at issue. It is just a stand-in, a proxy, an expedient device to access some other, vaguely rationalised torment/s. The serial nature of this sort of logic is getting boring. Enough.

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  11. RIP freedom of speech says:

    The good old Anachronistic Narcissistic Corrupt party up to its old tricks again. When is someone going to tell these muppets that it doesn’t matter how impressive you make a sentence sound, if it contains no substance or truth then it remains hollow and meaningless.It’s hard to read Jackson Mthembu’s blather and keep a straight face.

    For more open mindedness from African governments, take a look at our brothers up in Uganda:

    (ps Andy I think you mean “It’s a rip off of” – tripped up by spell check?)

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  12. Anonymous says:

    Hey Pantshwa:

    “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.”

    Ring a fucking bell, sunshine?

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  13. Silent Bob says:

    Mohammed cartoons?

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  14. Let's get talking says:

    I hope that every South African is aware of the implications of the ANC’s, “We strongly condemn the practice and promotion of the freedom of expression and freedom of the arts which knows no bounds…” Mr ANC spokesperson, where do you get this ideology from? Mr Biko would be turning in his grave.

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  15. slumdog says:

    dis poes kak. kak idee.kak geverf.geen tegniek.geen diepte. sy post rationalisation klink ook soos n kak storie. fok dit.

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  16. al jorlson says:

    In a country where we find it so difficult to achieve even a modicum of agreement on anything, maybe the most valuable thing that we can find in this picture is a collective response on the poor taste that it represents. For once I find myself strongly in agreement with the ANC party line.

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  17. Andy says:

    No Al… the party line stinks. You can’t ban something for being in bad taste. Bad taste is not an affront to our freedoms.

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  18. Anonymous says:

    @ Al – If you would rather have good taste than freedom of speech, your opinion doesn’t for much. Andy is on the money with this one.

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  19. Anonymous says:

    @ Al – If you would rather have good taste than freedom of speech, your opinion doesn’t count for much. Andy is on the money with this one.

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  20. Pablo says:

    That’s a bad painting. It’s content over execution, I realise, but sis.

    Cue art moffies proclaiming him the Next Big Thing.

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  21. Will-i-am says:

    Nice article!

    What’s up with the comments that make no sense whatsoever?

    Madiba’s old – let him rest.

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  22. Build a bridge!!! says:

    ENOUGH already…. I think the painting is awesome, for all you haters out there that think its racist… grow up, build a bridge, eat a teaspoon of cement and harden the fuck up!!!! and remember it takes a racist to call someone a racist….. Screw the ANC, they stand for nothing but Shit anyway!!!! VIVA freedom wankers!

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  23. Anonymous says:

    It would be awesome if they were pealing back his skin…only to discover…some higher being from another planet…then Shaggy & Scooby Doo could jump out and Shaggy would say something like “Hey guys, Scooby’s feelin kinda like he’s got rabies. We’re just gonna go outside and get some fresh air.”

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  24. Anonymous says:

    oh well, lets find and burn all the protest art by some of SA’s greatest painters, photographers and artists from the ‘pre-democracy’ decades… all that art about policemen beating innocent victims, all the photography showing human suffering (because that’s ‘offensive’). All visuals of Hector Pieterson would have to be censored and any artwork pro-freedom would have to be confiscated due to unsavoury political and subversive connotations… tut tut tut…

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  25. Aléz says:

    Very well written.

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  26. The HAm says:

    Wowee wow guys ,
    Peeps getting heated up .
    back @ KumKani Pantshwa – calm down friend . I know tryin to extend yourself outta a box is tough , but u gotto try .

    its Freedom , not Freedum …. get my meaning .

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  27. skilz says:

    its art! maybe we got our knickers in a bit of a twist! provoking………… but its art!! freedom of expression! shall we!??

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  28. Anonymous says:

    Its racist and so is this article.

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  29. Andy says:

    Anonymous it’s very easy just to label stuff racist. Why don’t you try justify your viewpoint?

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  30. CB says:

    Damaso’s message is a one-liner. Others may have wondered what will happen when our great diplomat and leader dies, he was just the first to put brush to canvas on it.

    What’s amazing is how people pick up small bits of rubbish from the heap of mass media and use them to veil a missile of an idea. The fact this is this is being touted as bad art, a racist attack, an affront on values etc just shows how eager people are to find an amplifier for their own pet societal problems. As mentioned (in the balanced piece of writing above) I’d thing the people who actually fought for freedom of speech in this country, and even Madiba himself, would cringe to see the fallout being conducted in their names.

    There’s so much venom expressed here. If you don’t like it, raise your opinion on the painting (as this is) but please don’t attack others, hatred of any kind has no place in discourse.

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  31. ChuKSataN says:

    If this painting along with the mixed opinions has taught anything to you South Africans is that freedom of expressions is a beautiful thing. Get over yourselves and find this common ground, learn to except one and all for their differences and similarities. Love what you can and don’t what you can’t. I said, “Kick ass Yuill… Your paintings are wonderful

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  32. Ayanda says:

    I want to “Like” ChukSatan’s comment and show you a video on Youtube the Reuters posted on this issue: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0QM62od59P8&feature=autofb

    A friend of mine, Dee, commented on this as such:

    “I feel very strongly about artistic liberties being couched in the fabric of social responsibility and I think that, from looking at the painting before having read any information on it, it seems like a display of the kind of pseud…o-cannibalistic recitation of Mandela’s ideals and philosophies and then replacing the actions he took with the notion that he has (in a strange sort of way) ‘died for our sins’ so that we can feel okay with making commentary on corruption and also just sit back and see it happen.

    The people who surround him in the painting are the few people who, I feel, are doing a better job of not cannibalising Mandela’s ideals and actually getting up and following through on all the big talk. In a way, this painting in a backward mirror that makes us look at ourselves through the gruesome eyes of the history of a single man whom we have blindly (for the most part, and this has nothing to do with whether he deserves it or not) followed and loved into an era that was filled with landmines that included reconciliation without war etc. I feel that the painting is a reflection of all those it angers and I don’t think that the strong reaction has anything to do with Mandela being dead in the painting but with our own personal reflections on the issues that Damaso raises with this painting. I will, however, do a bit more reading and maybe we can have a bit more of a conversation about it once I am fully informed about the issues surrounding it as expressed in the media I will consult.”

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  33. Ardo says:

    Great I like way he express what is inside, so congrats

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  34. Doos Gesig says:

    amazing how much Pantshwa dude got every body excited over his opinion, to say he has no right to feel like he does is hypocritical for those advocating free speech.The article is cool but the painting sucks balls and attention seeking really.burn!

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  35. Michael Smith says:

    ‘Bad painting’ is a visual language in its own right; this practice of dismissing the terms and effect of a work simply as ‘bad’ (or ‘kak’, or whatever), is wannabe-bourgeois in the extreme.

    The quality of this work (or at least its apparently deliberate absence of quality) has a function: it sets up a dialogue with Rembrandt’s postion of veneration within Western culture. Damaso’s work is poor art for poor times, I say; it’s like Vicious doing Sinatra: Punk 101.

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  36. MASHIANOKE ML says:

    unfoturnately we all of us dnt knw what the guy was thinkin,he s the only one who cn tell da true meaning of da paintin.nontheless the boy is gifted.issues like this shows dad as south africans w still new in the world of democracy.

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