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Art, Culture, Reality

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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