Technicolour Satireby Sean O'Toole / 20.05.2011
Carla Busuttil makes big, colour rich, cartoon-like paintings of unlikable people. Politicians mostly. “I have a broad, probably unhealthy interest in the history of violence, corruption and the rule of law, and examples of these can be found everywhere,” the Joburg-born, Berlin-based painter has said of her recurring interest in depicting powerful men and women with large incisor teeth.
After graduating from Wits in 2004, Busuttil headed for London, to study at the Royal Academy. Charles Saatchi later snapped up her degree show, a rogues’ gallery of familiar names rendered in bright, lurid colours. Those early works – they’re only three years old – still have the power to make you smile, sometimes even laugh. Like her more recent work, exhibited in West London last month, the painted mark, sometimes thick and layered, offer its own fascination. They reveal a joyous vigour underlying the obvious satire, a painter’s fascination with how paint congeals and becomes an image.
Mahala: Okay, let me kick off with a biographical question. You graduated at Wits and then went to study in London. Why the decision to go study abroad, and why particularly London?
Carla Busuttil: My mother is English, and so is my husband (although he spent a large chunk of his life in SA), so I have been travelling back and forth to England most of my life. It is a familiar place. I guess that made it an easier decision to move there at the time. Studying in London seemed like an obvious thing for me to aim for as it is one of the main centres of contemporary art, and somewhere I knew I would get a lot of experience. My lecturers at Wits were supportive of my decision and helped me prepare for my interview and application.
Carla Busuttil, More Like a Toy Than A Man, 2008, oil on canvas, 26 x 20 cm
Why the Royal Academy?
I applied to five of the well-known art schools, but really had my eye on the Royal Academy. They only take around 20 students a year out of about 500 applications so it is difficult to get accepted. Their post-graduate program is three years; other school do it in one or two years. Also, if you are accepted then all your fees are covered by the school’s patrons. I was fortunate to be offered a place there and was the first South African to study there for a number of years.
Who was the previous SA student?
Not sure, but it must have been a number of years previously as nobody could recall the last.
I want to go back to Wits. Robert Hodgins was a lecturer there many decades before you were a student there. Nonetheless, I can’t help seeing a bit of the painter in your work. It’s not just the way you place your figures against horizontal planes of colour, but the satirical sensibility that pervades your paintings. I think particularly of your paintings More Like a Toy Than A Man (2008), Tata Ma Chance, Tata Ma Millions (2008) and Rooi Gevaar (2008), amongst others. Was he someone who you looked at?
Yes, Hodgins was one of the SA artists that I looked at while studying. I really like his approach. Outside of SA not many people know his work, which is a great shame. They often see influences in my work that influenced his practice, such as Munch or Bacon. However, I only became more familiar with these artists much later. The main focus at Wits is on local artists, and the work in galleries and museums are largely South African. So, when I arrived in the UK lots of people were comparing me to artists I had never heard of, and I was constantly referring to SA artists they did not know. I have been really lucky to study under brilliant SA artists like Penny Siopis, Jo Ratcliffe, Karel Nel and Joni Brenner. I think they have all played a role in helping me develop as an artist.
Like Hodgins, your figures are clownish and macabre, your colours wonderfully garish. We’re in the realm of George Grosz, who I know Robert adored. What interests you in painting exaggerated portraits of people in power?
I went to a Grosz exhibition a few months ago in Berlin, and did think of Hodgins’ crazed figures at the time. I think the connection that runs through all our work is an interest in power, its effect on people, and the caricature latent in these figures. Within the works, there is a focus on trying to use as little as possible, just the essentials to get a feeling across. I guess, seeking out and exposing the essence of the thing being portrayed. In the end, though, the colours bring it all together.
Carla Busuttil, A Garden Enclosed, 2010, oil on canvas, 120 x 100 cm
Variations of pink and green recur throughout your recent work. What colour makes you groan? Conversely, what colour could you go on holiday with?
Probably the lime green I see in a lot in advertising makes me groan. As for a holiday colour, it would have to be blue. To be honest, for somebody that spends so much time thinking about – and working with – colour, I would say that I do not pay too much attention to colour combinations or fashions outside of work. Around the house, I tend to favour colour over black or white. Apparently, that’s not very chic of me!?
Can you talk a bit about the painting Matchboxes And Necklaces (2008). It is a portrait of Winnie Mandela. What prompted you to paint it?
It was the image I found of Winnie Mandela. I liked her headscarf – which grew and grew as I painted – and the composition of the image. At the time I was digging through images of controversial SA figures. I was interested in Winnie because she is globally recognised, and opinions can be quite divergent depending on who you talk to. At the time I was interested in making portraits that were vaguely familiar to the viewer, something I have been doing less of recently. I was playing with notion of power. The effect it has on people. How a figure’s importance is viewed. How they are judged. In the 2008 show I used controversial figures from different eras and countries, everyone ranging from Hitler to Jacob Zuma to Margaret Thatcher. Nobody was given priority. They were all just up there on display in no particular order, just a collection of faces. Although the works tend to be read as political, there is no particular message that I am trying to get across. The important thing for me is that each painting is strong, as an image not as a message.
Carla Busuttil, Matchboxes And Necklaces, 2008, oil on canvas, 150 x 130 cm
Jumping to the end of those three years, how did Charles Saatchi pick up on your work? Did you get to meet him?
Saatchi religiously visits all the large graduate student shows around London. He is obsessive in that regard and likes to see the shows before anybody else. This can cause a bit of animosity. For example, at our graduate show he got to look around before the special preview for patrons. He came across during my final year show at the Royal Academy. I just missed him in my exhibiting space, but was told that upon seeing my work he commented that he couldn’t figure out whether it was the work of a male or female artist. I quite liked that.
You recently held a solo show in London. How did it go? How did the new work differ from the work you painted in 2008?
The show went exceptionally well. The Josh Lilley Gallery has been fantastic. They took a selection of the body of work to the Armory Show in New York. To answer your question, in my recent show – it was titled Rug & Gut & Gum – the focus was less on portraiture. Most of the works were not of one particular person, and many featured groups of figures. But, all the works referenced found images. I used four or five found images to make up the composition of a painting or a specific character. I have found myself increasingly creating recurring fictional characters. They seem to keep cropping up. One such character is Zig Zag, who has now appeared in a few of my works.
Carla Busuttil, Zig Zag and the Delta Force 5, 2010, oil on canvas, 200 x 240 cm
Yes. During the Charles Taylor war crimes trial, one of his senior generals, a man named Zig Zag, testified against him. Around the same time, I had found some images of child soldiers wearing outrageous clothing that they had found or ransacked. They wore wide rimmed women’s hats, lace gloves, fur coats, anything. One was wearing a scary clown wig and I thought the combination of this image with Taylor’s general would work well to form a sort of grizzly child-like fictional character. Another one that has appeared a few times is Dooskop. He is a fictional military leader whose head is a box. Even when I was studying at Wits, a green hand kept appearing in my works. I don’t always plan for these things to appear again, but I suddenly realise that it has crept into my work.
The press release for that show mentioned that you had Armenian relatives who fled Turkey at the beginning of the 20th century.
Yes, for my show at Josh Lilley I also started to dig into my family’s Armenian roots and looked at images from the Armenian genocide. This lead me to look at other genocides, to try imagine the flow of decision-making and internal coercion required to carry out such a process. I am certain that not many people enter politics with the intention of carrying out genocide as leaders. The events that lead to that result are intriguing. Are the people cruel or does unchecked power do something to them? I don’t know the answers and so avoid having a single focus, or strong opinion. I just let the uncovering of images and stories lead the way. One story always leads onto another. For instance Hitler, allegedly said that the world had forgot about the Armenian genocide, and so was comfortable that time would also forget his. I think there are always connections to be made between wars and violence, and this is what I am interested in. All the images I use cover wars or political upheaval from this century and the last. It probably sounds like a morbid curiosity, but I think it is quite a healthy way of unravelling and understanding history. I have my moment of reflection, down on canvas, then I can move onto the next thing.
I like the sentence, “I just let the uncovering of images and stories lead the way.” Are your images always uncovered, as opposed to merely rendered?
I use found imagery as the source, or starting point, but usually each painting takes on a life of its own. I am quite happy to let things evolve and don’t feel any need to stay true to the original source.
Men in hats recur in your newer paintings. What is your favourite hat?
I do like the look of formal hats, like the big beefeater hats or bobby hats. I am quite intrigued by ridiculous outfits that seem to serve little purpose, other than to convey some regal or social hierarchy. It always amazes me how much effort was put into the appearance of army uniforms back in the day. Particularly those of the colonial powers. Soldiers had to look immaculate, and large dressy hats were part of that. The more senior the officer, the more impressive the outfit, even if they were slugging it out in trenches, or fighting Zulus in the blistering heat of the Natal highlands.
Carla Busuttil, Front-Row Seats with The Filthy Lucre, 2010, oil on canvas, 160 x 150 cm
Carla Busuttil, The basically passive astonishment, 2011, oil on canvas, 50 x 35 cm
Carla Busuttil, Boss Boys, 2011, oil on canvas, 200 x 200 cm
Carla Busuttil, Father Zag, 2011, oil on canvas, 50 x 35 cm
*All images courtesy Carla Busuttil and Saatchi Gallery (2008 works) and Josh Lilley (2010-11 works).
**Opening image credit: Carla Busuttil, Tata Ma Chance, Tata Ma Millions, 2008, oil on canvas, 33 x 26cm