Art

Controversial artist ups the shock factor by portraying Madiba as a Nazi

Ayanda Mabulu, the artist known for his often-shocking works of fornicating politicians, moves from the phallic to the fascist in his new show 'Concerning Violence'

17 June 2018 - 00:00 By UFRIEDA HO
Artist Ayanda Mabulu strikes a carefully arranged pose in front of the war flag of the Third Reich at Victoria Yards studio in Lorentzville, Johannesburg.
Artist Ayanda Mabulu strikes a carefully arranged pose in front of the war flag of the Third Reich at Victoria Yards studio in Lorentzville, Johannesburg.
Image: Moeletsi Mabe

For the past decade Ayanda Mabulu has used flesh and sex to skewer political expediency and state capture. He has painted Jacob Zuma with exposed genitalia, licking Atul Gupta's behind, raping a weeping Nelson Mandela, having sex with Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma...

There is a noticeable absence of sex in his latest exhibition, Concerning Violence, at Kalashnikovv Gallery in Braamfontein - but this retreat from the phallic does not indicate that Mabulu has gone soft. He is still fully loaded and ready to fire.

In 2010, his painting Ngcono ihlwempu kunesibhanxa sesityebi (Better poor than a rich puppet) showed international political figures, including the pope and Zuma, in a wanton orgy. Mandela was there too, held in a headlock with a hand muzzling him. It didn't cause much of a stir at the time, but two years later, when Brett Murray's The Spear made headlines, comparisons were made and Mabulu caught the eye of the art world.

Since then he's had the ANC Women's League and the Nelson Mandela Foundation routinely frothing with outrage and disgust. His work fiercely divides public sentiment, and always gets people talking.

The artist clearly enjoys pushing people out of their comfort zones, but he can also be indirect and obscure. He speaks in a graceful, rhythmic stream-of-consciousness, throwing out fractured, random snippets. When describing Concerning Violence, he chooses brutal adjectives to match the vicious nature of the works on show.

Shock has always been his weapon of choice, art the vehicle for its delivery. Only images of desecration will do, he says, to show the violence of whiteness on the black body. Only casting Mandela as a "black Hitler", arm raised in a Nazi salute, is adequate to show the depth of Madiba's betrayal, he says.

"Metaphors, proverbs and all this nice Shakespearean language tell you f**k-all," he says. "Whiteness is the pure form of violence and these Nazis with black skins, like Mandela, who looked like us, talked like us and walked among us, left us unseeing, left us as zombies and black dust."

Whiteness is the pure form of violence and these Nazis with black skins, like Mandela, who looked like us, talked like us and walked among us, left us unseeing, left us as zombies and black dust
Artist Ayanda Mabulu

Mabulu embraces contradiction. He understands that his brand is driven by notoriety and his intention is to agitate - this is not random anarchy.

On the afternoon of the scheduled VIP preview of his exhibition, he readies himself for a photo session at his Victoria Yards studio in Lorentzville, Johannesburg. He reaches for his trademark army jacket and grabs a toy assault rifle as a prop. He positions himself on a stepladder and calls for someone to drape a Nazi flag as a backdrop. Even his deconstruction of polite public beliefs relies on careful staging, performance, deception. This is Mabulu in showman mode, chanting obscurely.

"Nails on walls stay heavy," he says. "S****y images will just look like the wall. Then there are people who buy that s**t and turn art into decor pieces."

This is perhaps part of why his versions of anarchy seem at first gratuitously vile and depraved. They are meant to hit you in the gut, not disappear into the background.

Mabulu may be the king of art as rude awakening but he's also a pawn, he says, trapped in an industry in which he is both master and puppet. He is resentful of capitalism and the commodification of art - themes he also explores in Concerning Violence - but he is part of this system. He is written about, exhibitions are held, works are sold. Fans worship the middle finger he raises at inequality and white monopoly, the fist he raises against a dead hero, the venom he spews at leaders who put profit before people. They lap up his artistic "f**k-yous" and provide the capital for him to make more.

Mabulu's works fetch tens of thousands of rands and are becoming increasingly collectable around the world. His new studio is located in the Victoria Yards. The development is a breath of fresh air in the stressed suburb of Lorentzville, but it is also a bourgeois bubble.   

NOT FOR SALE

Mabulu is adamant, however, that he will not allow a single work from Concerning Violence to be sold. As the evening of his scheduled preview approaches, he says he wants the VIP event scrapped. He throws down a cellphone, grumbles that he hasn't slept properly for the last month and a half, declares that there will be no "Black Friday of creativity" for the gallery-going elite. But really it's the clock that's beaten him; several pieces remain unfinished.

He concedes that railing about this contradiction - calling price tags on his works a noose around his neck even as they represent economic empowerment - is self-inflicted violence. He grabs a journal and pages through it, stopping at a page on which he has written an entry addressed to his grandmother, who died in 1998. He has written that he feels her presence as he paints, that his brother Bongani may not understand this, but that her absence makes her more real.

He points to another sentence on the page: "This painting is draining me. I feel the pain." But he has to keep working. "You have to be in the ring to fight."

Mabulu says Concerning Violence acknowledges his pain, his granny's pain and the pain of today's black youth, including his own children.

"It's the culmination of the thousands of cries of the wretched of the earth, of the black oppressed, still full of tears and rage," he says.

'MABULU IS THE KIND OF PERSON WE NEED'

Those close to Mabulu call him tender to his family and loyal to those he chooses to support. He has invited designer Tshepo Mohlala to exhibit as part of Concerning Violence. Mohlala, better known as "Tshepo the Jeans Maker", is also based at Victoria Yards.

"When I first met Ayanda I thought he was the bravest person," says Mohlala. "The kind of person we need. He got me to look at my own story of violence even though I didn't think I had one, and to tell it through a pair of jeans."

The pair of jeans he has turned into an artwork for the exhibition are ripped in many places and have messages written into the seams. Handcuffs take the place of a belt.

"The jeans are inspired by my granny, Liena Murudi," says Mohlala. "She went to school for only two years. As a child she was once held by police and beaten for days. I wanted the tears in the jeans to be like the tears in her flesh from those beatings."

When Mohlala wanted to start his jeans studio with R8,000 borrowed from his then girlfriend, his granny pleaded with him to find a regular job. Mohlala says he has come to realise that she did not lack faith in him, but that the fear ingrained in her made her believe a black man would never be allowed to succeed even in the South Africa of 2018.

Mabulu provided the encouragement he needed. "Ayanda said he had never met a black person making jeans," Mohlala says. "He was so supportive."

MIXED REACTIONS

At Kalashnikovv, the jeans hang near the gallery entrance, before the assault of Mabulu's work.

There's a guillotine draped with an old South African flag and a swastika. The angled blade, coming down on the throat of a black woman, is laser-cut with the ANC logo. Another piece, an ode to Winnie Mandela, sits incongruously among the works.

There's a guillotine draped with an old South African flag and a swastika. The angled blade, coming down on the throat of a black woman, is laser-cut with the ANC logo

MJ Turpin, artist and co-director of Kalashnikovv, says the gallery is an obvious fit for Mabulu's work.

"We called our gallery Kalashnikovv because to us it's a symbol of revolution. We want to shoot down old ideas of gallery spaces as white cubes and beliefs that art caters only to certain people."

Turpin and co-director Matthew Dean Dowdle have worked with Mabulu before and are used to his storms and raging, his impossible demands and his occasional casual dismissal of their role as gallery directors. They also, says Turpin, love his charm, respect his creative chaos and admire his nerve. They call him brother.

In the days since the exhibition opened, Turpin has seen the expected range of reactions. There are tourists who ask about prices, selfie-takers, people who say they feel affirmed by finding a message that resonates with them. And then there are the disgusted folks who write it off as shock-tactic garbage.

Mabulu doesn't care how people feel about his work. He just repeats his rapid-fire mantra: "Don't you see? Don't you see? Don't you see?"

'Concerning Violence' is at Kalashnikovv Gallery, 153 Smit Street, Braamfontein, Joburg, until July 2.

Editor's Note: The sentence regarding the Victoria Yards development was amended.

AYANDA MABULU: THE KING OF CONTROVERSY

● In 2013, Mabulu's painting Yakhal’inkomo (Black Man’s Cry) featuring Jacob Zuma crushing a Marikana miner’s head, was pulled from the Joburg Art Fair for being too offensive, but reportedly replaced after photographer David Goldblatt withdrew his own work from the fair in solidarity. Later that year the painting sold for R89,000.

● In 2010, Mabulu's paintings of pigs’ heads, the old SA flag and Eugene Terre’Blanche’s head on a platter were banned from an exhibition in the corporate foyer of Truworths in Cape Town. The curators did, however, offer Mabulu a later solo exhibition. He said at the time: “I’m upset because as artists we should be free to express ourselves. By painting the old flag and pigs, I tried to show the filthiness of that era. I respect the death of Mr Terre’Blanche and I’m not  saying he is a pig. I’m trying to portray what he did.”

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